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Presidents Making a Case for War

Ray Suarez examines U.S. presidents' past efforts at making a case for war with five historians.

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  • RAY SUAREZ:

    We get that longer view now from NewsHour regulars, presidential historian Michael Beschloss, journalist and author Haynes Johnson, and Richard Norton Smith, director of the Dole Institute at the University of Kansas. Joining them tonight are Joyce Appleby, professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley, and Bernice Johnson Reagon, historian and the Cosby chair professor at Spelman College. She's professor emeritus in history at American University and is the former curator at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History.

    Well, over the last 200 years, American troops have gone a lot of places. But have we been here before where the Congress and the President are not quite in agreement about how the case is made for war? Professor Bernice Johnson Reagon.

  • BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON:

    I was thinking today about the whole issue of PR and marketing. And the notion that Presidents have taken on the task of trying to make a culture so that people in the country will feel they understand why a military action is necessary. And in the case of World War I we got the first national base strategically organized campaign throughout the country, speeches news papers, I think W.B. Dubois was the editor of The Crisis, the largest issue of the crisis where he had an editorial supportive of going into the war.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    The government hired a pr agency.

  • BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON:

    Yes, so that we have seen this before. Maybe not the exact position, most Presidents have tried to suggest that the country is defending something on the defense. If you take the idea around the Korean conflict, which was not even called a war, you have the Domino Theory and the enemy, arch enemies are very important in these campaigns of communism. There is also a repeat of having a Satan, a personal force or person who is the personification of evil over against us and we, the good people but this idea that this thing is so bad we must do unto others before they do unto us is not usually the way the campaign goes.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Does the President have to hit the ground for war, make the case?

  • HAYNES JOHNSON:

    Of course, you know, I was thinking when you just said. We've had 215 years of this Constitutional democracy, and we've declared war very few times. 1812, 1848, the Civil War, I don't think it was declared a war, it was a rebellion. You had 1898. World Wars 1 and II and that's it. The rest of the time we committed troops, Vietnam. Korea, a hundred thousand people died, were not actual wars, police actions, and so forth. The reason is I think Ray is that because the actual act of war is the single most powerful act a country can do. The Declaration has written into our charter that only the Congress has the power to declare the — the sole power to declare war. So in recent times – Michael's written books about this — they get around it by resolutions, by crisis, by this and that to respond to attacks that occur, but the actual declaration of war is and unusual, very limited thing in our country's

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Professor Appleby I misstated your affiliation, of course, you are from U C LA and not Berkeley. That aside, give us your view of how a President has had to in the past get a country ready for war.

  • JOYCE APPLEBY:

    Well, I would like to say first of all that I think the country has observed the Constitution and Congress has been the department, the branch of government that has declared war up to 1941. So what we're talking about is an anomalous period of the Cold War in which we are quasi wars and proxy wars and covert operations. I think it's important to reassert that the foreign policy traditions of the United States have been to be guided by the Constitution. Preparing the country for war of course is something that a President in directing a foreign policy will do. But there is a very powerful tradition that we leave it to Congress to declare war. Indeed, it's an awesome responsibility.

    I think they are very good reasons why the founding fathers made it that way. There was an importance of balancing the power of commander of chief, the power of the commander of chief is with unified direction and balanced with Congress's approval where Congress would represent the constituents who were going to have to bear the brunt of war and would need to, there would need to be an airing of all of the reasons behind the war. I think that to condition this anomalous situation of the Cold War is in fact to amend our Constitution with, through collective for get fullness so this I think is the issue we need to be focusing on today because it's going to last a lot longer than this particular crisis, whether or not we change our Constitutional balance of powers between Congress representing the people and the President.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Michael, you heard Professor Appleby. How does Vietnam and the War Powers Act enter into her point about war period being something different from the rest of American history/

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS:

    That was an effort. Joyce is requirement the War Powers Act 1973 was an effort by Congress to take the power back. They had seen all these situations since world war ii in which Presidents had used this power in Korea, Truman went to war without asking a declaration from Congress, Kennedy and Johnson did the same thing in the 60s, it was by 1973 that Congress rolled to the plate and said, we've got to do something to reassert ourselves but what it did not do was say Presidents under the Constitution when they want to send armed forces into hostilities should actually do a war declaration. What they said was a President should report to us, he has about 60 days. If we don't like it we can order him to pull the troops out and every President from Nixon on has said that the War Powers Act is unconstitutional anyway.

    So you have this situation with George W. Bush and most recent Presidents where Presidents now they should consult Congress, and at the same time they are queasy about doing it because they think they will get restricted. Two cases that led to this; Franklin Roosevelt in the late 1930 wanted to get America into the war to help save Britain and help the democracies, Congress was very isolationist even went to the point of almost passing an amendment requiring a national plebiscite to go to war to tie the President's hand.

    Kennedy in 1962 he has been praised lately for having produced evidence that made the world see why we had to go into the Cuban Missile Crisis has firmly as we did, but Kennedy dealt with the missile crisis for a week in secret. Did not say a word to Congress until an hour before he gave a television speech announcing what he was going to do; called in the leaders of Congress into the cabinet room. Said what he was going to do, one of the leaders say are we being informed or consulted? Kennedy said informed I guess. And there was almost a rebellion they were furious and almost everything became unstuck before it began.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Richard Norton Smith; it fair to say as a Congress and a President talk about war, whether it's Polk in Mexico or Jefferson in the Barbary pirates and on and on, that the Congress is meant to represent the people in that, in that debate over whether or not we go to war or is the people sort of separate constituency that the President can turn to instead of Congress?

  • RICHARD NORTON SMITH:

    Good question. Congress will tell you they represent the people. But on the other hand Presidents will tell you they are the only elected official in this country in fact who is selected by all of the people. What we are talking about is another kind of war, that long running conflict between the executive and the legislative. But if you focus on the executive for the moment, and whatever historical lessons this White House might be drawing upon as it tries to in effect improvise a strategy to bring the nation around to what really is an unprecedented situation, the whole notion of a preemptive military action is as radical a concept as what Truman called a police action, part of a larger action containing not defeating communism in Korea. And no doubt this Bush White House is looking at the example of the first Bush White House.

    Remember back in 1990, following the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq the first President Bush meticulously assembled coalitions. He assembled diplomatic, political coalitions and military. He went to the U.N. He got a Security Council resolution. He also went to Capitol Hill. Then as now, there was some in the White House who said, Mr. President you don't need any formal resolution from Congress authorizing this action. And fortunately cooler if not more Constitutionally pragmatic heeds prevailed, and there was a debate in both houses; there was a quasi declaration of war and you cannot overestimate the importance of having Congress formally on board — not only because it adds to the moral force of the nation united at the outset of a conflict, but also because quite frankly down the road, if things go bad you have got their signature on the dotted line.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    That happened after the gulf of Tonkin Resolution, didn't it? A lot of people regretted their vote.

  • HAYNES JOHNSON:

    I was looking that up and wrote, pulled out the document today. It was 500 words long that was 1964 August. A P.T. Boat attacked supposedly the U.S. Maddox on patrol in the waters off North Vietnam and the President then two days later there was another attack on the turner joy. Another American ship and from that they got a resolution from Congress and the leaders of Congress passed in support an absolute blank check on Vietnam. Bill Fulbright who was about to do a biography on at that time said it was the most humiliating moment in my life. It led him much later to the dissent against the Vietnam war because he thought he had been deceived. Because they were intelligence ships, it was an attack at all.

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS:

    Johnson found out there wasn't really an attack about a month later yet he persisted in using the resolution as the basis of the war. One quick point: Presidents do this. 1898 McKinley saint the Maine to Havana Harbor, exploded — he said we have to go to war with lane. It was found out later that the explosion was actually a boiler explosion. That was the basis for the war. During the Cuban Missile Crisis Robert Kennedy in the councils said perhaps we should have some kind after provocation, another Maine to make us look as if we're more on the right side.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Joyce Appleby you were trying to get in. Professor, go ahead.

  • JOYCE APPLEBY:

    I think it's important to realize that almost everybody in government was born after 1941 when the last time a President went to Congress and asked for a declaration of war. Everybody in, in the President was born after that. Indeed almost everybody in the nation so we are allowing the long period of the Cold War to determine a Constitutional question. It seems to me that the Constitution is not a document that can be selectively observed. It's very unambiguous about giving Congress the power to declare war. And how different our conversation these past six months would have been if the President had been fully aware that he had to ask Congress for a declaration of war. It would have brought members of Congress into the debate so we would have got away from speculations and leaks and rumors and the like of I think that it would have been so educational for American citizens and citizens around the world to learn how a democratic nation, a constitutional republic prepares itself for making the awesome choice of declaring war on another country.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Professor Bernice Johnson Reagon do you agree we are on the first of amending the Constitution without debating and amending it.

  • BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON:

    I think in practice, we — the evidence shows that we are not following the Constitution. Even when there are Congressional sessions, there is such an orchestration of the discussions and the issues that you don't get a sense that you are listening to people who feel that it is their duty to in fact take a stand based on the data they have available. And I think that there is a very, very important acknowledgement to make that in fact the practice that we've been going through for over 40 years now is not one that is representative of the examples we've had of earlier periods. And I don't know if we've got a Congress in, that is willing to stand up to it.

    I found it very interesting that the President seemed initially just to want to gets Saddam Hussein out and it was an accumulation of voices through the media that seemed to with his colleagues, our other nation states to stay you won't be able to do this if you don't follow a certain kind of process. Tony Blair goes on TV and said we believe this is a crisis and the U.N. is the place. That seemed to shift President Bush's strategy of how he was going to prepare the nation for the stand he feels we need to consider taking.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Richard Norton Smith, final quick comment.

  • RICHARD NORTON SMITH:

    Well, I think Professor Reagon just made my point. The fact is we're having a discussion. It isn't a formal parliamentary debate in the halls of Congress. That is coming you can be sure. One of the frustrating things I think is a lot of people would like to have this debate but we are two months away from the off term election, right now many people who would really in their hearts like to debate this and perhaps postpone it, perhaps prevent it, frankly they don't want to spend the next two months talking about Iraq. They would much rather be talking about prescription drugs and corporate corruption.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Richard Norton Smith, guests, thank you all.

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