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Over the summer the Congressman I worked for, Richard D. McCarthy, told me that the trouble with the war was that people were ambiguous about it. The people in his district wanted out; they wanted to end the war. But they also could not face defeat; they did not want America to lose the war. What they wanted was peace with victory.
For a politician, he went on to explain, the issue was dangerous. If they voted to end the war, they would be popular for a while. But within a short time the reaction to losing the war would undermine their initial victory, and probably destroy them.
The question of what to do about this dangerous situation was obvious from the response of Congressmen to Washington march- ignore it. When you are playing hot potato you have to take the ball for a while and then pass it off, but politics gives you the option of simply using a cold turkey, so you don't get burned.
The House was not in session on Friday. The Senate was in session for half a day. Most of the House members didn't come to their offices on Friday. They found one excuse or another to be out of town, or at home. The few people who did come in generally avoided talking to their young constituents who were beginning to flow into the House offices.
The Senate side was a little different. They kept up their image of being the more liberal side of Congress. First, they were in session so at least they made the appearance for the day. Then they also talked to the youngsters who came wandering through their doors. But they did so mostly in large groups, shaking hands and giving the V sign where they knew it would gain them door-to-door canvassers in the next election. Nonetheless, they weren't ready to sit down for serious discussions about the issue.
I went wandering through the Halls of Congress on Friday, hoping to uncover some of the sentiment that existed there. All that I uncovered was the fact that not many Congressmen were "in town." The secretary of one Congressman actually lied to me as to the whereabouts of her boss, a fact I only accidentally uncovered later.
But Idid talk to one Congressman, Ogden Reid, a New York Republican. Reid was anxious to explain to me the call he had made to the White House in order to try to get the Saturday March its permit for Pennsylvania Avenue. When I seemed uninterested, he got a little irritated.
I kept asking him why Senator Goodell's bill for the withdrawal of troops had not been put forth on the floor of the House. He answered that he thought of the idea before Goodell but simply had not put it forth in a bill vet. I asked if he thought the bill would pass and he replied, "No, not in this Congress."
You could see that he honestly wanted the war to end, but he felt as helpless as any one of us to end it. That was the feeling put forth by many of the assistants whom I spoke to as a substitute for the Congressmen. One asked me whether I thought his Congressman could end the war by bringing out a bill for cutting off appropriations after a certain date. When I said yes, he blew up at me, and then listed about five reasons why that was impossible. I agreed with him, then politely excused myself. His reasons were red tape that I could see as valid, but I couldn't see as a reason for killing another hundred Americans every week.
Talking about influencing the President was another story entirely. This also was part of the hot potato syndrome which seemed to affect Congress on the Vietnam issue. Nixon was someone who had to carry the hot potato, the Congressmen knew that and they appreciated the existence of someone who could be presented with the hot item whenever it was put into their lap.
One legislative aide sat me down and told me how his Congressman had supported the October Moratorium. He then told me that thirty days was not enough time for the President to change his views, and thus he could not support this November action. When I explained to him that Congressmen themselves could do something about the war, he laughed in my face. I didn't think it was funny.
At another office a female aide was talking with some marchers about the possibility that this march could end the war. "Maybe 30,000 three-piece suit lawyers marching down Pennsylvania Avenue could persuade the President to end the war," she explained, "but this parade just won't do it." You could question her judgment, but the assumption was there- only the President could end the war.
The halls of Congress were empty when the issue of Vietnam invaded Washington last weekend. Perhaps they would have been empty for the marchers even if the Congressmen were there.
John Culver attended Harvard College and Harvard Law School. He is now a Congressman from Iowa, one of two Democrats elected from the seven Congressional Districts in Iowa. When I went to his office his legislative assistant told me something that I didn't think was very brilliant at the time. But in looking back over the situation in Congress it seems more brilliant than I first thought. She said that privately John Culver thought people in Congress were playing politics with the war.
It's not much to say, but sadly enough that just about sums up the picture.
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