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


Behind this White House attitude were all the reasons that had been accumulating for decades. But other and profoundly important elements had also entered into the relationship between the Chief Executive and Congress in the conduct of foreign affairs. The simple fact was that the traditional concept of a President leading in foreign policy and then, if necessary, going to Congress for a declaration of war had become obsolete. Historically, war meant that a nation, using whatever weapons seemed feasible, attempted to conquer another country or to beat it into submission. In an era of Cold War, and after the development of nuclear weapons, armed conflicts were taking a different form. Small Communist nations, unofficially backed by large ones, were probing remote areas. The United States was replying not by war in the conventional sense but by what was being called “limited war”—limited in the use of weapons because nuclear power was ruled out and limited in objective, which was not to crush the enemy but to stop him from spreading Communism and to discourage similar efforts in the future.

All the while, the relationship of war to the home front was altering. By the 1950’s the United States was so complex a society and Washington so overweening a force that a declaration of war had immense impact. This was partly psychological, but it also involved fundamental workaday facts. Over the decades, by laws and even more by precedents, a declaration of war had come to confer on the President sweeping powers over the entire national life, particularly in the sensitive area of economic affairs. Fighting a limited war, President Truman wanted to limit its home effects, and the opposition to them which could be so easily aroused.

So President Harry Truman went on fighting the Korean War on the authority of President Harry Truman. At times he spoke of the “authorization” or “summons” resulting from the action of the U.N. Security Council; the references were not taken too seriously. The war took calamitous turns. It exacerbated American social problems that were already serious. The very idea of “limited war”—”fighting a war with one hand tied behind you,” as people said—ground on the nerves of a nation accustomed to striding in for the knockout. Public opinion, which at first strongly favored the Korean intervention, swung against it and to an extent that had not occurred during any previous conflict; by 1951 the Gallup poll reported a majority believing that the whole intervention was a mistake and favoring prompt withdrawal. Opposition leaders in Congress now were storming against “Truman’s War,” that “unconstitutional” war; and this time the attacks were building a feeling that something was definitely wrong with the war-making procedures of the United States.

After the Korean War, and as part of the mounting American concern over Communist expansionism, the United States stepped up negotiations with other nations for regional defense pacts. These agreements were impeccably constitutional; they were treaties, negotiated by the executive branch, then debated in the Senate and approved by a two-thirds vote. Yet they contained clauses that could be construed to give Presidents further leverage in foreign affairs. A typical pact was SEATO, negotiated in 1954 by the Eisenhower Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles. It bound the United States, in the event of “armed aggression” by a Communist nation in Southeast Asia, to “act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes” and, in the case of other types of threats in the area, to “consult” on the measures to be adopted—whatever a President might take all that to mean, in whatever specific circumstances he found himself.

Simultaneously, an old procedure—a joint House-Senate congressional resolution concerning international affairs—was gathering fresh meaning. After the lambasting President Truman took during the Korean War, Presidents who contemplated moves that might result in war or quasi-war sought some form of mandate from the House and the Senate. They also wanted to gather bipartisan support behind their action or projected action and behind their general policy, and—of great importance in their minds—they sought to present a united front to warn off Communist or Communist allied nations from adventurous plans.

The joint resolutions came in rapid succession: in 1955, when President Eisenhower thought he might use armed forces to protect Formosa from Red China; in 1957, when he was considering intervening in the Middle East to prevent strategic areas from falling under Soviet control; and in 1962, when President Kennedy was maneuvering to isolate Castro’s Cuba. The joint resolutions varied in a number of ways. But they were alike in their general pattern of giving congressional approval to a specific action or contemplated action of the Chief Executive and to his broadly stated policy for a particular troubled area of the world.