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Transcript:

December 4, 2009


BILL MOYERS: On Tuesday night President Obama took pains to say Afghanistan is not Vietnam, and of course he's right. But war is war, no matter where or when it's fought. Because its costs are great and its consequences unpredictable, the men who wrote our Constitution were determined to make it hard to go to war except to defend ourselves and our liberty.

Although long abandoned, such constraint deserves more respect than it gets. And in this regard, Afghanistan, along with Iraq, is like Vietnam. Almost unilaterally - with only a fig-leaf of Congressional approval - Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, both Bushes, and now Barack Obama committed us to costly wars far removed from the rationale of self-defense set forth by those delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787.

Our founders knew too well the habits of European kings who went to war at the drop of a royal hat or for the lust of a royal heart. Matters of life and death, they argued, should never be so easily decided by one man. In the now quaint but still elegant language of their day, they understood - and these are the words of James Madison - that: "In war, the public treasures are to be unlocked; and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them." But that was not a good idea, Madison said. Such a mixture of powers would be a temptation "too great for any one man." Even a good man, of good intentions. Madison worried that: "The strongest passions and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast; ambition, avarice, vanity, the honorable or venial love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace."

They were not na´ve, our founders. The question of war was no theoretical exercise for them. The new republic was threatened on all sides. Its young government had to be able to defend itself; the new chief executive - not a king but a president - would need, at times, to act quickly and decisively. So the founders debated the question vigorously. Where do we vest the power of war?

Charles Pinckney of South Carolina wanted to give it to the Senate alone. Pierce Butler, also of South Carolina, wanted to vest it in the President, quote, "who will have all the requisite qualities and will not make war but when the Nation will support it." That idea brought Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts to his feet, shocked: "I never expected to hear in a republic a motion to empower the executive alone to declare war." And George Mason of Virginia agreed. "I am against giving the power of war to the executive," Mason said, "because he is not safely to be trusted with it -- or to the Senate [...] I am," he said, "for clogging rather than facilitating war."

In the end the delegates compromised, as usual, with an eye to checks-and-balances. They gave Congress the power to declare war legally, but left the President free to repel sudden attacks. The delegate from Connecticut, Oliver Ellsworth, summed up their collective wisdom when he said, "It should be more easy to get out of war than into it."

How far we've come.

That's it for the Journal. Go to our website at PBS.org and click on "Bill Moyers Journal." You'll find there our complete coverage of the war in Afghanistan. And you can access a list of resources for veterans and their families. That's all at PBS.org.

I'm Bill Moyers, and I'll see you next time.
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