Franklin D. Roosevelt was up for reelection in 1940. Toward the end of the election campaign, wanting to reassure the considerable isolationist sentiment, he promised not to send U.S. troops to Europe. “I have said this before. But I shall say it again and again and again. Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” He was easily reelected. Yet the United States was soon at war.
That was an echo of another presidential promise 24 years before — when Woodrow Wilson campaigned for reelection on the promise of keeping the country out of World War I while he was negotiating with the British for U.S entry into the war. Five months after his election, the United States formally entered World War I.
Lyndon Johnson, campaigning for a new term in 1964, promised not to send more troops to Vietnam. The Pentagon Papers confirm that Johnson said one thing in public and did something very different in private. He ended up sending 500,000 troops to a war against a regime headed by a man who had been friendly toward the United States, Ho Chi Minh.
Ho led a nation that hated the Chinese. His people had been fighting China for thousands of years, as documented in the book Everything under the Heavens, by Howard French. The irony of Lyndon Johnson’s presidential war, which finally ended in 1975, was that Ho’s successors started fighting the Chinese again once the Americans were gone. Today, many Vietnamese communists are pro-American because of their hatred and fear of the Chinese empire. Kennedy’s, Johnson’s, and Nixon’s war had never been necessary. Indeed, Ernest Gruening, one of the few senators to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, speculated that Ho Chi Minh again, as in World War II, could have been a de facto American ally.
“A Moscow-trained communist,” Gruening wrote of him in his memoirs (Many Battles), “he [Ho] shared his people’s millennial aversion to the Chinese and would have been a firm bulwark against a Chinese invasion of Southeast Asia. He was, above all, an ardent nationalist and incarnated his people’s desire for independence and opposition to all foreign domination — Chinese, French, Japanese and American.” But Johnson, like his idol Roosevelt 24 years before, was able to short- circuit any debate over war.
Just before Roosevelt’s reelection, there was a question of sending desperately needed aid to the British in the fall of 1940. Should he give the British some 50 warships they needed early in the war in exchange for bases in the Caribbean? Submission of such a treaty to the U.S. Senate would have resulted in a bitter debate. It is a virtual certainty that Roosevelt’s administration would not have been able to obtain the votes from Congress for a war declaration against Germany or even an agreement to provide warships in exchange for foreign military bases. It also seems likely that Congress would have prevented Barack Obama’s bombing intervention into the Syrian civil war 75 years later if he had ever submitted the idea to Congress.
Roosevelt said the warships-for-bases deal wasn’t a treaty but rather an executive agreement. But as one senator pointed out, this bypassing of Congress idea was dangerous. “If the Executive can do these things without action by Congress, can he not also declare war without Congress,” objected Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., to the bases-for-destroyers deal. Lodge added that involvement in war could destroy “everything we prize.” One of those things would be the separation of powers provided by the Constitution.
But Roosevelt, perhaps more politically skilled than Obama and backed by expert legal advice, bypassed Congress, avoiding what would have been a bitter debate. His attorney general, Robert Jackson, affirmed that the president’s powers as commander in chief allowed him to “use all constitutional authority which he may possess to provide adequate bases and stations for the utilization of our naval and air weapons of the United States at their highest efficiency in our defense.” This presidential power would grow over the next three decades.
An executive agreement is not a treaty. The latter is an agreement with another nation that requires the Senate to “advise and consent.” Roosevelt and his allies said Congress was not needed to review his agreement with Great Britain. The use and abuse of their powers inevitably leads to greater use until presidents start to believe that their expansive executive powers are almost limitless and that congressional war declarations are superfluous. Roosevelt’s action also led to a situation in which every agreement of consequence can be deemed an executive agreement. By contrast, inconsequential agreements became treaties.
By 1972, Sen. J. William Fulbright was complaining that the executive agreement “had virtually become a sorcerer’s apprentice.” Arthur Schlesinger, in the book The Imperial Presidency, was writing at the same time that the Senate “seemed increasingly confined to matters of majestic inconsequence.” Schlesinger was a very good historian and served John Kennedy when the United States was sending its first combat troops to Vietnam, but he fell into the same partisan trap in his book. His harshest criticism is for a Republican president, Richard Nixon. He is not nearly as critical of Harry Truman, the Democratic president who ordered U.S. troops into war in Korea without the constitutionally required congressional declaration of war, a step criticized by Robert Taft in his book A Foreign Policy for Americans.
Taft’s problem — from the viewpoint of a Schlesinger or a Truman — was probably not the substance of his criticism but his perceived partisanship. Taft was a so-called isolationist who voted against NATO in 1949 and, in the last year of his life, helped persuade Dwight Eisenhower not to send U.S. troops to Asia to bail out the French Empire. Ironically, Lyndon Johnson then minority leader in the Senate, agreed with Taft at the time, although as president he would reverse himself.
Here was a standard of an imperial presidency that didn’t need Congress. This standard was directly or indirectly embraced by Roosevelt’s successors, Republican and Democrat. Roosevelt found a way to avoid the messy public debate over a controversial issue — in his case, whether the United States should enter the war through a back door. A majority of Americans, as measured by public opinion polls, wanted the United States to stay out of World War II, as they had World War I, and as they later would the Vietnam War and a bombing campaign in Syria. One wonders what most Americans think of Donald Trump’s threats of nuclear war against North Korea. However, neither they nor Congress seems to have any say in a decision that could launch the world into World War III.
The successors to Roosevelt
Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman, went beyond him in the assertion of presidential war. A critic of isolationism, Truman believed he never needed Congress’s authorization to plunge the nation into war. John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson followed his lead by never asking Congress for a declaration to wage war in Vietnam. The Bushes and numerous other presidents, now including Trump, similarly just continued business as usual.
Presidents have taken on almost limitless power in foreign policy. How many Americans understand what is happening and the extraordinary powers that presidents have arrogated to themselves? For example, a controversial National Security Council paper, NSC-68, virtually called for war with the Soviet Union in the late 1940s. Yet it would be decades before the paper was made public.
The crucial point is that much of the outrage against Trump’s latest abuse of executive powers is misplaced unless the objections are institutional, not partisan. The target shouldn’t be a Trump or an Obama or a Johnson or a Nixon per se. It should be this philosophy of presidential tyranny, of rule by one person, an abuse that has not been limited to one party.
No, Donald Trump, bad and bizarre as he is for tens of millions of Americans, is not an aberration as president. It would have been impossible for the United States to become an imperial regime just because of one party or one president. The defense of the imperial presidency and the use of the weapons of tyranny have crossed partisan lines. Democrats and Republicans both admire imperial presidents.
Indeed, George H.W. Bush’s defense secretary, Richard Cheney, who later became vice president under George W. Bush, crossed those lines to justify the use of almost unlimited executive power. That inevitably led him to defend Democratic presidents. George Bush, in the Gulf War of 1991, famously said that he was taking the country to war even if the vote went against him in Congress. That was a position supported by Cheney, who would cite precedents going back at least to Roosevelt. “As a legal and constitutional matter, the president had the authority he needed,” Cheney wrote in his book My Time.
Indeed, Cheney thought that even submitting the issue to Congress was superfluous. “If he sought congressional approval, that would be read by some as a message that he needed a congressional vote,” Cheney argued. Nevertheless, he notes that “if the vote had been negative, [Bush] still would have ordered our troops into battle.” If that was the case, what was the point of the Constitution’s delegation to Congress of the power to declare war?
The bipartisan imperial state
Indeed, Cheney’s defense of the weapons of tyranny didn’t stop with the two controversial and disastrous wars against Iraq. In his recent book, right-winger Cheney supported the actions of left-wing Roosevelt in the period of the undeclared war. He criticized the so-called isolationist Republicans — and some Democrats as well as socialists — who warned that allowing a president to maneuver the nation into war without debate in Congress would lead the nation into endless wars or near wars. Some revisionist historians have charged that that has been the tragedy of our history over the past 75 years.
In his other book, Cheney One on One, Cheney becomes bipartisan in foreign-policy analysis. He praises Roosevelt’s “leadership” against what he calls the “isolationists” of the 1930s and 1940s. He insists that he won’t call them “noninterventionists,” preferring the term of opprobrium “isolationists.” Many of the latter were members of the America First Committee, the group that warned of the dangers that American foreign policy would become “an endless war for an endless peace.”
In supporting the foreign policies of Roosevelt during the period of the undeclared war, Cheney said he had to “overcome the America Firsters,” who had warned that presidents were abusing their war powers.
Cheney, for all his criticism of Barack Obama, shared the president’s praise for the play Hamilton, the Broadway smash hit that eulogizes a man who had contempt for the common man and wanted the United States to build a huge military so it could function as a world power. Alexander Hamilton, a founding father of the American warfare state, viewed the president as a virtual king, which executive orders and executive agreements often allow the president to be.
Hamilton’s successors have defended executive orders and agreements to change the nature of our country, changing it from a limited government to an empire. They have used them to triumph over a Constitution designed to prevent “great men.” And “great men” in history, Acton tells us, are often “evil men.”
Remembering Hampden and Pym and the triumphs of liberty
It is time for Congress, even if it is at first just a small group, to confront these “great men.” It must insist that war cannot be legally made by one person who orders young people into battle with no authority other than the prerogative of office. That is a questionable power claimed by every imperious ruler in history. It is one that will continue to be claimed by Trump and almost every successor of his unless Congress can rediscover a heritage of liberty and limited government.
There is a solution and it is found in the history of free institutions. Indeed, it is a weapon that Congress even used to stop the Vietnam War, albeit about 15 years and some 50,000 American and hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asian deaths too late.
Congress, which has at times been complicit in this imperial presidency by going along with “successful” popular wars, has two weapons it needs in trying to stop it: the power of the purse and the power of impeachment.
Congress, the same as the courageous parliamentarian leaders who confronted Charles I and faced longer odds, must refuse to pay for illegal wars or else initiate impeachment proceedings against presidents who illegally wage war. The era of the executive order and agreement, of presidents’ taking the country to war on the basis of their own whims and prejudices, must end and limited government be restored. Unless presidential war ends, liberty will end in America.
This article was originally published in the February 2018 edition of Future of Freedom.