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STARING AT WAR : The President's 'I' vs. Congress' 'We'

January 13, 1991|Gaddis Smith | Gaddis Smith, director of the Yale Center for International and Area Studies, teaches American diplomatic history

NEW HAVEN, CONN. — The ghost of President Woodrow Wilson haunts the current debate over whether the United States will go to war to liberate Kuwait from the aggression of Iraq. When Congress debates its role under the Constitution, it is renewing the 1919-1920 struggle between Wilson and the Senate over the issue of a permanent American commitment to use armed force against aggressors--a struggle Wilson lost.

Issues raised in that epic political and constitutional battle of more than 70 years ago reverberate in 1991. For the arguments generated by Wilson and his opponents have been taken up by President George Bush and others in the current "defining moment in history."

Bush asserts that the creation of a new, more peaceful world order is at stake. So did Wilson, when he sought the same presidential power Bush now claims. Defenders of Congress' constitutional role over a decision for war assert the President alone cannot initiate war. So did Wilson's critics. Bush, echoing Wilson, claims the authority to implement U.N. resolutions--including waging war--without reference to Congress. lson made the same claim--and his defeat amounted to political suicide. History, in this instance, throws a light on the present. A question of theory is now a question of imminent war and peace.

Wilson's "defining moment" began in 1917, when he requested, and gained, a congressional declaration of war against Germany. This was not, he said, to advance narrow American interests, but to "make the world safe for democracy"--to establish a new order where all nations, great and small, could live in safety. When the war ended in 1918, the ensuing treaty contained Wilson's vision--the League of Nations. The United States was to have a special moral responsibility to make it live.

The "heart of the covenant" (charter) of the League was Article 10, binding all participating governments "to respect and preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and political independence of all members of the League." In the event of aggression, member states would be bound at the direction of the council--equivalent to the U.N. Security Council--to impose economic sanctions. Then, armed force could be used against the aggressor. Wilson believed there could be no peace without the threat of force. He said the collective power of peaceful nations would deter aggression or, failing that, easily turn it back.

In the summer of 1919, Wilson returned from the Paris peace conference and submitted the treaty--containing the obligation to use force--to the Senate for approval. The Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Henry Cabot Lodge, had serious reservations about that commitment, and asked whether the President should have the power to commit U.S. military force against aggression. Yes, said Wilson, because only then can peace be preserved. No, said his opponents, because it would involve the nation in perpetual war for perpetual peace, and so make a mockery of Congress' war power under the Constitution.

The Foreign Relations Committee recommended the treaty be approved, with the understanding that the United States would assume no obligation to defend any other nation "under the provisions of article 10 . . . unless in any particular case the Congress, which, under the Constitution, has the sole power to declare war or authorize the employment of the military . . . shall by act or joint resolution so provide."

Wilson said this would "cut the heart out of the covenant," weaken the commitment and the moral authority of the United States and doom mankind to interminable suffering. His opponents replied that the unqualified commitment could lead the United States to squander blood and treasure around the world--Afghanistan was often cited as the most remote and unlikely place troops might have to fight.

Your fears are fanciful, Wilson answered. We cannot be compelled by the League to embark on an unjust action. As a permanent member of the council, which directs the action, we have a veto. If a proposal is wrong, we will vote against it. The senatorial critics responded: Who is "we"--the President and Congress acting together under the Constitution, or the President alone? Wilson's "we" meant "I, the President."

Wilson also argued that using force was unlikely because the first step in punishing an aggressor would be an embargo, forcing retreat short of war. It is like a feather pillow pressed over a man's face, Wilson explained. There is no blood. But after a time, all oxygen is cut off and the heart stops.

The Senate was not convinced and ultimately blocked the treaty--both with the reservations and in its original Wilsonian form. Even if the Senate had approved the treaty with the reservations, Wilson would not have proceeded with ratification.

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