Politics & Government

Do presidents have too much power when it comes to war? The past can teach us lessons.

Since World War II, Congress hasn’t declared a war, even though that’s what’s required in the U.S. Constitution.

Instead, presidents’ powers have increased beyond what the Founding Fathers intended, said presidential historian Michael Beschloss. That can be dangerous, he said, and Congress needs to take back its authority.

“Congress could stop behaving like lapdogs, like they have for the last 70 years,” he said Tuesday to a crowd in Raleigh, prompting applause from the audience.

Beschloss, the author of several books about U.S. history and leaders, was in Raleigh to talk about his newest book, “Presidents Of War,” which was published in October. The News & Observer and the North Carolina Museum of History Foundation sponsored his talk at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts.

Beschloss spent years researching and writing the book, which has made the New York Times Best Sellers List as well as Bill Gates’ personal list of recommended summer reads. In “Presidents of War,” he traces the “epic story from 1807 to modern times,” according to the book’s title.

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“Presidents of War” by Michael Beschloss Penguin Random House

“The real point of the book is to find out how it is that presidents have so much influence over whether we go to war or not,” he said. “Because that is the exact opposite of what the founders intended. They worried that kings and dictators of Europe would go into unnecessary wars to become more popular, and they wanted to make sure that did not happen here.”

And while the book does not touch on current events, history provides lessons for today’s leaders.

In an interview with The News & Observer, Beschloss said reports that President Donald Trump is considering a war with Iran makes the issue even more pressing. He said he’s especially concerned because Trump once tweeted that he thought former President Barack Obama would go to war with Iran in 2012 to help his re-election chances that year. He fears Trump might do the same in 2020.

“It’s a very dangerous thing for a president to think that the way to get re-elected is to send young Americans into harm’s way,” Beschloss said.

But during the 2016 election, Trump also was critical of U.S. wars in the Middle East, Beschloss said.

“If you listened to what he said during the campaign in 2016, and if you are reluctant to see an American president send young Americans to their deaths unless there is an overwhelming national necessity, his rhetoric in 2016 is not bad,” he said. “I just hope he re-reads it.”

Presidential historian Michael Beschloss, left, talks with News & Observer politics editor Jordan Schrader on Tuesday, May 21, 2019 onstage at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts. Beschloss was on tour for his newest book, Presidents of War. Will Doran wdoran@newsobserver.com

Abraham Lincoln’s example

While researching this book, Beschloss said he found the best wartime presidents were those who knew history, and those who had considerable empathy. Abraham Lincoln was an example of both.

“Lincoln, early in the Civil War, was told there were so many casualties they’d need a new cemetery in D.C.,” Beschloss said. “And Lincoln said, ‘Put it near my summer home so I am always seeing these Union graves being dug, so I know the consequences of the decisions I’m making.’”

Not every president is Lincoln, Beschloss said. That’s why Congress shouldn’t cede its war-making decisions.

“Congress has not declared war since 1942, but we’ve have had one or two wars since then,” Beschloss said. “So it’s something that’s happened. And it’s as topical as can be since here we are this week and the president is dropping heavy hints about war against Iran.”

Beschloss said transferring the authority back to Congress would prevent needless wars and improve the leadership of wars that are necessary.

“My point would be that if you are president and you want war, but you can’t get a war declaration, maybe that’s not a war you should be fighting,” he said, in the interview before his speech. He said “war presidents have been the strongest” when they get Congressional approval, but also keep coming back to Congress for advice and input.

The Vietnam War

The Vietnam War was a key example of why it’s bad to remove Congress from the decision-making process, Beschloss told the crowd.

President John F. Kennedy told several close aides he wanted to withdraw from Vietnam after the 1964 election, Beschloss said. But Congress didn’t know that, and after Kennedy was killed in 1963, the troops stayed under new president Lyndon B. Johnson.

Johnson privately told his wife and aides he believed the war was unwinnable, Beschloss said, even while he publicly supported the war and continued sending more and more American soldiers to Vietnam.

He said their examples, and those of many other presidents who led the country into war, tell one overarching lesson.

“Be very careful with the leaders that you choose who may be commanders in chief in wartime,” he said. “Make sure they are leaders of empathy. And also make sure they know history, by the way.”

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Will Doran reports on North Carolina politics, with a focus on state employees and agencies. In 2016 he started The News & Observer’s fact-checking partnership, PolitiFact NC, and before that he reported on local governments around the Triangle. Contact him at wdoran@newsobserver.com or (919) 836-2858.