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

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Yet whatever must be said about the dangers or difficulties of restricting the presidential power to make war, the fact remains that something is decidedly wrong with the process as it has emerged full-blown in the igoo’s. It is a travesty of democracy to have so vital a decision so completely in the hands of one man. As Benjamin Franklin observed during the Constitutional Convention, the nation can never be sure “what sort” of human being will end up in the White House; some might be overly ambitious or “fond of war.” The country can also never be certain—no matter how able and peace-minded the Chief Executive—that he will not be led into an unfortunate decision by his dogmas or his limitations. Lyndon Johnson, to use a striking instance, was a Chief Executive of high abilities in a number of respects; he had a strong personal urge to be a peace President and well-seasoned political reasons for avoiding the travail of war. Yet he escalated the Vietnam intervention relentlessly, lashed ahead by old-style certitudes and an inadequate understanding of the forces at work in Asia.

Ideally, what is needed is the creation in modern terms of a system something like the one envisaged by the Founding Fathers, in which the President would have his powers as Commander in Chief and would lead in foreign policy while being guided and checked to some degree by Congress. Toward that end, no good purpose is served by continuing the practice of congressional joint resolutions in international affairs. Either the resolution must say so little that it does not significantly present a bipartisan front to the enemy, or it must be so sweeping that it hands the Chief Executive a blank check.

Beyond this negative suggestion there are all those difficulties in conceiving of a single congressional move that would better the situation. Probably improvement will have to come not by the beguiling expedient of one action but by slower and more complex changes within the existing relationship. For this purpose it is essential to note that in every instance when the United States has gone through all the prescribed constitutional forms, with the President recommending war and the Congress “declaring” it, the House and the Senate have never really “declared war.” Five consecutive times, from the War of 1812 through World War II, what Congress actually did was to recognize an existing state of war, allegedly caused by other nations. This was not simply the result of the natural desire to make the enemy appear the cause of the fighting. More importantly, it reflected the facts that by the time Congress considered a declaration of war, a long train of actions had made combat involvement inevitable or next to inevitable and that, in most instances, the actions had been taken by the White House.

The problem of increasing the participation of Congress in foreign policy therefore involves less the matter of a declaration of war than a continuing role for the legislative branch in the decisions that lead to large-scale military intervention. Thinking along these lines, it is useless to assume that the built-in tension between the White House and the Hill can be removed. Yet changes could be made that would increase the degree of genuine collaboration.

All modern Presidents have called in congressmen to “consult” concerning major foreign policy moves. The vital point is the nature of the “consulting.” Is it a session in which the Chief Executive really listens to his guests, or is it one in which he is simply informing them of what he proposes to do or has done or, asking their advice, receives it merely with a politeness calculated to grease relations with the Hill? The presidential attitude takes shape from many things, but in no minor degree from the type of men with whom he is talking. And outstanding congressmen can not only influence Presidents; they can rouse opinion in their own chambers and in the nation as a whole, which is certain to have its effects in the White House.

In his Memoirs President Truman touched upon the kind of congressional leaders with whom he was dealing during the Korean War. At times bitingly, he indicated how little he thought of the ability of a number of them to rise above narrow-gauged partisanship, of their knowledgeability in world affairs, even of their willingness to observe discretion when the Chief Executive revealed to them information that was necessary for understanding but seriously affected national security.

Truman, a former senator, knew his Congress only too well. For years students of American government have been pointing to the deplorable effects of the seniority system in Congress, and nowhere has it operated more lamentably than in placing men on that critical body for international matters, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. In the early twentieth century, when the White House was enormously aggrandizing its power over foreign policy, a number of the senators who were the chairmen or the ranking minority figures on the committee were close to the clownish in their inappropriateness. Since the advent of nuclear weapons, which brought the gravest of issues before the committee, the chairman and first minority senator have at times been able, informed, and dedicated. Yet to run down the list of the number-one and number-two figures since 1945, not to speak of the total makeup of the body, is to come upon some men whose lack of qualifications is staggering.