The Road to War

The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed

Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 280
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Road to War
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8157-2443-8
    Subjects: Political Science, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. 1-8)

    Over the years, presidential commitments have come in different shapes and sizes, suggesting honor and integrity, strength and determination, the word of a president backed by the military power of the United States. No trifling matter, in diplomatic affairs. And yet . . .

    Some commitments, such as America’s to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, have been successful and durable, in part because they have been based on solemn treaties ratified by Congress. Another example is America’s commitment to South Korea, also based on a mutual defense treaty, supported by the presence of 28,500 American troops armed with nuclear weapons...

    (pp. 9-26)

    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....

    (pp. 27-38)

    When Franklin D. Roosevelt died in April 1945 and Harry Truman became president, Vietnam was a problem on the periphery of America’s concerns. In time, it was to become the central problem, leading to the only war America ever lost.

    Through most of World War II, Roosevelt had supported the Wilsonian principle of national self-determination, even though he suspected that a number of his close European allies intended to retain their colonies after the war—the British in the Middle East and South Asia, the French and Dutch in Southeast Asia, and several of the European allies in Africa. As...

  7. CHAPTER THREE EISENHOWER: “My God, We Must Not Lose Asia!”
    (pp. 39-54)

    During the 1952 presidential campaign, the Republicans, led by a popular wartime hero, wanted to put some strategic distance between their candidate’s vision of the world and the Truman policy of “containment.” They proclaimed a new policy: Once Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, the United States would no longer just contain communist aggression, it would advance democracy all over the world. It would roll back the Iron Curtain. It would liberate people enslaved by Marxist dogma and diktat. It would launch a new era of freedom. Eisenhower played along with his campaign mentors, but once in office, able for the...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR KENNEDY: The Coup That Failed
    (pp. 55-76)

    On January 19, 1961, when Dwight D. Eisenhower, the last of the presidents born in the nineteenth- entury, was preparing to yield power to John F. Kennedy, the first of the twentieth-century presidents, he spoke a language both used and understood. It was the language of the cold war. For more than an hour, Eisenhower shared the secrets of presidential power with Kennedy, who, in one day, at age 43, would become the second youngest president in American history. When they were finished, trade secrets disclosed and presumably absorbed, the two men walked from the Oval Office into the Cabinet...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE JOHNSON: “Let Us Continue”
    (pp. 77-105)

    “Let us continue,” proclaimed the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, two days after John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963. What Kennedy had begun, Johnson would continue—and finish. He saw himself as a tough Texan standing tall at the Alamo of America’s Vietnam policy; he did not want others to see him as a country bumpkin who knew little about the world. Moreover, there was that “commitment,” to which his predecessors had pledged the nation. He was not going to be a president who went back on his country’s word.

    “I am not going...

  10. CHAPTER SIX NIXON: “There Is No Way to Win This War”
    (pp. 106-136)

    It has been argued by Otto von Bismarck, Henry Kissinger, and others that the business of statecraft should not be seen as a showcase for a nation’s morality—in fact, that morality might even be an impediment to a cold assessment of the facts. A nation, to survive, might have to engage in immoral acts, only to argue later that the highest form of morality was ultimately the survival of the nation.

    In 1968, an assessment would have to start with the Tet offensive, which, by any objective judgment, changed the landscape of the war. Up until Tet, Lyndon B....

  11. CHAPTER SEVEN ONE WAY OR THE OTHER: Getting Out, Finally
    (pp. 137-174)

    China had always tantalized Richard Nixon, even before he became president. China, he knew, was more than an ancient civilization shrouded in mystery. It was, at the right time, a card to be played.

    In September 1970, Nixon hinted in an interview withTimethat he would like to visit China one day. Mao Zedong picked up the hint and told journalist Edgar Snow inLifethat he “would be happy to talk to him, either as a tourist or as president.”

    Henry Kissinger was skeptical but at the same time fascinated by the prospect of a China card. How...

    (pp. 175-198)

    With the election now behind him, Nixon again focused on the unfinished business of Vietnam. He did not want to start a second term with the war still unresolved. Yet, in a number of different ways, he found himself at a dead end in Vietnam. For one thing, he was certain that by February 1973, Congress would begin to cut off all funding for the war. Meaning, no matter what he, as the newly re-elected president, wanted to do, or what he had pledged to Nguyen Van Thieu that he would do, he would be unable to carry out his...

  13. CHAPTER NINE THE ISRAEL MODEL: Unprecedented and Unpredictable
    (pp. 199-224)

    If the U.S. relationship with South Korea has been based on a mutual defense treaty, buttressed by the presence of 28,500 troops and backed until 1991 by nuclear weapons, and if the U.S. relationship with South Vietnam was based on a string of solemn presidential commitments and a joint resolution of Congress, then one might imagine that the U.S. relationship with Israel, so central to American foreign policy in the Middle East, would be based on at least a mutual defense treaty, joint resolutions of Congress, and perhaps even the stationing of large numbers of American troops in or around...

    (pp. 225-244)

    Since the end of World War II, the United States has made many “commitments” to defend countries considered vital to its national security interests. One such commitment was the mutual defense treaty with South Korea in the early 1950s. Like all treaties, it was ratified by the Senate, and it mushroomed into a major military obligation, involving the stationing of tens of thousands of American troops in South Korea. Another kind of commitment—costly in the extreme in lives, treasure, and national reputation—was to South Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s. It grew out of an obsessive cold war...

  15. NOTES
    (pp. 245-260)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 261-287)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 288-288)