Cheney and Fein misrepresent American history by declaring that the Founding Fathers intended to vest war-making power in the presidency. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson clearly believed the exact opposite. Even Alexander Hamilton wrote, “The history of human conduct does not warrant . . .” giving sole authority to the President in foreign affairs.
The proof is in the Constitution itself. The framers of that document did not confer the war power on the President, not even with a two-thirds majority of the Senate. They empowered Congress alone. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution is very clear. “The Congress shall have the power to declare war . . . “
Cheney and Fein fall far short of history’s mark when aiming to parallel Ronald Reagan’s acts with those of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. After all, the Civil War and World War II were genuine national emergencies. Is Nicaragua a national emergency? This question is, at the very least, debatable. But apparently not in the minds of the President and his band of renegades.
For the first 70 years of our republic, our presidents deferred to Congress in matters of war, general or limited. In the ensuing years the legislative and executive branches tilted back and forth on the issue. Since the beginning of the Cold War the balance of war power has shifted dramatically to the presidency. This development appears to be in direct contradiction of the intent of our Founding Fathers. The Supreme Court has only rarely spoken on the issue of war power, and then only on narrow grounds. Since the advent of nuclear weapons and the rise of “brush fire” wars, the court has chosen to not directly address the question. Perhaps it’s time it did.
Harry Truman set the pattern of presidential war in the modern age during the Korean war. Lyndon Johnson demonstrated in Vietnam what presidential war does to a democracy. Richard Nixon broadened the definition by conducting a contemptuous and illegal secret war from the basement of the White House. The wielding of executive power by these men in the name of national security was, in each case, their political undoing.
Ronald Reagan, in the Nixon tradition, invaded Grenada, sent the Marines to Lebanon, and bombed Tripoli without consulting Congress. Then he humiliates the American people by mucking around the Middle East cutting arms deals with terrorists, while at he same time defying the will of the Congress and the people by appealing to a wealthy minority of citizens to fund his personal war against the Nicaraguans.
In past wars, the will of the people, the Congress and the President have been in most cases, unified. The Mexican War and the latter half of the Vietnam War were notable exceptions. Clearly, the voters and their representatives do not feel war in Central America is in our national interest.
If Ronald Reagan is allowed to triple-talk his way out of the Iran-contra mess, then future presidents will feel secure in disregarding the law altogether in foreign affairs. Four decades of presidential war has shown us nothing but mistakes. The founders of our nation were worldly wise, and at least as intelligent as their successors. In this anniversary year of the Constitution of the United States, we, the people, must demand that our Congress reassert its authority to check and balance the President in war. Constitutional history and reason demand it. Otherwise, we face a most uncertain future.