The Unbearable Lightness of Treaties

As Sam Goldwyn famously said, “A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.” One could argue that this observation applies to international treaties as well. Indeed, unless the signatories to a treaty are sincere and earnest in their intent—willing to adhere to its stipulations no matter what sacrifices are entailed or what unforeseen obstacles emerge—their document means very little.

Consider the Cold War treaties between the USSR and the U.S. Even George Kennan was astonished at how eagerly and clumsily the understandably paranoid Soviets violated these agreements. Or better yet, consider the treaties the United States government signed with Native Americans, treaties which we were willing to honor until the moment we weren’t—until the moment we decided we needed to take back land that was promised to them.

Or consider the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), which formally ended the Mexican-American war and which (with Mexico now regarded as a “conquered enemy”) resulted in Mexico selling California to the U.S., recognizing the Rio Grande as the southern border of Texas, and ceding sizable portions of New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado.

The U.S. paid in excess of $15 million to Mexico which, at the time, was considered a fair price. But there were two problems: One, fair price or not, Mexico wasn’t particularly excited about selling this property, and was more or less forced to unload it, and two, what was considered a “fair price” in 1848 was deemed a monumental rip-off in 1849, once gold was discovered near Sacramento. (California was fast-tracked to statehood one year later.)

Which brings us to the Iran Nuclear Treaty. According to news reports, the treaty is expected to have enough votes to withstand a Republican attempt to override Obama’s threatened veto. Even beyond the usual political grandstanding and posturing, opposition to the Iran deal has been especially irrational.

Here’s a simple fact: No treaty between “enemies” has ever been or ever will be entirely satisfactory to either party. That diplomatic truth should be taken as Gospel. And if we can’t accept that—if we can’t accept the fact that the finished product will be flawed—then we (along with China, Russia, Germany, France, the UK and the EU) had no business sitting down at the table in the first place.

As for Obama’s intended veto, Republican leaders and Israeli spokesmen are already pissing and moaning about it, depicting it as the reckless act of a dictator, as if a presidential veto were a slap in the face of democracy and a renunciation of the will of the people.

In truth, a look at presidential vetoes is revealing.

The president with the most regular and pocket vetoes in history was FDR, with a whopping 635. Of course, because FDR was elected four times, he had more bills to contend with. The most vetoes recorded by any president during one term of office was 414, issued by Grover Cleveland in his first term.

Eisenhower had 181 combined vetoes, Ford had 66, and Reagan had 78. Nine of Reagan’s 78 vetoes were overridden, including one involving sanctions against South African apartheid, which, in a stunning move, was overridden by his own Republican-controlled Congress.

George H. W. Bush had 44 vetoes, Clinton had 37, and George W. Bush had only 12 (4 of which—one-third of them—were overridden). The largest percentage of veto overrides belonged to the hapless Franklin Pierce, with 56-percent (5 of 9).

George Washington issued only 2 vetoes, James Monroe issued only one. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson each had zero. So far, Barack Obama has issued a total of four (basically, a day’s work for Grover Cleveland).

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at