Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. — James Madison
By the early 1950s, the transition to the permanent warfare state headed by an imperial presidency was almost complete. Its influence would go beyond any one administration.
Some 20 years later, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who admired Truman, conceded in the book The Imperial Presidency that the Truman Doctrine “called on the American government to do things no American government had ever tried to do before.”
Here was a presidency of fewer, if any, foreign-policy limitations.
It was a presidency in which the president could act unilaterally. That meant there was less and less of a role for Congress in U.S. foreign policy. During the Nixon years, Schlesinger, who had championed Truman and later served John Kennedy, would suddenly discover that the power of the presidency in foreign policy was out of control. (Nixon, after his presidency, claimed in an interview with David Frost that presidents were above the law.)
Schlesinger and others subscribed to the great-man theory of the presidency. That activist theory of the presidency was personified in the book The Presidential Character, by James David Barber. It was also explained by Kennedy, who admitted, “It is the president alone who must make most major decisions of our foreign policy,” a remark that Schlesinger quoted in his Imperial Presidency.
Still, Schlesinger conveniently overlooked the damage done by Democratic presidents, including those he either served or championed. Nevertheless, he documented considerable damage to a republic in which presidents had virtually unlimited power to wage war and keep unpleasant issues out of the limelight of public debate.
“Consecrated by crisis, the secrecy system overawed Congress and nation,” he wrote in The Imperial Presidency, “producing the doctrine so commonly voiced in the 1950s and 1960s … so profoundly anti-democratic, We must trust the President because only he … knows the facts.”
Still, Schlesinger, a Democrat who praised Truman on several occasions, seemed to ignore Tru-man’s role in the development of an out-of-control presidency. Indeed, two decades before in another book, The Vital Center, he had defended the Truman Doctrine against those who complained it was a blank check. “But experience has shown that the Truman Doctrine was, in fact, offered no such blank check,” he wrote.
Schlesinger was wrong on that point. The Truman Doctrine, NATO, and NSC-68 were presidential blank checks that were cashed by Truman and his successors, Republican as well as Democrat. There was little or sometimes nothing in the way of substantial discussion with Congress and the American people when Truman supported the French empire in Indo-China. Where was the debate on that or when NSC-68 was written? There was little or none.
George H.W. Bush asked for congressional approval before going ahead in the first Gulf War. But he said before the vote he would wage war no matter the outcome of the vote. What was the point of the vote?
There was little public discussion when Kennedy, early in the 1960s, quietly sent the first American troops to Vietnam. By the early 1960s he was pursuing an imperial policy that had been established years before. (Schlesinger, by the way, was a special assistant in the Kennedy administration.) By 1950, as NSC-68 was being written and before U.S. intervention in the Korean War, the tide toward militarization of U.S. foreign policy and society was noticeable. The columnist Walter Lippmann, who coined the term “the Cold War,” was initially a supporter of a get-tough approach with the Soviet Union after World War II.
But he became an early critic of containment. And by 1950, he was warning that there was a growing feeling that the administration’s foreign policy has “created the impression here and abroad that it places virtually complete dependence on military and material power.”
As we have seen in previous segments Lippmann eventually became a critic of the Truman Doctrine. By the 1960s he was a bitter opponent of the Vietnam War. He was detested for his criticism by Lyndon Johnson. But Johnson’s presidency was eventually destroyed by Vietnam just as Truman’s had been by Korea. Johnson leveled the pathetic charge against Lippmann of aiding the enemy.
But Lippmann complained in his column that Johnson had “never defined our national purpose except in the vaguest, most ambiguous generalities about aggression and freedom,” according to Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History.
Johnson was relying on the mysterious NSC-68, among other principles of the warfare state. One would have thought that this decisive document, along with the expanding alliance system, would have been debated in Congress and in the media, as it had been within the Truman administration.
The triumph of the warfare state was complete. It was beyond serious discussion. America had become what at its Founders hated. By the mid 1950s it was a world power engaged in endless wars dictated by a president who could claim the power of a Charles I or a Louis XIV. It was an idea that the Founding Fathers, opponents of the British Empire, abhorred.
And the ideas of the imperial state didn’t end when the Soviet Union fell. Here we see the inherent nature of all government. It is the nature of the permanent public bureaucracy that can go on and on toward a goal even after its raison d’être no longer exists.
We see the leviathan today in the forms of counterinsurgency, bloated defense budgets, and secrecy. The latter means every unauthorized release of information that allows Americans to get a peek at the garrison state — a là WikiLeaks — is a prima facie breach of national security, according to the supporters of the imperial state.
That is the same claim made by countless governments throughout history. For example the release of the Pentagon Papers, which documented decades of lying to Americans about the government’s Vietnam policy, were said to have compromised national security, according to the Nixon administration. It went to court to stop publication. Since the warfare state has been safe under Democrats as well as Republicans, the Obama administration also opposes WikiLeaks. Apparently, there’s much to hide.
Secrecy was, and remains, one of the ways that imperial presidents sidestep constitutional balance. It was a way, along with the infamous executive agreement, of keeping Congress from having a say in matters of war and peace.
In the first years of the American republic, former Navy Secretary John Lehman writes in Making War, almost every foreign-policy agreement went through the treaty process, which requires review by Congress. Executive agreements were rare. In the modern era, that has been reversed. Treaties are rare. Executive agreements are the norm, according to Lehman.
By contrast, treaties have to be reviewed and debated by the Senate. They need two-thirds approval for passage under the Constitution. Those requirements had once functioned as a brake on an imperial president.
Woodrow Wilson became an imperial president who sent troops to Latin America and maneuvered the nation into World War I. Some 30 years before, as a scholar in 1885, he bemoaned the power of the Senate in foreign policy. In his book Congressional Government, he complained that the treaty-review process meant the president had to approach the Senate “as a servant conferring with a master.”
That was exactly the point of the original Constitution. A president who could plunge the nation into war, in fact, had the powers of a king. That was why presidents were required to obtain Congress’s approval to declare war and sign treaties that could lead the nation to war. But imperial presidents have found ways around the original Constitution.
One way is to transform would-be treaties into executive agreements. Another is the congressional concurrent resolution, which needs only a majority, not two-thirds approval, for passage.
“The relatively unchallenged success of these two devices,” Lehman writes, “approved repeatedly by the Supreme Court, leads one to conclude that there is essentially no limit on the power of the president, working with a majority of both houses of Congress, to carry out the foreign policy on which they agree, regardless of whether the Senate officially advises or consents.”
The Senate would be frustrated. Indeed, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Frank Church in the 1970s complained that time and again substantial foreign treaties were turned into executive agreements, which are beyond congressional review. The Senate, he said, spent its time on Brazilian shrimp treaties!
“We are not put in the Senate,” said Church’s committee colleague Sen. Clifford Case, “to deal only with treaties on copyrights, extradition, stamp collections, and minor questions of protocol. If that is the meaning of the Constitution, then I think the Founding Fathers wasted their time.”
The progressive deterioration in the power of Congress to stop the relentless war-making of the president has continued for more than a half century since the Truman Doctrine of 1947. It has led to the militarization of foreign and domestic policy.
Since World War II, historian Chalmers Johnson wrote in The Sorrows of Empire, the military along with the imperial presidency has increasingly used “black budget” policies. Those are policies in which Congress doesn’t approve certain appropriations and often has little idea of what is going on.
“With the onset of the Cold War, the Pentagon became addicted to a black-budget way of life. After passage in 1949 of the Central Intelligence Act, all funds for the CIA were (and still are) secretly contained in the Department of Defense’s published budget under camouflaged names,” Johnson wrote.
“In 1952, President Truman signed a still-secret seven-page charter creating the National Security Agency, which is devoted to signals and communications espionage; in 1960, President Eisenhower set up the even more secret National Reconnaissance Office, which runs our spy satellites,” Johnson continued. “[In] 1961, President Kennedy launched the Defense Intelligence Agency, the personal intelligence agency of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of defense; and in 1996, President Clinton combined several agencies into the National Imagery and Mapping Agency. The budgets of all these ever-proliferating agencies intelligence organizations are all unpublished….”
Presidents, both Republican and Democrat, had informally agreed on most of those points. But one of the dangers of the permanent warfare state is the potential for mixing foreign policy with domestic policy. Truman had a bipartisan consensus for much of his initial push for an imperial foreign policy.
But toward the end of his presidency, with American troops bogged down in Korea, the bi-partisan consensus about America as world power would break down, with consequences for American foreign policy and effects that were felt domestically.
This article originally appeared in the February 2012 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of The Future of Freedom Foundation’s monthly journal, Future of Freedom (previously called Freedom Daily).