Dave Schmitz, Skotheim Chair of History at Whitman College, joined former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart and five other principal speakers Wednesday in the 24th annual Frank Church Conference on Public Affairs at Boise State University.

David Schmitz David Schmitz compared the roles of Congress and the executive branch during the Vietnam War and the current war in Iraq at the annual Frank Church Conference. Photo by Carrie Quinney, courtesy Boise State University

The conference is named after the late U.S. Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho), who served in Congress from 1957 to 1981.

“It’s an honor and a privilege to be asked to participate in this particular conference,” Schmitz said before the event. “My hope is to demonstrate how the opposition of Frank Church and Congress to the Vietnam War and the executive branch applies now to our situation in Iraq.”

In an all-day program comprising two panel discussions and three speeches, Schmitz and colleagues explored this year’s conference theme, “Tipping Points: Presidents, the Constitution and National Security,” and offered responses to a general question: “Given the post-Sept. 11 world, how should presidents balance national security interests under the Constitution?”

As chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Church led the investigation of civil liberties abuses by the executive branch. The probe called attention to the system of checks and balances stipulated in the Constitution.

“As Frank Church said, ‘It is not Congress’ job to conduct policy but to ensure that our policies are wise,’” Schmitz noted. “It was his belief that if a policy couldn’t gain the consent of Congress, then it probably was not wise policy.”

Schmitz was invited to the conference by Bethine Church, wife of the late senator, on the strength of an article written by Schmitz that drew parallels between U.S. policy during the Vietnam War and policy in the current conflagration in Iraq. Support for both wars, he noted, was nearly 80 percent at the outset before approval plummeted. “Stay the course” was the battle cry of President Lyndon Johnson before it became President George W. Bush’s mantra. Statistics from both wars indicate that the enemy initiates more than 80 percent of the engagements.

“These are wars that the superpowers can’t win,” Schmitz said. “Can (Iraq) drive us out? No, but these are wars of attrition, and they just need to wait until support at home wanes and we leave.”

Schmitz has written four articles about Church since the late 1980s, when he began to study the senator’s legacy. “Church was always willing to ask the uncomfortable questions that needed to be asked,” Schmitz said. “He was always skeptical of executive power.”

Schmitz is the author of six books (and editor of two others), including “The Triumph of Internationalism: Franklin D. Roosevelt and a World in Crisis,” “Thank God They’re on Our Side: The United States and Right-Wing Dictatorships” and “The Tet Offensive: Politics, War and Public Opinion.” The latter book analyzes what many historians and political theorists consider to be the defining moment in the Vietnam War.

“David’s analysis of history and the visibility of his scholarship are two of the many reasons we are proud to have him serve as the Skotheim Chair here at Whitman,” said Whitman President George Bridges.


Keith Raether
Office of Communications, Whitman College