How War Powers Are Abused to Sell Wars Like Hawking Cereal



War powers are defined in the Constitution’s Article 1, front and center. Today I ask: Should war start because the people want it, or because a few military experts meeting behind closed doors say it’s necessary?



Congress builds and funds the military and has the power to declare war. But, the last time Congress actually declared war on a foreign country was December 8, 1941, just after Pearl Harbor. And five major wars have occurred since. How can this be? And are we looking at another undeclared war in North Korea?


Separation of powers is required by the US Constitution


The commander-in-chief is just that, the official who commands the air, land and naval forces, but only after Congress has declared war. Separation of powers is a term used by political scientists describing this division of responsibilities. But in reality, separated powers aren’t separated; they overlap and compete! A tug of “war,” if you will, between the branches of government.


The five wars undeclared by Congress since 1945 are what eminent historian Arthur Schlesinger calls “presidential wars.” Initiated by the president and urged upon the public by some argument over national security.


But because they aren’t technically wars, America has developed a new vocabulary for them. They are called “police actions” or “counter insurgency operations,” “sustained anti-terror campaigns” or some other euphemism. But talk to the guys that were in Korea 75 years ago and they will assure you it was a war. Same for the guys in the jungles of southeast Asia 50 years ago. Some Afghanistan veterans may have some real war stories for you too.


So how did those presidential wars work out?


Generally, presidential conflicts have proved both inconclusive and divisive. All have had angry opposition movements and parallel social strife. Korea ended ambiguously in 1953, Vietnam ended in defeat, Gulf War I against Iraq in 1991 was ambiguous and had to be repeated in 2003, and the present Afghan campaign remains baffling, with the Taliban back in control of most of the country.


History seems to suggest that presidential wars are harder to win than those declared by Congress. Another reason to avoid them.


How do such things happen?


Sometimes the modern world requires the president to react quickly to any emergency. Operations to rescue Americans in other lands, for example:

  • Jefferson sent naval forces to decimate the Barbary pirates in the early 1800s.
  • Gerald Ford sent Marines to re-take the USS Mayaguez in 1975.
  • Jimmy Carter sent Delta Force to Iran in 1980 to rescue hostages.
  • Ronald Reagan invaded Grenada in 1983 in part to rescue American students.
  • Bill Clinton sent troops to neutralize warlords in Somalia in 1993.


The danger is in the risk of these operations going sour.  Would Congress have to declare war, or are the president’s orders to send reinforcements good enough? Sometimes the United Nations steps in. The Korean War was launched in 1950 on authority of the United Nations, not by the US Congress. American forces were under UN command. A dubious action, Constitutionally speaking.


Sometimes Congress declares war but gives the president a blank check. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of 1964 was close to a formal declaration of war. It authorized the president to take “all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” See how broad those words are? President Johnson used this authority to send an army of half a million Americans to Asia.


Need a stocking stuffer for a special kid in your life? Forget about candy canes and give them some mind candy. 

How would war powers be used, if the History Dr were in charge?


To simplify, I propose a simple litmus test. If we believe the 1776 Declaration of Independence claim that government must be “by the consent of the governed,” then all of the people must have a say in war powers, not just experts in the Pentagon. Any war initiated against North Korea today must come out of a groundswell of popular support at a grassroots level. People will pay the price, in blood, so they must be the arbiters, not some cabal of militarists in secret meetings. The people must be informed, but not manipulated, by our leaders. Our leaders command  but only the people hold the sovereignty to declare war on another nation.


So the test should be whether the war is being demanded by the masses of the citizenry, or is it being urged, “sold” by a PR campaign, by a small group of elites who claim to understand the situation better.


It’s Hamilton and Jefferson again


Sorry to drag them into it again, but Hamilton would argue for a small group of experts to decide the issue, while populist Jefferson would grant the decision to the masses.


My belief is that if the war has to be sold in the form of a PR campaign by the administration, then something is wrong:

  • James Polk had to sell his war in 1846 by claiming (mostly falsely) that American soil was invaded by Mexico.
  • William McKinley and the yellow press had to sell, even manufacture, the war against Spain in 1898.
  • Woodrow Wilson had to sell US entry into World War I in 1917.
  • Lyndon Johnson had to convince the people in 1964 that communism was swallowing Asia.
  • George W Bush had to convince us that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (he did not.)


Each one of these sales campaigns resulted in serious problems in the aftermath of the conflict.

War powers for North Korea


So do the American people, en masse, support military action against North Korea? Or will the Trump Administration try to sell it on shaky grounds? Before America takes one more step in the direction of war against North Korea, the public must have its say. As Dr. King once observed, “war is a terrible tool for carving out the human future.” King remains right. America sends its young people to war only when there is no other choice.


We have that choice now, and may it be guided by “the better angels of our nature.”


war powers and the better angels of our nature


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