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The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed

The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed

by Marvin Kalb

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Not since Pearl Harbor has an American president gone to Congress to request a declaration of war. Nevertheless, since then, one president after another, from Truman to Obama, has ordered American troops into wars all over the world. From Korea to Vietnam, Panama to Grenada, Lebanon to Bosnia, Afghanistan to Iraq—why have presidents sidestepped declarations of


Not since Pearl Harbor has an American president gone to Congress to request a declaration of war. Nevertheless, since then, one president after another, from Truman to Obama, has ordered American troops into wars all over the world. From Korea to Vietnam, Panama to Grenada, Lebanon to Bosnia, Afghanistan to Iraq—why have presidents sidestepped declarations of war? Marvin Kalb, former chief diplomatic correspondent for CBS and NBC News, explores this key question in his thirteenth book about the presidency and U.S. foreign policy.

Instead of a declaration of war, presidents have justified their war-making powers by citing "commitments," private and public, made by former presidents. Many of these commitments have been honored, but some betrayed. Surprisingly, given the tight U.S.-Israeli relationship, Israeli leaders feel that at times they have been betrayed by American presidents. Is it time for a negotiated defense treaty between the United States and Israel as a way of substituting for a string of secret presidential commitments?

From Israel to Vietnam, presidential commitments have proven to be tricky and dangerous. For example, one president after another committed the United States to the defense of South Vietnam, often without explanation. Over the years, these commitments mushroomed into national policy, leading to a war costing 58,000 American lives. Few in Congress or the media chose to question the war's provenance or legitimacy, until it was too late. No president saw the need for a declaration of war, considering one to be old-fashioned.

The word of a president can morph into a national commitment. It can become the functional equivalent of a declaration of war. Therefore, whenever a president "commits"the United States to a policy or course of action with, or increasingly without, congressional approval, watch out—the White House may be setting the nation on a road toward war.

The Road to War was a 2013 Foreword Reviews honorable mention in the subject of War&Military.

Editorial Reviews

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"Marvin Kalb's The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed, is largely devoted to explaining this remarkable transition from Congressional to presidential war-making power. Kalb, Edward R. Murrow Professor (Emeritus) of journalism at Harvard, argues America's post-World War II military engagements in Asia can be traced primarily to a long series of presidential commitments which proved far more influential than anything Congress said or did. In recent decades the president 'has accumulated almost unprecedented power in the area of national security' (pp. 225–226)."—Dr. Dennis Phillips, The University of Sydney, Australian Review of Public Affairs

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ISBN: 978-0-8157-2493-3



Truman's War in Korea

"An Iron Curtain has descended over the continent." —Winston Churchill

It was a very unusual war. It started in Europe but soon enveloped the world.

As the United States demobilized and dramatically swung from a war-time to a peace-time economy after World War II, the Soviet Union tightened its military and ideological grip over Eastern Europe, gobbling up first Albania, then Yugoslavia, and then, in short order, from 1945 to 1947, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and East Germany. In February 1948, the communists seized power in Czechoslovakia, throwing the few optimists left in Washington into a strategic depression. Moscow also pushed for communist takeovers in China, Vietnam, France, and Italy. The one in Vietnam led to a major war in Southeast Asia that would cost more than 58,000 American lives.

Walter Lippmann, then the preeminent Washington columnist, defined the emerging crisis in 1947 in a short book that helped name an era; it was entitled Cold War. The United States and the USSR, he wrote, were already engaged in tough, dangerous competition, using proxies, jockeying for advantage, building up their military power—but stopping short of actually going to war. He envisaged a cold war, not a hot one. Striking a similar theme, George Kennan, an old Moscow hand and diplomat, published an article in Foreign Affairs, called "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," in which he recommended the "containment" of Soviet expansionism, while later explaining that he did not mean by using military power.

Lippmann and Kennan were actually echoing the somber judgment of Winston Churchill. It was not peace that stood before the world, Churchill prophesied, but the prospect of another war. So soon after the end of a world war, Churchill was already speaking of another one. On March 5, 1946, at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, Britain's legendary wartime prime minister scanned the map of Europe and concluded reluctantly that an "Iron Curtain has descended over the continent," creating a "Soviet sphere" of expanding influence and power. The American president, Harry Truman, who shared the platform with the British leader, also shared his gloomy judgment of world affairs. He saw a world split in two: half free; the other half "bent on the subjugation of others." It was the beginning of the cold war.

When Truman left office in January 1953, he reflected on his presidential tenure: "I have hardly had a day in office that has not been dominated by this all-embracing struggle."

The Man from Missouri

Harry Truman was a humble, machine-made politician from Missouri, who happened to be in the right place at the right time. In 1944, Truman was a Democratic senator, known for his struggle against wartime corruption, and his president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was facing a slow death and a fast reelection campaign for an unprecedented fourth term in office. The leaders of the Democratic Party were certain Roosevelt would win—the world was still at war—but they wanted to drop Vice President Henry Wallace from the ticket, believing he was too liberal to be president when Roosevelt died, which they expected within months.

Who would replace Wallace? Truman was not a party favorite, but he did have a reputation for probity and integrity; and when a few of the more likely candidates dropped out of the running, Truman got the party's nod. On January 20, 1945, the man from Missouri was sworn in as vice president, and, a few hurried months later, on April 12, 1945, after Roosevelt's death, as president, the only one to serve in that office since 1896 without a college degree.

When he took the oath of office, Truman did not know that he would shortly have to make a number of presidential commitments and decisions that would transform the post-war world. In one of his most consequential decisions, he approved the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, effectively ending World War II but at the same time ushering in a new age of atomic power and threat. His reasoning was that he wanted to save the many thousands of American lives that were almost certain to be lost in an invasion of the Japanese homeland. Within a year or two, other challenges crowded his desk.

In early 1947, Soviet leader Josef Stalin moved (or faked a move) toward Azerbaijan, which Truman interpreted as a Soviet effort to control the supply of oil from the Middle East. Truman, influenced by Churchill, decided to act. In March, he announced a military and economic aid package for Greece and Turkey valued at $400 million. It was the birth of a new anti-communist policy, quickly dubbed "The Truman Doctrine." The president said it was to "support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures," meaning communist insurgents and aggressive Soviet maneuvering. And in June, at Harvard, Secretary of State George C. Marshall announced an extraordinary four-year, $13-billion aid package to reconstruct the West European economy. It was called "The Marshall Plan." "Our policy is not directed against any country," the secretary stated, even disingenuously offering the Soviet Union an opportunity to receive some of the aid but with conditions everyone knew in advance Moscow would find unacceptable.

With the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, the United States, by presidential proclamation and commitment, embarked on a new cold war policy that led to a series of major confrontations between the United States and the Soviet Union. The pattern on policymaking was set early: The president made the big decisions, Congress in effect acquiesced by providing the money. On matters of national security, even when there was an occasional disagreement between the two branches of government, the president's views prevailed.

These early decisions by Truman were examples of the unfolding postwar power of presidential rhetoric, using the bully pulpit of the White House, not only to create policy but to lead the nation toward controversial goals, even toward war—and to do so without serious congressional consultation, without a declaration of war, and sometimes even without a congressional resolution. Not everyone approved of this mushrooming executive power, but, in a period of hair-trigger anxiety, there was no one in the U.S. government whose authority could match the president's. He was the only nationally elected leader. When it came to issues of war and peace, especially during the cold war, he was supreme—at least then.

The world was changing, and not for the better. On June 24, 1948, the Soviet Union blocked rail, water, and highway access into the three western sectors of Berlin, which was located in Soviet-controlled East Germany. The West had a choice: It could reclaim access by smashing its way into Berlin, which might have triggered a new war; it could accept communist domination; or it could begin the unprecedented job of airlifting vital supplies into the western sectors of Berlin. Truman, determined not to be pushed around, told Marshall, "We stay in Berlin." Almost immediately, the United States launched the "Berlin Airlift," a truly historic undertaking, which lasted until May 11, 1949. During these eleven months, in a highly dangerous operation through air corridors that the Russians could have blocked at any time but chose not to, Truman ordered 278,228 flights to be flown into Berlin with cargoes consisting of 2,326,406 tons of food and supplies and 1,500,000 tons of coal during the winter months. It was an eye-opening show of American power, generosity, and Trumanesque leadership, and it saved Berlin.

But clearly the relationship between East and West was in stunning freefall, each side trying to outmaneuver the other. First was the creation on April 4, 1949, of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, in which all twelve founding nations, including the United States, concerned about the obvious spread of Soviet power, pledged their military's fidelity to the principle that an attack on one would be considered an attack on all (how different from the U.S. rejection in 1919 of the League of Nations on essentially the same issue!). Then, on August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union announced that it had successfully test fired its first atomic bomb, nicknamed "Joe One," patterned almost exactly after the "Fat Man" bomb that the United States had dropped on Hiroshima (proof if any were needed that Soviet spies had filched America's atomic secrets). Finally, on October 1, 1949, the Chinese communists under Mao Zedong defeated the Chinese Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek and seized control of the entire mainland, establishing the People's Republic of China and vastly expanding the communist threat not only to Asia but to the rest of the world.

In Washington, on both sides of the political aisle, the startling vision of an expansionist, nuclear-armed Russia in ideological union with a revolutionary China, the most populous nation on Earth, sent an existential shiver down the collective spine of the U.S. government. Truman feared a new war, and the "China Lobby" (led by congressional Republicans and the conservative elements of the news media), sharing his fear but sensing a golden political opportunity, opened a ferocious attack against Truman for the "loss of China," as if it was his to "lose," for abandoning such a friend and ally as Chiang Kaishek, for being "soft on communism," and for allowing his State Department to be "permeated with Reds and leftists." Rarely did a day go by without vicious criticism of what the China Lobby saw as Truman's collapse before the advancing ideological goliath of Chinese communism. Overnight, several GOP members of Congress, ordinary politicians pursuing ordinary careers, became headline figures—Robert Hale from Maine and Walter Judd from Minnesota, bemoaning Chiang Kai-shek's humiliating retreat to Taiwan, and Senators Bourke B. Hickenlooper of Iowa and Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin, accusing the president of "taking us down the road in shaping policies favorable to the Communist party." They looked for sympathetic reporters to spread their worry about the "domino theory"—that if China could fall to the communists, then Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and all of Southeast Asia could also fall to the communists. And when, on June 24, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea, the China Lobby felt fully vindicated in directing its fire and anger at Truman for losing China and leaving the United States on the abyss of losing Asia.

The Making of the American Commitment to South Korea

No question about it, the experts say. If South Korea were attacked, the United States would rush to its rescue. The United States has an ironclad commitment to defend South Korea, and it's had one for decades. What was the origin of that commitment? Was it as rock solid as the U.S. commitment, for example, to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization? Did it oblige the United States to fight for South Korea under all circumstances? These were questions worth exploring, for they cut to the heart of the true value (and nature) of a presidential commitment.

When World War II ended in August 1945, the Korean peninsula was split into two parts: the north fell under a brutal communist dictator, Kim Il Sung, who was protected by the Soviet Union, and the south under an equally brutal autocrat, Syngman Rhee, who, by default, became the responsibility of the United States. In May 1948, Rhee established the Republic of Korea, and in December Kim created the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, formalizing the division of the country. Within weeks, as though by pre-arrangement, Soviet troops were withdrawn, and within months American troops followed suit, with Washington believing innocently that a period of peaceful adjustment might be at hand. It was not to be. Skirmishes along the demarcation line became the disconcerting norm, accompanied by a deepening suspicion and hostility between the two parts of Korea.

President Truman, preoccupied by Stalin's aggressive moves in Europe, raised no objection when Dean Acheson, who had succeeded Marshall as secretary of state, speaking at the National Press Club on January 12, 1950, excluded Korea from America's "defensive perimeter" in Asia. Was it a deliberate exclusion? No one was certain, but Kim was quick to pick up on the exclusion—and wonder about its significance. He had been considering different ways of reunifying Korea. One way, he thought, was a North Korean invasion of South Korea. Several times he had flown to Moscow to get Stalin's permission. Finally, after the Acheson speech, Soviet leader Stalin flashed a green light, sensing that communism might, in this way, be able to pick up another trophy without too much danger. According to Nikita Khrushchev's memoirs, Mao had also given his approval to Kim's plan, meaning both Russia and China supported the plan for a North Korean attack on South Korea, an American ally. Kim had assured his colleagues that it would all be over in three weeks. All three communist leaders—Stalin, Mao, and Kim—were soon to learn that they had seriously underestimated Harry Truman.

Korea Explodes

The president was in Independence, Missouri, relaxing for a few days, when he took a late night call from Dean Acheson. "Mr. President, I have very serious news for you," the secretary of state said. "The North Koreans have invaded South Korea." According to his biographer, Robert J. Donovan, Truman was "shocked" by the news, because, in his judgment, this was an "open military attack across an accepted international boundary upon an American-sponsored government." A red line had been crossed. The free world was being challenged by aggressive communist leaders, and Truman thought it was his job to stop them.

The president was a student of history. When he acted in Korea, he was thinking of the Munich Conference in September 1938, when Great Britain made no move to stop Nazi Germany from occupying the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. Later, diplomats referred to Munich as a painful example of appeasement leading to the outbreak of World War II. "The fateful events of the 1930's, when aggression unopposed bred more aggression and eventually war," Truman explained to Congress, "were fresh in our memory."

Truman quickly dispatched one army division to South Korea. A few days later he sent four more divisions on an assumption, faulty in the extreme, that the North Koreans, considered to be a band of marauding "bandits," could easily be defeated.

"We are not at war," Truman assured the nation on June 29. There was no need, therefore, for a declaration of war, which was what President Franklin Roosevelt had requested of Congress the day after Pearl Harbor. From Truman to Barack Obama, in fact, no president has felt the need to ask Congress for a declaration of war. The Korean engagement was not, for example, the War of 1812, when such a declaration would have been considered a requirement for committing American troops to war. The United States, fighting under a UN banner, was engaged, Truman argued, in "a police action ... to suppress a bandit raid." In this way, Truman became the first president to take the country into a war without any form of congressional authorization. Truman in effect gave to the UN the authority clearly vested in Congress. When Congress first debated the merits of the UN Charter, Truman was in Potsdam negotiating the end of World War II. He sent a cable to Senate leaders, promising that if he ever dispatched American troops to fight in a war, he would first come to Congress to request authority. In Korea, Truman ignored his own pledge, and Congress raised no substantive objection.

Thus, within the context of the cold war, began a historic shift of governmental power: A president, acting on his own, could start a war, or respond militarily to an action he deemed harmful to the national interest, without a declaration of war or even formal consultation with Congress. The U.S. Constitution required a declaration of war, but a president could now ignore this aspect of the Constitution with apparent impunity.

Within a week, it was clear that U.S. forces, unprepared and unfocused, were no match for the North Koreans, who in any case outnumbered them ten to one. Casualties were high, especially among officers. Field reports spoke of "retreat," "rout," "death," and "confusion." One reporter asked: "Could this be the army that only yesterday had thrilled the nation by its victories at Normandy, the Bulge, the Rhine, Guadalcanal? ... American soldiers chased across rice paddies by North Koreans!"

Observing this unfolding disaster from his headquarters in Tokyo was General Douglas MacArthur, the supreme commander of allied powers in Japan. He did not like what he saw but felt no reason to panic. At any time, he confidently believed, he could destroy the North Koreans, the Chinese, and the Russians. With his corncob pipe characteristically clenched at a cocky angle, attired in splendid khaki regalia, MacArthur looked out over his vast Asian domain like an ancient potentate. He was an American aristocrat, the most powerful figure in occupied Japan.

Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1880, MacArthur grew up believing that no service was more honorable, noble, or patriotic than being a soldier. His father, Arthur Jr., had been a lieutenant general in the United States Army. For his courage under fire, he had been awarded the Medal of Honor. The first sound young Douglas ever heard, he said, was the sound of the bugle. He later recalled that he could "ride and shoot even before I could read or write—indeed, even before I could walk and talk." There was never a question about his life's work. He entered West Point in 1898 and excelled as a cadet, graduating first in a class of 930 in 1903. Indeed, so outstanding was his training and scholarship that he was appointed "First Captain of the Corps of Cadets."

Given the arc of his whole career, it was not surprising that his first assignment would be in the Philippines, his second in Japan (serving in his father's command), and his third in Vera Cruz, Mexico. By the time World War I began, MacArthur was already a brigadier general, one of the brightest stars in the American military constellation. In Europe, where he served gallantly, he won two Distinguished Service Crosses, seven Silver Stars, two Purple Hearts and one Distinguished Service Medal.

Excerpted from THE ROAD TO WAR by MARVIN KALB. Copyright © 2013 by THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION. Excerpted by permission of BROOKINGS INSTITUTION PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Marvin Kalb is the Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice (Emeritus) at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and founding director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. He also serves as a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution in Foreign Policy Studies. His distinguished journalism career covers thirty years of award-winning reporting and commentary for CBS and NBC News, including stints as bureau chief in Moscow and host of Meet the Press. His twelve previous books include Haunting Legacy (Brookings Press, 2012), The Nixon Memo (University of Chicago) and Kissinger (Little Brown). He hosts the Kalb Report at the National Press Club.

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