Congress and the President’s Power at Times of War

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Political cartoon from 1847 addressing a Senate resolution banning journalists from the "Washington Union." Library of Congress.

Political cartoon from 1847 addressing a Senate resolution banning journalists from the “Washington Union.” Image courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress.

On August 13, 2013, the British Parliament voted against military action against Syria, handing Prime Minister David Cameron a significant defeat.

Any day a war ends is a nice day.” Actor Kirk Douglas spoke those final lines in the 1963 film, The Hook.

U.S. Response to Syria Concerns

In the United States, Republican House Speaker John Boehner also voiced criticism of the Obama administration’s efforts to respond with a military response to Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons. Most national polls demonstrate a split on the use of military action: Americans, after ten years of war in the Middle East, may be ready to see an end to war.

The last time Congress exercised constitutional authority to declare war was in December 1941, when it voted to fight Japan and Germany, following the December 7th Pearl Harbor attack.

The vote in the Senate was unanimous. The House vote was nearly unanimous: Montana Republican Jeannette Rankin, a pacifist, refused to cast a “yea” vote. Montana Senator Burton Wheeler leaked information to the Washington Times-Herald that detailed war plans had already been prepared by the Franklin Roosevelt administration, documented December 4, 1941.


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Presidents and War

The congressional war vote against Mexico in 1846 wasn’t unanimous and ultimately split the nation. Congressional Whigs, including a newly elected representative named Abraham Lincoln, attempted various parliamentary maneuvers to force an honest debate on the merits of war.

President James Polk, however, withheld crucial information and distorted important facts of what was actually happening in Texas. In many ways, Polk had orchestrated the war himself. According to historian Frederick Merk, Senator John C. Calhoun, “declared that not ten percent of Congress would have agreed to the war bill if time had been given to examine the documents.”

In 1898 President William McKinley prepared a war message, asking Congress to declare war on Spain. Many Americans were still angry over the blowing up of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898. Although the Spanish-American War has frequently been called America’s most popular war, there was no evidence that Spain had contributed in any way to the Maine’s destruction.

Another significant focus was on Cuba, where American journalists relentlessly documented alleged Spanish atrocities against the Cuban people. With American victory, the republic became an imperial power, triggering a conflict in the Philippines that cost unnecessary loss of life.

Presidential War Powers

Although there have been no war declarations since World War II, presidents have, in most cases, sought congressional approval for military actions. The 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution, for example, allowed President Lyndon Johnson to respond aggressively to alleged attacks on American naval vessels by North Vietnam. Only Senators Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening voted against the resolution.

Later evidence demonstrating that Johnson’s facts were fictitious vindicated these Senators’ votes.

Additionally, when government agencies approve spending appropriations funding military action, public opinion usually views this spending as an approval of presidential actions. During the Franklin Roosevelt administration, the Supreme Court used this argument to find Roosevelt’s expansion of executive power constitutional.

Constitutional and Public Support for Conflicts

Ultimately, the case for war has always amounted to compelling evidence strong enough to secure majority approval of the American people. Long wars divide national support and result in long periods of post-war war weariness. This was the case with Vietnam. During the Cold War, the fear of Communism, taught in all levels of public education, sustained both congressional approval and public opinion.

There is a lack of emphasis in the teaching of history in the American education system, so the U.S. has come a poor understanding of past events, including wars. Despite the reminder of monuments, many Americans cannot recall the often agonizing debates in the Congress over presidential military ambitions.

President Obama discusses Syrian military options with advisers. Official White House photo, Pete Souza, August 2013.

President Obama discusses Syrian military options with advisers. Official White House photo, by Pete Souza, August 2013.

War in Modern America

What counsel would be given in post-modern America by Abraham Lincoln or Jeannette Rankin? Both viewed war differently, but both abhorred the beat of the drum: “so strong you thump O terrible drums – so loud your bugles blow,” as penned by Walt Whitman at the coming of the Civil War.

Will the nation listen and will Congress react to the people by exercising its Constitutional powers in the face of a new war?

References

Ambrose, Stephen E. and Douglas G. Brinkley. Rise to Globalism: American Foreign Policy Since 1938. (1977). Penguin Books.

Kelly, Alfred H. and Winifred A. Harbison. The American Constitution: Its Origins and Development. (1976). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Merk, Frederick. History of the Westward Movement. (1978). New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

O’Toole, G.J.A. The Spanish War. (1984). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Smith, Page. The Nation Comes of Age: A People’s History of the Ante-Bellum Years. (1981). New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Wheeler, Burton K. Yankee from the West. (1962). New York: Doubleday & Company.

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© Copyright 2013 Michael Streich, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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