By Carolyn Eisenberg
Ms. Eisenberg is a professor of United States history and foreign policy at Hofstra University.
For House Democrats, there is a powerful temptation to narrow the grounds for impeachment. By adhering to a simple narrative about President Trump’s criminal actions in relation to Ukraine, they hope it will be easier to mobilize public support than if they levied a more complex set of charges.
In the impeachment of Richard Nixon, the Democratic-controlled Judiciary Committee faced a similar choice. Despite significant dissent, the committee ended up limiting itself to three articles of impeachment, all connected to the domestic crimes of Watergate.
But this week, as the House Judiciary Committee conducts its deliberations, it is worth considering that its findings and their scope will reverberate through time. Long after the next election, they will condition how Americans look upon this period of our history and what correctives might be found.
For Nixon’s impeachment, there was actually a fourth article of impeachment. It encompassed more serious offenses and incited intense debate among the members. Introduced by Representative John Conyers of Michigan, it charged the president with “the submission to the Congress of false and misleading statements concerning the existence, scope and nature of American bombing operations in Cambodia in derogation of the power of Congress to declare war, to make appropriations and to raise and support armies.”
With regard to Cambodia, the illegality of Nixon’s behavior was clear-cut. The potential fourth article of impeachment referred to the fact that for 14 months, before the United States’ invasion, the president approved hundreds of B-52 strikes on that country. The covert mission first came to light in July 1973, when retired Maj. Hal Knight testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that in his capacity as the supervisor of radar crews in South Vietnam, he had helped falsify the records of at least two dozen missions by disguising American airstrikes in Cambodia as attacks inside South Vietnam.
By the time the Judiciary Committee was considering impeachment, the tragic consequences of America’s military intervention in Cambodia were clear. The relatively stable government of Prince Sihanouk had been overthrown, the society was consumed by civil war, an insurgent Khmer Rouge had morphed into a major force and thousands of Cambodian civilians had been displaced or killed.
In introducing Article IV, Mr. Conyers and other liberal colleagues were trying to show how the crimes of Watergate were directly tied to the excesses of the Vietnam War. Yet it was partly for this reason that the committee chairman, Peter Rodino, wanted to scrap the item. In his assessment, too tight a link between the process of impeachment and the Vietnam War would be needlessly divisive at a time when he was seeking consensus and bipartisanship.
A Massachusetts congressman, the Rev. Robert Drinan, argued that “the process of picking articles of impeachment” should not be determined by “whether they will fly,” rather than the gravity of the infraction. The founding fathers had recognized that “the ultimate tyranny was war carried on illegally by the executive without the knowledge or consent of Congress,” and that issue was at the heart of Article IV.
While few disputed that the bombing of Cambodia was a serious constitutional violation, several members argued that presidents in earlier administrations were equally culpable. Representative John Seiberling, Democrat of Ohio, acknowledged that “the issue is the falsification of information, the misleading of Congress, the failure to consult Congress on a matter as grave as an act of war.” Such behavior was truly reprehensible. Yet nevertheless, Mr. Seiberling said, “we should not use our impeachment power to impeach” Nixon for “for acts of the sort other Presidents have taken with impunity. … ”