'The Road To War': How Presidents Make Big Decisions

The last time Congress formally declared war on another country was more than 70 years ago. Since then, the United States has entered many wars largely at the discretion of the president. David Greene talks with veteran journalist Marvin Kalb, who examines how those decisions are made in his book The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Good morning.

Congress is heading out of town for their summer recess, with a lot left to get done when they return. Veteran journalist Marvin Kalb has some thoughts on what Congress needs to spend more time doing. He spent three decades as a network TV correspondent, covering U.S. politics and foreign affairs, including the Vietnam War. He says Congress hasn't played a large enough role managing conflicts and diplomacy, and Marvin Kalb points to one specific thing no Congress has done for decades: declare war. He examines this in his latest book, "The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed." Marvin Kalb came by our studios to talk about it.

Marvin, thanks so much for coming in.

MARVIN KALB: My pleasure.

GREENE: I want to ask you, the Constitution, as you put it in your book, was fairly unambiguous: The power to declare war rests with Congress. When was the last time Congress declared war?

KALB: December 1941, shortly after the Japanese attacked at Pearl Harbor. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In June 1942, the U.S. Senate also voted to declare war against Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania, at a time when those nations were occupied by German military forces and controlled by Germany.] And President Roosevelt went to the Congress and said: We have been attacked. I need a declaration, because we have to go and fight a war. Since that time, though we have fought in many, many wars...

GREENE: A lot of wars.

KALB: ...no president has ever gone to Congress to ask for a declaration of war. And there are a couple of good reasons for that. First is right after World War II, we were suddenly in an atomic age. Nuclear weapons had been used against Japan, and the American people felt - and Congress, too - that were we to use these weapons again, only one guy could make that call, and that's the president.

The second thing was that we were suddenly in a Cold War. And once again, to go to Congress, it would take too long. And since those decades, starting with the end of World War II, progressively, Congress has backed out of the picture and allowed the president to do all of that.

GREENE: Is it healthy to have this situation? Or are there concerns when Congress is largely absent from these decisions?

KALB: Well - in my judgment, anyway - the whole idea of war and peace issues being vested in one human being in an age of nuclear weapons, in an age of terrorism seems to me utterly overwhelming. And yet that is the position that we're in.

I was speaking with an English colleague yesterday. And he asked me: Do you realize that every time you go to war, we often end up going to war, too? And he said: Are you telling me that it's all in the hands of one guy?

GREENE: I'm thinking about George W. Bush, Iraq and Tony Blair, and the two of them getting very closely involved and taking their nations to war in Iraq.

KALB: And that is exactly right. And Tony Blair suffered as a result of that.

GREENE: There are lawmakers, Marvin Kalb, who have figured out ways to try and get involved, none more passionately than Democratic Senator George McGovern in 1970, who was pushing an amendment earlier - while the Vietnam War was still raging - to cut funding for the war. I mean, as he put it: Every senator here is partly responsible for the human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval Hospital. He went on to say: If we don't end this war, those young men will someday curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the executive carry the burden the Constitution places on us.

Sounds like persuasive words. Why didn't enough members of Congress go along with him and try and end the war in Vietnam?

KALB: Because, at that time, the Nixon administration was very intent on pushing one thought, and that was that the White House must have latitude to do what it wants to do during a war. So...

GREENE: An argument that we've heard from many presidents.

KALB: Absolutely. And that is a consistent White House argument, that we are the only people who can really make a decision about war. And you guys up on the Hill, you're all wonderful people, but stay out of our line of work. And Congress has very often been ready to oblige.

GREENE: I wanted to take you to one moment in the book, January 19th, 1961. This is the day before John F. Kennedy is inaugurated. He has a private conversation...

KALB: Yes.

GREENE: ...at the White House with outgoing President Eisenhower. What do we know about what those two men said?

KALB: Well, the two men were alone for the better part of an hour. And the whole point of it was that Eisenhower, the outgoing president, would give the incoming president all of the secrets of the office. And one of the things he said at that time was Laos - small country in Indochina, Southeast Asia. Laos, we have to be very careful that the communists don't take over Laos. Or else, he said, we're going to have to go in and do it, if necessary, on our own.

Kennedy, when he took over, did not want to send American forces into Laos. But he decided that he would draw the line in Vietnam. When Kennedy came in, he felt sort of imprisoned by the words of a former president. When Kennedy was killed and Johnson came in, the first thing he said - one of the first things - I will not be the first president to lose a war. So for reasons really having nothing to do with the reality of South Vietnam, we were in it, we were committed, that's the big word in American diplomatic lexicon. When we get committed, we're committed. And then...

GREENE: It's almost this, if a declaration of war of sorts is made by one president, that commitment has to be carried on by his successor.

KALB: Precisely. It is when a president says something and you've got the commitment; it becomes, in effect, the modern declaration of war.

GREENE: Well, we should say Marvin Kalb, that Congress does have a role. I mean I'm thinking about President George W. Bush starting wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, he went to Congress.

KALB: Yes, he did.

GREENE: There were votes.

KALB: Yes.

GREENE: I mean in what way would things have been different if Congress had made formal, quote, "declarations of war" in these cases?

KALB: I think in a very massive way. A declaration of war is a shrill statement to the nation and the world; we are all involved in a war, we are all part of a national commitment. That is what we must do. We've got to win this war.

GREENE: Marvin Kalb is the Murrow professor emeritus at Harvard's Kennedy School and a former network TV correspondent and author of "The Road to War," which is out now.

Marvin, thanks so much for coming in.

KALB: My pleasure. Thank you.

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Correction Aug. 8, 2013

Our guest said the last time the United States declared war was in 1941, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, marking the formal entry of the United States into World War II against Germany, Italy and Japan. In June 1942, the U.S. Senate also voted to declare war against Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania, at a time when those nations were occupied by German military forces and controlled by Germany.

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