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


As the twentieth century progressed and the enmeshments of the world grew tighter and more troublesome, Presidents probed still more vigorously the limits of the arch. This development was not only implicit in the circumstances; it was furthered by the difference between the vantage of the Chief Executive and the Congress. The President felt full blast the forces of modernity, which came crashing daily into his office. As the leader of the whole nation, he was heavily influenced by considerations of collective security, the moral position of the United States before international opinion, and the problems that tied in with the stability of the country’s economy. Of course members of Congress knew these same concerns, but they were also subject to local, more inward-looking pressures. The House and the Senate continued to include strong blocs which represented the decades-old view that the business of America is America and which resented the persistent intrusion of the world. The abrasion between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue in matters of foreign policy sharpened. More and more, Presidents viewed Congress as the adversary and thought in terms of skirting around it or, if necessary, ignoring it.

This occurred at critical points on the road toward American participation in both World Wars I and II. During the European phase of World War I, Germany climaxed three years of friction with the United States by announcing unrestricted submarine warfare. President Wilson had long been troubled by considerations of the moral position of the United States with respect to the conflict, and the feeling of his responsibility to assert American rights on the high seas; now he could not overlook the fact that hundreds of ships, fearful of submarines, were clinging to port and great supplies of wheat and cotton were piling up, threatening to dislocate the nation’s economic life. In February, 1917, President Wilson asked Congress for authority to arm merchantmen, an act that could scarcely fail to lead to war. The debate was stormy, and in the upper house eleven senators filibustered the measure to death. Thereupon the President announced that “a little group of willful men had rendered the great government of the United States helpless and contemptible” and ordered the merchantmen armed anyhow. War was declared in April.

After the eruption of the second European war in 1939 President Franklin Roosevelt was convinced that for the good of the United States it belonged at the side of the antifascist powers. Yet he faced tremendous anti-intervention sentiment, so amply reflected in Congress that as late as the summer of 1941, a year after the fall of France, the House extended the draft law by exactly one vote. Under the circumstances, F.D.R. undertook an extraordinary series of executive actions, which sought to hem in Japan economically and to help the nations fighting Nazi Germany. Weeks before Pearl Harbor these moves included an order that in effect meant convoying—despite a congressional ban on convoying—and an order to the Army Air Forces and the Navy to shoot first at German and Italian vessels found in the western Atlantic, which amounted to de facto warfare.

By the time America was fighting in World War II, it was manifest that President Roosevelt had made war and was continuing to conduct foreign policy with only a defensive concern for congressional opinion. Plenty of angry comment was made about this, yet still the war-making power did not become a major national issue. In the case of both World Wars I and II, a semblance of congressional authority was preserved by the ultimate declarations of war voted by the House and Senate. Of more significance, the two wars were generally accepted by the public; they were led by widely popular Chief Executives; and if they brought serious problems to the society, they did not seem to tear it apart.

In June, 1950, President Harry Truman was visiting his Missouri home when he learned of the invasion of South Korea by North Korea. Flying back to Washington, he mulled over the news. This was plain aggression, the President told himself; aggression unchecked during the 1930’s had led to World War II; he was not going to be party to another such tragedy. The next morning the reports were grim: South Korea appeared about to collapse. That night Harry Truman ordered American armed forces into the Korean fighting. Then the United Nations Security Council, on motion of the United States representative, “recommended” assistance to South Korea, and the President summoned congressional leaders, as he put it, “so that I might inform them on the events and decisions of the past few days.” The Korean War was under way, grinding on for more than three years, costing the nation 33,629 battle deaths and 103,284 wounded. At no time did President Truman ask congressional authority for the war.