How Nixon’s Invasion of Cambodia Triggered a Check on Presidential Power

When President Richard Nixon ordered American ground troops to invade Cambodia on April 28, 1970, he waited two days to announce on national television that the Cambodian incursion had started. With resentment already growing in the country because of the conflict in Vietnam, the incursion seemed to be a final drop.

The news sparked criticism from many who thought the president had abused his powers by robbing Congress. In November 1973, criticism led to the adoption of the War Powers Act. Vetoed by Nixon, it limited the scope of the commander-in-chief’s ability to declare war without congressional approval.

Although the law has been an unusual challenge, presidents have since exploited gaps in the resolution on war powers, raising questions about the executive, especially during states of emergency.

Why did the United States invade Cambodia?

LISTEN: Nixon orders invasion of Cambodia

Cambodia was officially a neutral country during the Vietnam War, although North Vietnamese troops brought supplies and weapons to the northern part of the country, which was part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail that stretched from Vietnam to Laos and neighboring Cambodia.

In March 1969, Nixon has started to approve secret bombing of alleged communist base camps and supply zones in Cambodia as part of “Operation Menu”. The New York Times revealed the operation to the public on May 9, 1969, triggering an international protest. Cambodia was not the first neutral country to be targeted by the United States during the Vietnam War – the United States began secretly bombing Laos in 1964 and would eventually make it the country per capita. most bombed in the world.

The Cambodian Incursion (April-June 1970)

Nixon approved the use of US land forces in Cambodia to fight alongside South Vietnamese troops attacking communist bases there on April 28, 1972. Recent political developments in Cambodia have worked in favor of Nixon. Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who has ruled the country since its independence from France in 1954, was removed from office by the Cambodian National Assembly on March 18, 1970. Pro-U.S. Prime Minister Lon Nol invoked emergency powers and replaced the prince at the head of the state in what became the 1970 Cambodian coup.

On May 8, 1970, Nixon held a press conference to defend the invasion of Cambodia. He argued that he had purchased six to eight months of training for the South Vietnamese forces, thereby shortening the war for the Americans and saving American lives. He promised to withdraw 150,000 American soldiers the following spring. But Vietnamization was not going well and the American public had had enough of the Vietnam War. The invasion of Cambodia has proven to be a tipping point.

Public reaction to the American invasion of Cambodia

Anti-war protests have intensified across the country, particularly on university campuses. One hundred thousand people marched on Washington to protest. About 400 schools went on strike while more than 200 closed completely. The protests turned violent on May 4, 1970: National Guards fired anti-war protesters at Ohio State University in Kent, killing four students and injuring nine. Ten days later, two students were killed at Jackson State University. The Kent State shooting and the Jackson shooting galvanized the country against the Cambodian incursion.

In Cambodia, US bombing and invasion has been militarized as a recruiting tool Khmer Rouge, Cambodian communist guerrillas who would later take power in a brutal regime that would have killed more than two million people.

Congress reaction to invasion of Cambodia

Section 8, Section 1 of the United States Constitution grants the power to declare war on the legislative branch of the United States government – a deliberate departure from the British tradition of granting war powers to the King.

But the term “declare” has been subject to interpretation for centuries. In practice, American presidents have gone to war without congressional approval for centuries. James Polk’s occupation of Texas in 1846 helped spark the Mexican-American War; Abraham Lincoln even authorized early military action during the Civil War without first seeking congressional approval.

the The Cold War era saw new breaches of the war protocol by the executive. “Congress had become increasingly active in the years before the passage of the War Powers Act,” said Fredrik Logevall, Laurence D. Belfer professor of international affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at the Harvard University. President Harry Truman did not seek congressional approval before sending US troops to Korea, and with regard to the rapid escalation of the Vietnam War, Congress was determined to play a more prominent role.

At the end of 1969, the Senate approved, by an historic vote of 78 votes to 11, the Cooper-Church amendment named after Senator John Sherman Cooper (R-Kentucky) and Senator Frank Church (D-Idaho ), prohibiting American combat troops or advisers operating in Laos or Thailand. “It was truly the first time since the US engagement in Vietnam began that Congress had found the votes to limit the president’s ability to wage war in Southeast Asia,” said Logevall.

In June 1970, Congress repealed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution by 81 votes to 10, reaffirming their control over the president’s ability to wage war. In December of that year, Congress adopted a modified version of the Cooper-Church amendment. While none of these actions ended the bombing campaigns in Laos or Cambodia, they did set a solid precedent for the congress to rule the president.

In June 1971, Nixon received another blow to his war powers: The New York Times published the Pentagon Papers revealing that the United States government had secretly increased American participation in Vietnam.

War Powers Resolution, 1973

The War Powers Resolution, also known as the War Powers Act, is a congressional resolution that limits the ability of the President to initiate or mount military actions abroad without express approval. of Congress. He passed in November 1973 on the veto of Nixon and requires that the president, as commander in chief, informs the Congress each time that armed forces are deployed and imposes a limit of 60 days on all the engagements initiated without the Congress approval. While it does not outright prohibit presidents from taking military action, it does create a certain sense of responsibility.

The War Powers Act authorizes the President to declare war in three circumstances: (1) a declaration of war, (2) a specific statutory authorization, or (3) a national emergency created by an attack on the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces. Since Nixon resigned less than a year after his passage in the wake of the Watergate scandal, it was up to future presidents to test his limits.

Did the War Powers Act Work?

“Since its enactment, the War Powers Act has been honored in the violation – that is, the presidents have reported to Congress what they intended to do anyway and have for Most ignored the War Powers Act when it would have hindered their plans, “says Andrew Preston, professor of American history at the University of Cambridge and co-author with Logevall of Nixon around the world: American foreign relations, 1969-1977.

“Indeed, the presidents almost dared Congress to do something against the disrespect they showed for the law of war powers. If the intention of Congress with the resolution on war powers was to reduce American military intervention and restore the balance between the war powers of the executive and Congress, then this can only be considered a failure. Said Preston.

However, in 2008, a bipartisan movement to repeal the War Powers Act was unsuccessful. “In power, Congress already has the power it needs to regulate presidential war plans,” says Logevall. “Congress simply did not use this power.”