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How We Go To War
April 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 2
The Civil War was never declared. From the official Northern point of view, it was simply a “rebellion.” Popular fury after the Maine sank forced President McKinley to ask for and get an April 19 resolution that recognized Cuban independence, demanded Spain’s withdrawal, and authorized him to use force if necessary. Spain then broke off diplomatic relations, and a more constitutionally correct recognition of a “state of war” between Madrid and Washington was enacted on April 25.
But once the Spanish-American War was concluded, in four months of brief, victorious battles, the consensus melted away like snow to uncover a gullied and harsh political landscape. The peace treaty provided for the annexation of Puerto Rico and the Philippines. It set off a clamorous debate between imperialists and anti-imperialists.
Then came April 2, 1917. President Wilson had narrowly won reelection the preceding fall, campaigning on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.” Yet at the same time he had enthusiastically supported a large program of military preparedness and been less than evenhanded in treating the belligerents. He forced Germany, under threat of war, to back away from U-boat attacks on American shipping. This combination of toughness and moralism reflected an ambivalent popular attitude: Americans wanted peace and innocence on the one hand, clout and respect on the other. Germany forced a choice by resuming unrestricted submarine warfare in February.
Wilson tried to elevate the grounds of dispute from neutral rights to global justice. His thirty-six-minute message, personally delivered, contained the famous statement: “The world must be made safe for democracy.” The noble appeal, combined with rage over drowned passengers, was almost irresistible. The Senate voted for war 82 to 6 on April 4; the House on April 6 by 373 to 50.
December 8, 1941, saw America’s last formal declaration of war. There had been only four such declarations in the preceding 150 years.
Yet it was the supporters of war who reacted as if they were endangered. To an unprecedented degree, “standing behind the President” became sacred doctrine. Those who offered anything short of 100 percent support were denounced as traitors, sedition and espionage acts muzzled critical publications, and the war spirit flamed under the blast of an enormous propaganda bellows pumped by government; it was as if Washington did not trust the people to stay committed.
And Washington was right. Within weeks of the armistice, people seemed abashed, hung over from the binge of hatred. Postwar disillusionment brought about the rejection of the League of Nations, the development of scholarship that shredded the official Allied mythology of how the war began as a German plot. A countermythology flourished. It held that bankers and arms makers had bamboozled the United States into the war to protect their profits.
And that had an inevitable result in the 1930s, dividing the country on foreign-policy issues far more than the 1941 war vote showed. Perhaps the memory of those pre-Pearl Harbor conflicts is one of the reasons no President has, ever since, asked for a formal declaration of a state of war.
To return to the starting point, what guiding summary can be made of all this? I believe that we have never gone to war with the sustained totalitarian zeal that is demanded of us in this apocalyptic, censoring century. The Founding Fathers—we always get back to them—saw war as a frequently political decision. It was to be undertaken neither by a despot nor at a mass meeting but in the assembly of the people’s representatives following due deliberation. That ideal hasn’t been matched, but congressional war declarations have come about by presidential request exactly when there is an awareness of political consequences that will flow—that is, when the war will not be quick, cheap, and popular.
By definition, then, division over a war is not a signal of decay but rather a reminder that there’s some life left in constitutional democracy yet. I take some small comfort from that. Small because I don’t believe that all the facts for truly informed debate were available this time, and because the resolution as passed gave the President more of a blank check than I would like. But I am glad that Congress forced itself into the situation. It may be awkward to take the dreadful decision of war and peace into the slow-winding labyrinths of Capitol Hill. But it should be. I stand with Oliver Ellsworth, whose contribution to the subject at the Constitutional Convention was to say: “It should be more easy to get out of a war than into it.”