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


Lyndon Johnson knew perfectly well that few congressmen would dare face their constituents if, by such a vote for repeal, they undercut a President and a Commander in Chief in the middle of a grave war which he had entered with the insistence that it was vital to American security and world peace. The new regional pacts and even more the joint resolutions—inaugurated with the best of intentions to meet contemporary circumstances—had given the Chief Executive still more war power, and done it in a manner that came close to caricaturing the intent of the Founding Fathers. For they were nothing less than a means by which Congress, with all the whereases of constitutional procedure, duly voted itself into impotence.

In 1967 President Johnson’s Under Secretary of State, Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His remarks, reflecting the L.B.J. mood, came close to saying that the Chief Executive has the right to do anything he considers best in international matters without regard to Congress. Midway in the testimony a committee member, Senator Eugene J. McCarthy, got up and walked out muttering, “There is only one thing to do—take it to the country.” This reaction was a factor in projecting McCarthy into his anti-war presidential candidacy. It was a reaction that was being felt throughout the country—combining discontent with the war and what it was doing to the nation with the charge that President Johnson was manipulating and bulldozing the American people through a war they did not want to fight.

Inevitably, a flood of proposals have come, some for amendments to the Constitution, others for congressional action. Almost all seek to return to Congress—and thus, presumably, closer to “the people”—greater participation in foreign affairs, with the usual assumption that the Congress would be less likely to venture into unwise wars than the President. The most serious of these moves has been a resolution proposed by Senator Fulbright and adopted by the Senate in 1969, which went at one major aspect of the problem through the concept of a “national commitment.” It was “the sense of the Senate,” the resolution declared, that the United States can make a commitment to a foreign nation only through a specific document agreed upon by both the legislative and executive branches.

But serious doubts are provoked by any of these proposals. The nub of the situation is the power of the Chief Executive as Commander in Chief and those general or “inherent powers” that have come to cluster about the office of the Presidency. Is there really a way to restrict the powers of the Commander in Chief without possibly doing more harm than good in an era when one man’s swiftly pressing the button may be necessary for some degree of national survival, or his prompt decision to use non-nuclear armed forces could be essential to achieving a purpose generally agreed upon by the country? Do the words exist that could inhibit “inherent powers” without simultaneously harassing the President, or blocking him, in taking actions that are widely considered necessary? Is this not particularly true in a period when his office is the one instrumentality that can make decisive moves in behalf of the national interest, whether that interest be expressed in domestic or foreign affairs—in orders to armed forces to strike abroad or to enforce federal laws at home, to affect importantly the deployment of economic and social resources inside the country or eight thousand miles away, or to assert at home or abroad the nation’s bedrock values? Yet if the proposals do not cut back on any of these essentials, how effectively do they close off the routes by which Presidents have moved independently to war?

The Fulbright resolution concerning “national commitments,” for example, might discourage certain kinds of the global wheeler-dealing of a Theodore Roosevelt or a Lyndon Johnson. But the resolution is merely an expression of senatorial opinion; it puts no effective check on a Chief Executive acting as Commander in Chief or wielding “inherent powers.” Neither T.R. nor L.B.J. would have considered the basic moves of their foreign policies subject to the resolution, and almost certainly it would not have prevented American entrance into, say, the Vietnam war.

Apart from the difficulty of controlling the President by new language, there is a still more troublesome question—whether, in fact, the Congress and “the people” are less likely than a Chief Executive to get the country into an unwise war. There is not only the glaring instance of the Spanish-American war; other examples, most notably the War of 1812, give pause. Then a rampant faction in Congress—a group with dreams of conquering Canada, who brought the phrase “war hawks” into the American language—helped mightily in pushing the United States into a conflict that was a credit neither to the good sense nor the conscience of the nation. Similarly, in the early, frightened Cold War days, President Truman was worried, and justly so, about a considerable congressional bloc that was restless to take on Russia.