Forty-three years ago today, Senators Frank Church (D, Idaho) and John Sherman Cooper (R, Kentucky) put before the United States Senate an amendment to the Foreign Military Sales Act of 1970 which, if passed, would ban the use of any US funds tor combat in or bombing of Cambodia. Debate continued until the amended bill passed on June 30, the date on which Nixon had promised to end the invasion of Cambodia.
The Cooper-Church Amendment was a clear sign that dissatisfaction with the prolonged and catastrophic war in Southeast Asia was finally moving Congress to act. But the more immediate impetus for the bill was the great turmoil which had erupted on the country's campuses, and the panic it had awakened in the hearts of America’s rulers.
The back story is fascinating. Joseph Califano, who had been President Lyndon B. Johnson’s principal aide on domestic matters, was now ensconced in Washington as rainmaker and lobbyist for a prominent law firm and a powerhouse in the inner circle of the Democratic Party.
On May 6, he was braced by Yale prexy Kingman Brewster (him again!) to find some way to involve college students in lobbying against the war, lest college kids “destroy some of our major universities if offered no constructive alternative.” Brewster kicked Califano two of Yale Law’s top students to jumpstart a project.
Califano grabbed another veteran Democratic party figure, John Gardner, who was in the process of launching Common Cause, and with Brewster’s proteges came up with the idea of “Project Purse Strings,” an lobbying effort to cut congressional funding for the war in Southeast Asia. Califano and Gardner knew damn well that that was not going to happen any time soon but shined Brewster’s law students on, while deciding to limit the goal to the elimination of spending on Cambodia.
Califano was a busy little fellow that week. He also set up a money conduit to fund the operation. He bagged, in one day, 15 grand each from the heads of Coca-Cola, Hoffman-La Roche, Polaroid, Neiman Marcus and a bunch of other big corporations. Some opposed the war, others did not, but all shared Califano’s concern that
there was a real danger of losing the best of a generation. We feared that they might turn into a rabid, persistently negative force in our societyand that
it was important to build a student movement pledged to work within the system.Or, to put it another way, the national student strike had scared the living piss out of them.
Califano and Gardner meanwhile lined up Church and Cooper, respected Senate elders, to put their names on an amendment which was rushed to the Senate on May 13. It called for an end to funding of US ground troops and ad visors in Cambodia past June 30, for banning air operations in Cambodian airspace that were not expressly approved by Congress and for an end to US support to South Vietnamese military operations outside its borders.
Weeks of debate and filibuster followed, replete with plenty of lobbying by clean cut, promising (and well-funded) college students. On June 30, the last day of the invasion of Cambodia, the United States Senate voted the Cooper Church Amendment up 58 to 37, making it part of the bill.
This was the first time in US history that a house of Congress had ever voted to cut funding for a war a president was carrying out. It signaled what was to come--Congress finally cut off all funds for the war in 1973, three long, grueling years later, and then it was only a matter of time until those helicopters were taking off from the roof of the US embassy as Saigon was liberated.
I never heard of “Project Purse Strings” back in the day, and I doubt that even many of the participants remember it today. To us, the lesson was obvious, and it wasn’t about what a good idea lobbying was. To force the government to back off from an unjust and unjustifiable war, you had to build a mass movement too large and too militant to ignore, to the point of threatening social collapse. Then they’d listen to us.
Me, I still think that summation shows the correct relationship between electoral politics and government on the one hand and mass movements on the other. Only independent mass movements can keep even the best of elected officials honest, and pressure or frighten them into doing the right thing. All the lobbying and electoral work that had taken place as part of the struggle to end the Vietnam war since the mid-’60s may have helped lay the foundation, but those accomplishments paled before what the first two weeks of the May, 1970 campus uprising had done.