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An Imperial Presidency, Part 2


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Republicans and Democrats have, at times, criticized the imperial presidency. Both are, to a certain extent, correct. Both are also hypocritical. It isn’t only politics that has driven these royal presidents. It is a lust for American power in the world — the desire to be “great” or to lead a crusade for democracy — that inevitably results in tragic wars. These presidential powers, we saw in part one, go back at least a century. Theodore Roosevelt, who was president from 1901 to 1909, is the typical imperial president. One of his friends, William Howard Taft, would write that Roosevelt was “obsessed with the love of war and the glory of it.” Mark Twain complained that Roosevelt was “insane” for war.

These militarist forces, with the imperial presidency as its apotheosis, transformed America. Our nation went from one that embraced classical-liberal principles — principles that included limited government, noninterven-tionism, and anti-imperialism — to one with very different ideas.

America, with the help of imperial presidents, became a nation that would imitate other world powers. It would reverse a century of custom by building an empire and intervening in wars around the globe.

By the late 19th century, after close to a century of this classical-liberal tradition, it would require repeated deceptions for imperial presidents, both Republican and Democrat, to change Americans. Americans, in the early 20th century and in our time, had to, and must continue to, experience mass historical amnesia or, given the parlous state of America’s public schools, historical ignorance.

Americans are today reminded that their presidents who were great were the ones who waged and won wars. The mainstream historians must spin their tales of how innocent America was constantly pushed into war, with their moral commanders in chief reluctantly leading the way in various crusades for democracy.

The politics of peace and war

For example, Woodrow Wilson was originally elected as an opponent of militarism. He was reelected as president in 1916 on a platform of having kept the nation out of World War I, a mass slaughter that shocked the world and produced countless anti-war novels, such as All Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory. Yet the supposedly neutral Wilson, through his de facto secretary of state, Col. Edward House, was quietly negotiating with the warring powers for U.S intervention.

Wilson asked for a war declaration some five months after his reelection. Americans who had voted for him, expecting that the nation would avoid the horrors of trench warfare in Europe were deceived. Unfortunately, it was not to be the first time Americans would be misled.

It is interesting that, after this ostensibly victorious war, Wilson left office as a hated man. The nation was in the midst of a weak economy. Tens of thousands of Americans who had opposed the war had been illegally jailed, noted Walter Karp in The Politics of War. Yet the imperial mythmakers have been hard at work since.

More than two decades later, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, an admirer of Wilson who had served in his administration as assistant secretary of the Navy, used the same 1916 strategy in his reelection campaign of 1940. It would take quite an effort to get the United States involved in World War II, which began in Europe in September 1939.

Polls showed Americans wanted to stay out of World War II. Roosevelt, like so many past and future presidents, understood this deep feeling of American disgust with superfluous wars that, to a limited extent, even exists today. (I remember George W. Bush’s complaint during the 2000 presidential debate about the American military’s being used as “rent-a-troops.”)

So publicly, on the 1940 campaign trail, Roosevelt disingenuously vowed that the United States was neutral. “Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars,” he said as he campaigned for reelection. This happened at the same time he was quietly reassuring the British monarch, on a visit to Canada, that the United States would do everything to help his embattled nation.

Years later Roosevelt’s “isolationist” critics were proven right regarding his deception. Diplomatic historian Thomas Bailey justified this deception: Roosevelt was acting “like the doctor who must tell lies for the patient’s good,” he wrote in The Man in the Street.

Constitutional mockery

Roosevelt was able to use an old trick. It makes a mockery of Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution that presidents are sworn to uphold. It is a trick that was used by several occupants of the Oval Office. Feign peace. And then, as commander in chief, put U.S. military personnel or even U.S. civilians in harm’s way by not warning them to stay out of dangerous areas.

An example of the latter was Wilson’s insistence that U.S. ships had the right to sail into a war zone. An example of the former was President Polk’s posting of U.S. troops on the border with Mexico at a time of high tensions with Mexico.

Once blood has been inevitably shed, whether it was in the North Atlantic, in the Pacific, in the jungles of Southeast Asia, or on the Rio Grande, the imperial president announces that the United States is the injured party. He then quickly asks Congress for broad authority. It could be a war declaration or a resolution to employ force, such as Lyndon Johnson’s infamous Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

Any debate or extended analysis of this so-called cause of war must wait until the shooting is over. Once war is declared, those who would question the causes of the war can be labeled traitors. Presidents become virtual constitutional dictators, explained historian Clinton Rossiter.

How did it happen? In the case of Roosevelt, he directed the U.S. Navy to support British warships on the high seas. When an American ship engaged in helping a British ship track a German submarine was torpedoed, an irate Roosevelt blamed the Germans, never informing Americans how the American ship was in the middle of a battle. That’s even though the United States was supposed to be neutral.

America’s original foreign policy

There was good reason for Roosevelt to pretend to follow a policy of nonintervention and neutrality, just as it was good politics for Woodrow Wilson in 1916 or Lyndon Johnson in 1964 or George Bush in 2000, when he talked about a humble foreign policy. The traditional pacific doctrine of good relations with the world, as enunciated by George Washington, was, until the end of the 19th century, the foundation of American foreign policy.

This mind-your-own-business philosophy was as much a bipartisan concept in the early years of the republic as involvement in NATO has been for Republicans and Democrats over the past half century. For example, Washington and Adams, Federalist presidents who were wary of the French Revolution, strictly followed a neutral policy that kept our young republic out of war.

When power changed hands for the first time, in 1800, and Jefferson’s Democrat Republicans took power, there was no change in this foreign policy. Jefferson, a decided friend of the French Revolution, had no intention of departing from neutrality. The most notable phrase from his first inaugural address in 1801 was his insistence “that we are all federalists. We are all republicans.”

And that was certainly true about how America looked at the world. In an echo of Washington and Adams, Jefferson warned against “entangling alliances.” In his second inaugural address four years later as war was once again raging in Europe, he reported, “We have endeavored to cultivate the friendship of all nations.”

It would take almost a century to destroy this sensible, peaceful policy. It made America free and wealthy and kept her young men from being killed, crippled, or drawn into nightmarish foreign wars. Indeed, there was a time when these common-sense policies were the mainstream of American political philosophy. One wasn’t branded an “isolationist” for staying out of the wars of Europe. Not wanting the United States to build a British Empire didn’t marginalize someone.

John Quincy Adams warned that Americans must not join permanent alliances. They also must resist the temptation to impose liberty on other nations, he said.

In a famous address on July 4, 1821, he explained the dangers of departing from nonintervention and going “abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” His comments, more than a century and a half later, have a relevance that is uncanny. They remind one why the study of history is critical to understanding current problems.

“She [the United States] well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom,” he said.

Let our nation go down this path, Adams warned, and the fundamental idea of her foreign policy would change from liberty to force. Then our character as a nation and people would be dramatically weakened, he said.

“She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit,” he cautioned. Yet this transformation, which he and others warned of, took place because of the triumph of the imperial presidency.

It is an American institution that has been celebrated by mainstream historians for winning wars. However, those who praise great presidents usually show little concern for the costs of those victorious wars or for how they have gradually steered the nation away from its traditional classical-liberal domestic and foreign policies.

“Great” presidents

Noninterventionism, known to its critics to this day as “isolationism,” has a bad name with most mainstream media, academics, and politicians. Almost all of them grade those presidents as “great” who have maneuvered the nation into wars that were won. Those “victories” were secured by imperial presidents at the cost of countless lives and untold misery.

Franklin Roosevelt, certainly one of the fathers of the imperial presidency, is graded by most historians as one of our greatest presidents. Supposedly he ended the Great Depression — he didn’t but perception is often more important than reality. He also led the United States in the so-called “good war.” (An aside: Anyone who wants to see the human costs of a “good war” is advised to see the remarkable 1946 movie The Best Years of Our Lives.)

But without debating the pros and cons of getting into World War II — and remember that the communist Soviet Union ended up on the “good side” — it is important to understand that even many of Roosevelt’s supporters have conceded that he misled Americans in the so-called period of neutrality, 1939–1941. We have seen that he had to say publicly that the United States was not taking sides in the war, even though that was a lie.

The road to war

One of the most controversial steps in this backdoor to war was the famous bases-for-destroyers deal with the British in the summer of 1940. This was an agreement entered into without the knowledge of Congress.

Yet if ever there was a debate that needed to be waged in Congress and the public over a controversial agreement, it was this one. However, the vote was never taken. Roosevelt, on the advice of his legal advisor, called it an “executive agreement.” Those who warned that the United States was quietly readying itself for war were not convinced. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, headlining its coverage of the deal, wrote, “Dictator Roosevelt Commits Act of War.”

So here was an actual act of war that put American lives at stake. One must concede that it was an issue of unique importance that should have gone before the American people and their legislative representatives.

Basically one man decided it. Just as presidents before had done and presidents after would do, he took the country to war with little public discussion. And if the policy blew up, as so often it did, a president could usually cite national security or patriotism, which were convenient ways to silence criticism.

I am convinced, by the way, that this is why we heard relatively little criticism of George Bush’s war on Iraq from Democrats during its first few years. An example: I live in a liberal state with two Democratic senators, Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer. Both said little about the war. Neither said anything about a cutoff of funding. Indeed, Clinton, not to have the patriotic card turned against her and with her eye on higher office, complained that more troops should be sent to Iraq!

These Democrats aren’t really so different from the Democrat and Republican members of Congress of 40 years ago. As troops were sent to Vietnam or Cambodia in the 1960s and 1970s by Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, Congress made little trouble for their administrations until it became politically popular to do so — or until more than 50,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese had died.

Each of these three presidents deceived Americans about the war in Vietnam. For example, just two weeks before his election, Lyndon Johnson said, “We are not going to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” But the Pentagon Papers, the government’s documentary history of American involvement in Vietnam, tells a different story.

“The President in his campaign treated the public to a very strong impression that he was not going to escalate the war. Meanwhile, his topmost advisers have been working for half a year to develop plans for exactly that. It is not believable that the President was ignorant of these plans, however distracted by campaigning he may have been,” according to the Pentagon Papers. This history also charged that the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was “ready and waiting” before it was submitted to Congress.

Johnson, until the war losses brought the nation virtually to the brink of civil war, was a popular president. And Congress generally does not want to take on imperial presidents when they are popular.

But as John Lehman has pointed out (in Making War), when Congress did eventually decide to impose its political will on the president, U.S. participation in the Vietnam War immediately stopped. This is one of the all too few instances of Congress’s slowing down an imperial presidency. However, since it happened in the wake of the massive Watergate scandal, which had weakened the presidency, it was obviously an extraordinary circumstance.

Another way?

It is clear that no laws or constitutions can save a people who do not feel the need to keep their chief executive under control. However, it would seem that the weapons are available to end the imperial presidency. Congress must insist that if war is waged without its approval or if U.S. troops are put in dangerous situations without its review, the power of the purse will be invoked. This was the same weapon used by British parliaments to rein in monarchs in the 17th century.

Finally, why is impeachment not a weapon against an imperial president who illegally wages war? Given the thousands of deaths of young Americans, is that not a serious constitutional violation? Doesn’t it meet the impeachment standard?

An illegal war is indeed “a high crime.” Presidents who make a sham of the Constitution have not taken care “that the laws be faithfully executed.”

The problem is that, given the many years of the imperial president, the idea of a president under law now appears radical.

Part 1 | Part 2

This article originally appeared in the July 2007 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.

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  • This post was written by:

    Gregory Bresiger, an independent business journalist who works for the Sunday New York Post business section and Financial Advisor Magazine, is the author of the book Personal Finance for People Who Hate Personal Finance.