Debating War, a Forgotten Tradition


This time honored tradition goes back to the lengthy discussions leading to the War for Independence, before the war of 1812, before the Mexican War in 1845, before the 1898 Spanish-American War, and between 1914 and 1917 when the United States entered the First World War.

Then the attack on Pearl Harbor and the North Korean invasion of South Korea prevented discussion before presidents committed the nation to war. At least FDR, unlike his successor Harry Truman, felt obliged to obtain a declaration of war from Congress. From the Korean War to the Gulf War the United States went to war on the orders of various Cold War presidents without any congressional resolutions.

Except for the ill-informed debate over the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, there was no discussion of going to war in Vietnam. Only after George Bush, the elder, had committed 500,000 troops did Congress finally debate and approve by a narrow margin the Gulf War–in part because the Bush administration could not disguise that oil and oil alone was the reason for fighting. None of the myriad U.S. military invasions during the Cold War were discussed and approved by Congress except implicitly through passage of CIA and military appropriations.

Little wonder some are wondering why there need be a discussion of whether to attack Iraq. U.S. presidents for most of the Cold War did not have to be bothered with obtaining public or congressional approval before committing American troops. So why bother now? Aside from the obvious answer that leaders of a functioning democracy are supposed to obtain legislative and popular support before going to war, it is not so obvious that discussing the pros and cons of going to war produce authentic reasons for justifying military action. I say this because the official reasons given at the time for taking any nation into war are almost always untrue. They represent myth rather than reality, regardless of whether the government is democratic or authoritarian. People need to be convinced they are fighting and dying for a noble, and usually mythical cause–not crass economic or narrow nationalist motivations.

Consider the less than truthful official words used by past leaders when taking the nation into war in contrast to their real reasons. “No taxation without representation” really meant no taxation “PERIOD” as self-determination won out over loyalty to England in 1776.

President Madison declared in 1812 that violation of trade and territorial water rights, impressment of American seamen, and English incitement of Native Americans required going to war. In fact, desire for land on the part of Anglo Americans living in the south and west, and a grandiose belief in national honor on the part of Republicans who controlled the government but were in a vicious partisan fight with Federalists, actually accounted as much or more for the declaration of war against England.

While President Polk told the country in 1846 that Mexico had shed “American blood upon American soil,” he neglected to mention that he had ordered American troops into disputed territory and was responding to the regional racist desire for territory that was sparsely populated with Indians or Mexicans. The underlying economic and socio-cultural differences between the North and South and the breakdown of the party system in the 1850s contributed as much to the outbreak of the Civil war as the more publicized one about the moral evil of slavery.

President McKinley’s remarks in 1898 about going to war to “free” Cuba and to protect American property and trade, belied the role played by the “yellow press” in promoting war, the expansionists views of prominent Republicans, and the fear of the business community that unstable conditions in Cuba were adversely affecting the stock market and retarding economic from the lingering 1894 depression. Woodrow Wilson, probably wins the contest for concocting high-sounding mythical reasons when he took the country into World War I, saying it was because of the violation of U.S. neutral rights (when the country had not in fact been acting neutrally between the belligerents) and, of course, “to end all wars, ” and “to make the world safe for democracy.”

Even though the attack on Pearl Harbor logically prompted U.S. entrance into World War II, it took historians decades to find out how economic pressure on Japan contributed to this attack. The Korean war was also precipitated by a foreign attack, allowing Truman to undertake the first “limited” war of the Cold War in the name of an ostensible multilateral operation and collective security. Both the Korean War and the Gulf War had UN approval, but in truth they represented, at best, the ruse of multilateralism by the United States to conduct unilateral wars, and neither has yet been ended with a peace treaty.

Since the Second World War, Congress (and the public) have been systematically ignored by Cold War presidents–even after passage of the 1973 War Powers Act–when presidents wanted to commit American combat troops to far-flung areas of the world. In all, according to a list compiled by the Federation of American Scientists, the United States has undertaken around 200 largely unilateral military actions since 1945. Long before such a number could have been anticipated, historian Charles Beard presciently coined the phrase “perpetual war for perpetual peace” to describe U.S. foreign policy.

Therefore, whether wars are discussed before being declared by American presidents, their official reasons should be carefully scrutinized because if the past is any indication equally suspicious or fallacious arguments will prevail if and when war is declared on Iraq. As historian Charles G. Sellers said about Polk: “The sobering fact is that . . . our representative institutions seem incapable of restraining a determined President from an unwisely aggressive foreign policy.”

JOAN HOFF is a Research Professor of History at Montana State University, in Bozeman. She is the author of Nixon Reconsidered (Basic Books, 1994). She can be reached at: joanhoff1@aol.com

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