The President, The People, And The Power To Make War


When Congress roared through a resolution recognizing the “belligerency” of the Cuban rebels, President Cleveland denounced the move as an intrusion on the powers of the Chief Executive and privately remarked that if Congress declared war, he as Commander in Chief would refuse to mobilize the Army. President McKinley tried, too; he undertook negotiations with Madrid to bring better treatment of the rebels. But the popular uproar, stoked by tabloid papers, kept increasing. William McKinley’s face grew haggard from the pills he was taking trying to get to sleep; once he sat on a big crimson brocade lounge in the White House and burst into tears as he spoke of the way Congress was forcing the country into war. Finally, the President capitulated. He planned to run for re-election; besides, he was scarcely deaf to voices like that of the senator who thundered to Assistant Secretary of State William R. Day, “Day, by ——, don’t your President know where the war-declaring power is lodged? Tell him by ——, that if he doesn’t do something, Congress will exercise the power.” President McKinley sat working on a war message as the Spanish government conceded major American demands—a concession made before the message actually reached the House and the Senate—and he added poignantly that he hoped Congress would give the Spanish terms “just and careful attention.”

A war of territorial seizure maneuvered through by a determined President, an ugly war forced by public opinion and Congress, six wars or significant uses of the armed forces in a little more than a hundred years, more and more instances of acrid White House-Congress clashes in foreign affairs—during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the constitutional system was hardly functioning with glowing results in international matters. Yet the wars or quasi-wars did not pile up long casualty lists; they did not slash through everyday living. The most disruptive conflict, the Civil War, was removed by its very nature from the usual questions of constitutional responsibility. Whatever the underlying reality, even the Mexican-American War was fought under an authorization overwhelmingly granted by Congress. If the wars created savage debates, they spread little bitter feeling that questions of life and death were too far removed from grass-roots control.

President Theodore Roosevelt has often been called “the first modern President,” and he was that in many ways. In international affairs the world was taking on its twentieth-century form of great powers jockeying for global position, vast economic stakes overseas, and armed forces designed to strike swiftly. These trends inevitably centered more foreign policy power in the hands of the American President, who was far more able than the cumbersome Congress to operate in this kind of arena. The rambunctious Teddy Roosevelt, no man to turn away from power, responded by driving deep into the American system the doctrine that the Chief Executive is—to use his phrase—“the steward” of the nation, endowed under the Constitution with vast “inherent powers” to act in behalf of what he considers the good of the country.

Action accompanied doctrine. Did T.R. deem it to be in the national interest for the United States to have a canal across Central America so that the Navy could be moved quickly from one ocean to another, and was the Colombian government proving balky? In 1903 T.R. saw to it that Panamanian rebels set up an independent state covering the desired canal zone, and the new nation, to no one’s surprise, gave him what he wanted. (“I took the Canal Zone,” said President Theodore Roosevelt, “and let Congress debate.”) Did T.R. arrive at the conclusion during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05 that the security of the United States was best served by a Japanese victory? In entire secrecy he informed Tokyo that, if needed, America would act as an ally, which could have proved a commitment for war. Did the triumphant Japanese then seem a bit too cocky? In 1907 T.R. ordered the entire American fleet on a razzle-dazzle trip around the world, loosing all kinds of diplomatic reverberations. Congressional opponents stirred, particularly those from eastern regions fearing the lack of naval protection, and they talked of denying the appropriation for the fleet movement. Very well, T.R. replied. He had enough money to send the ships to the Pacific Coast, and they could stay there.

It was all very much Teddy Roosevelt, and more than a little rococo. Yet this first modern President was also anticipating in a serious way the modern presidential trend. Stirred on by changed conditions, he was moving through that broad arch erected by the Founding Fathers—between, on the one side, the clear power of the Chief Executive to lead in foreign affairs and to command the armed forces and, on the other side, the powers of Congress to do certain specific things.