RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The founders of this country designed Congress to constrain presidential powers. And when it came to war, the drafters of the Constitution did not want that consequential decision in the hands of just one person. Among them was James Madison. Presidential historian Michael Beschloss says when Madison became president himself, he learned that wars can reap political benefits. Steve Inskeep spoke to Beschloss about his new book. It is titled, "Presidents Of War."
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Madison was the one who said men are not angels. He was so worried of a president who had bad judgment or would try to get us involved in a war for political reasons, he was trying to slam the door on that. But once he was president, in 1812, he's the one who opened the door to a president going to Congress and saying, I think there should be a war. And if you hadn't had Madison do that, it might have been a much longer time before presidents could make war almost single-handedly.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: What was the situation that the United States faced in 1812?
BESCHLOSS: The United States had ships that were being harassed by the British. A lot of Americans wanted to grab Canada. So there was a group in Congress...
INSKEEP: Which was British Canada then. OK.
BESCHLOSS: Absolutely. So they said, how 'bout a war? And Madison said, well, you know, maybe there is a good rationale for having a war. And Madison sort of liked the idea being a war president himself, exactly the opposite of the way he was in 1787 in Philadelphia.
INSKEEP: I'm thinking of that old saying that where you stand is determined by where you sit. When he was sitting in what we now call the White House, he started seeing things differently than he had before.
BESCHLOSS: Perfect way of putting it. And Madison also knew that it would be politically useful to him in 1812 - he was running for re-election - to have a war that he was the biggest advocate of. Sounds pretty modern doesn't it?
INSKEEP: So James Madison is one of the presidents who gives the president a role in war-making, although they're still asking Congress at that point.
INSKEEP: Let's go ahead a few decades. James K. Polk is president of the United States in the 1840s. What'd he do?
BESCHLOSS: Well, James K. Polk was a liar and a cheat and a bully, and he wanted the United States to have a big war with Mexico. And his hidden agenda was he wanted to get New Mexico, he wanted to get California - which were owned by Mexico at that time - a lot of other land, and add it to the United States. In 1846, he sent American troops down to the Texas border to provoke the Mexicans. The Mexicans fought back. And Polk says, look, there's been this terrible attack on us by Mexico. We need a big war. Congress gladly gave it to him.
INSKEEP: I guess we should just explain this a little more. He sent troops into disputed territory between the U.S. and Mexico, right?
BESCHLOSS: He did. And the result was Polk had essentially fabricated an incident that would allow him to go to Congress and say we need a big war with Mexico.
INSKEEP: But wait a minute here. He still had to ask Congress. Congress still had to act. How did senators respond when they were challenged by this guy who was essentially taking their authority away?
BESCHLOSS: Many senators said that Polk is trying to cheat him. They questioned the reason that we were going to war, but they voted for this war overwhelmingly and set the pattern for the future.
INSKEEP: Why did they do that?
BESCHLOSS: They knew that the war would be popular. They knew that many people would say, the Mexicans attacked us, why aren't we fighting back? It would be very hard for them to say no, and that was a pattern that lasted into the future.
INSKEEP: OK. But still at that time in history, Congress was declaring war. The president would ask. Congress would do it. If we go ahead a century, to around 1950, Harry S. Truman is the president of the United States. What happened in 1950?
BESCHLOSS: I love Truman, Steve, but he did a terrible thing in 1950. The North Koreans attacked the South in June of 1950, and what Truman should have done under the Constitution, he should have gone to Congress and said, I'd like a war declaration. They would have given it to him. But Truman was terrified that there'd be a big debate where he might be criticized and it might undermine him in the midterm elections of 1950.
So Truman didn't even bother going to Congress. He said, I'm doing this as a police action under the United Nations. I don't need a declaration. And the result of that was that Lyndon Johnson, in 1964 when he wanted his war in Vietnam, said, Truman didn't ask Congress. I don't have to do it, either.
INSKEEP: And we've never had a declaration of war since.
BESCHLOSS: Not since 1942, and that is totally in violation of the Constitution.
INSKEEP: What are some of the consequences of this evolution increase, really, in presidential power when we look at the last, I don't know, 20, 30 years?
BESCHLOSS: The result is a modern president nowadays can start a war almost single-handedly, and most of them are tempted because they know that if you've got political problems and you get the United States into a war that is popular, your poll ratings will rise.
INSKEEP: You write early in this book, were the founders to come back, they would probably be astonished and chagrined to discover that in spite of their ardent strivings, the life or death of much of the human race has now come to depend on the character of the single person who happens to be president of the United States.
BESCHLOSS: The founders knew that almost anyone could become president, and they didn't want all of our security to rest on whoever happened to get that job.
INSKEEP: When you wrote that line recently, did you have any particular individual in mind?
BESCHLOSS: President Trump has often talked about starting wars for political reasons. In 2011, he tweeted, President Obama's going to start a war with Iran in order to get re-elected. President Trump...
INSKEEP: He predicted that President Obama would do that, which did happen.
BESCHLOSS: But he makes the connection between war and politics that the founders never wanted to see a president make. The other thing is that, like other presidents, President Trump has remarked on the fact that oftentimes if you want to be considered a great president, it's easier to do that if you've been commander-in-chief during war. That is a thought that our founders would never have wanted to hear from any president.
INSKEEP: One other recent episode I want to ask about. President Obama in 2013 seemed on the verge of launching an attack against Syria because of Syria's use of chemical weapons...
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BARACK OBAMA: I'm ready to act in the face of this outrage. Today I'm asking Congress to send a message to the world that we are ready to move forward together as one nation.
INSKEEP: ...And specifically said, I'm not going to do that without the approval of Congress. It's seen as a serious mistake in foreign policy. It left Bashar Assad of Syria with much more freedom. Would you argue that it was the right choice, even though it seems to have been a mistake?
BESCHLOSS: I think it is always the right choice for a president never to get into a war unless he's got Congress in with him on the takeoff. He belatedly saw that that was not going to be possible, and that's why he pulled back.
INSKEEP: Michael Beschloss is the author of, "Presidents Of War: The Epic Story From 1807 To Modern Times." Thanks so much.
BESCHLOSS: Thanks. Great to see you, Steve.
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