‘New Vietnam’ Fears Fading in Congress

Times Staff Writer

Twelve years after the last American troops left Vietnam, a growing majority in Congress seems to be shedding the once-overwhelming fear that U.S. involvement in any regional conflict might become “another Vietnam.”

With increasing frequency, Congress is voting to permit U.S. aid to rebels fighting against Marxist regimes in such countries as Nicaragua, Cambodia, Afghanistan and Angola--disbelieving warnings from a rapidly shrinking group of liberals who see these conflicts as potential quagmires for the United States.

The most dramatic reversal came last week when the Democratic-controlled House voted to repeal a legislative landmark from the early post-Vietnam era--the Clark Amendment prohibiting U.S. aid to guerrillas fighting the Marxist government of Angola.


Sea Change

“The Vietnam syndrome is diminishing,” declared Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), a staunch conservative. “There has been a mood change--a sea change since we voted for the Clark Amendment in 1976.”

Most lawmakers attribute the change to what they see as a strong resurgence of anti-communism in Congress. Many Republicans have long shared President Reagan’s hard-line attitudes, but increasingly they are being joined on key votes by significant numbers of Democrats.

Some Republicans attribute the Democratic shift to a simple gauging of the political winds. In the words of one GOP congressman, Democrats are “trying desperately to rid themselves of the reputation of being soft on communism.”

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a liberal and a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, points to the popularity of a movie about the fictitious Vietnam veteran, Rambo, who heroically rescues American POWs. Other analysts emphasize more substantial factors.

I.M. Destler, an expert on Congress and foreign policy, said many lawmakers of both parties have been emboldened by the public outcry against a variety of recent international developments--the taking of American hostages in the Mideast, the killing of off-duty Marines in El Salvador, and the trip to Moscow by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.

The tougher new U.S. approach to its dealings with the rest of the world, while a distinct shift in the context of the last decade, is anything but a novelty in the history of American foreign policy. Especially in this hemisphere, the United States has forcefully asserted itself, from the Mexican War of 1848 and the Spanish-American War (1898) to the Bay of Pigs in Cuba (1961) and Grenada (1983).


For the past decade, the specter of Vietnam has all but prevented such use of U.S. force abroad. And even now, the memory of Vietnam is sufficient to prompt Reagan, even as he asserts an increasingly active U.S. role around the globe, to make frequent avowals that U.S. troops will not be drawn into conflicts such as those in El Salvador and Lebanon.

Only once, in Grenada, has he committed U.S. troops to a combat role. And the success of that limited action is frequently cited as contributing to Congress’ increasingly aggressive approach to foreign policy.

See Stronger Trend

Whatever the reasons for the change of mood on Capitol Hill, conservatives applaud the new willingness of Congress to aid anti-Communist rebels and predict that the trend will grow even stronger.

“Once a guy votes to fight communism somewhere in the world and finds that lightning has not struck him, he will be more likely to do it again,” House Republican Hyde said.

Some liberals, on the other hand, describe recent actions by Congress as “dangerous” and “reckless.” Rep. David E. Bonior (D-Mich.), a veteran and former anti-war activist, said supporters of these measures are misjudging public opinion because polls show that a majority of American voters still fear another Vietnam.

“A lot of these people are making a terrible mistake,” he said. “There are two generations out there who still remember Vietnam as a devastating experience--the generation of those who served in Vietnam and their parents.”

As a result, these liberals are hoping that the current mood will soon run its course.

“Just as we overreacted to Vietnam, we seem to be overreacting to the overreaction to Vietnam,” said Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.). “I hope we find the balance eventually.”

Destler, a senior fellow with the Institute of International Economics, finds ample reason to believe that the trend will be short-lived. As recently as three months ago, he noted, the political tide was running against aid to the Nicaraguan rebels. And he said polls show that the “Achilles heel” on support for Reagan’s interventionist foreign policy has always been the fear that he would send U.S. troops to Central America or elsewhere.

“I’m not certain that the change is as durable as it appears,” Destler said.

Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) insisted that the trend toward aiding anti-Marxist rebels does not represent an increased willingness on the part of Congress to commit U.S. troops--or even military advisers--to any of these global trouble spots.

On the contrary, he said, Democrats as well as Republicans are willing to vote for these measures because they trust that neither Reagan nor the Defense Department wants the United States to become militarily involved in one of these regional conflicts.

“I don’t think the lessons of Vietnam are lost,” Cranston said. “But there is an increasing confidence that we can avoid direct military involvement--that a commitment of limited forms of help such as humanitarian aid do not constitute ‘the nose under the tent’ that many people once feared.”

Cranston noted that Congress has voted to provide only small amounts of aid to anti-government forces in Nicaragua, Cambodia and Afghanistan and that no money has been appropriated for the rebels in Angola. He said these actions reflect a feeling that “we can’t be totally inactive where there are forces totally inimical to our interests at work.”

Kerry agreed with Cranston. He said members of Congress are “less confused” about the difference between sending aid to rebel groups and committing American troops.

“Nobody was more sensitive to the lessons of Vietnam than I was,” said Kerry, the Vietnam veteran who is now an outspoken critic of Reagan’s policy of aiding rebels in Nicaragua. “But I said then, and I still believe, that we can’t be hamstrung about intervening everywhere.”

Some liberals are not convinced that Congress still opposes the use of U.S. troops. Rep. Ted Weiss (D-N.Y.) noted that the House recently passed legislation specifying the conditions under which Reagan could send troops to Nicaragua--an action he considers “a blueprint for military involvement in Central America.”

Perhaps surprisingly, liberals have also been at the forefront of the drive to aid rebel forces in some regions. While most of them continue to oppose aid to the Nicaraguan rebels and tried futilely to retain the Clark Amendment, a growing number have expressed support for aiding the rebels in Cambodia and Afghanistan.

Solarz, for example, has been a leading proponent of helping the Cambodian and Afghan resistance forces, even though he opposes aid to rebels in Nicaragua and Angola. The difference, he argues, is that Nicaragua and Angola are involved in civil wars while Cambodia and Afghanistan are occupied by foreign troops.

Conservatives call that a distinction without a difference. Hyde charges that Solarz came up with the idea of $5 million in military aid to Cambodia because he feels guilty for the “bloodbath” that occurred in Southeast Asia after the United States withdrew its forces in 1973.

Both the House and Senate have separately approved $5 million in military aid to two non-Communist Cambodian rebel groups fighting Vietnamese occupation and $15 million in support for Afghan rebels fighting the Soviets.

Among the rapidly declining ranks of congressmen who fear that such actions could pull the United States into another Vietnam is Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.), who predicted last week that the $5 million committed to Cambodian rebels would gradually grow to $50 million, $500 million and then $1 billion.

“Administration after administration in this country has tested Vietnam’s resistance with far greater resources,” said Gejdenson.