War without asking: US foreign policy and the war-making power since 1941

Dennis Phillips

Marvin Kalb The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed, Washington, Brookings Institution Press, 2013 (287 pp). ISBN: 978-0-8157-2493-3 (hard cover) RRP $39.95.

Richard N. Haass Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America’s House in Order, New York, Basic Books, 2013 (195 pp). ISBN: 978-0-465-05798-6 (hard cover) RRP $29.99.

When, in 1787, the authors of America’s Constitution considered the new nation’s foreign policy, they decided to place the war-making power in the hands of the US Congress, the branch of government considered closest to the people. According to the Constitution (Article 1, Sec. 8), the United States can only go to war on the authority of a majority vote in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The President may be the chief executive and Commander-in-Chief, but only the Congress can constitutionally put the nation at war.

With this in mind, it is fascinating to consider that in all US history only five wars have been fought as a result of a formal Congressional declaration. They were the War of 1812, the Mexican War in 1846, the Spanish-American War in 1898 and the two world wars (Kalb, p. 2). From a constitutional perspective, it has been more than seven decades since the last formal declaration of hostilities. What happened? How and why has the US Congress apparently relinquished its war-declaring power?

There has certainly been no shortage of American military activity during this period. Since the Second World War ended, the United States has been involved in armed conflict of a greater or lesser degree in, among others, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Panama, Grenada, Lebanon, Bosnia, Kuwait and Libya (Kalb, p. 2). None of these conflicts involved a US formal declaration of war. In short, it has been 73 years since the United States ‘legally’ went to war. The date was 8 December, 1941, the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared would ‘live in infamy’ (Roosevelt 1941).

While Congress has subsequently passed many resolutions approving and supplying US military activity abroad, not once since then has there been another formal Congressional declaration of war. Given the extent of US global military involvement, and especially the number of American casualties in recent wars, it seems extraordinary that it has been so long since a US president has gone to Congress requesting a formal declaration of war.


Marvin Kalb’s The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed, is largely devoted to explaining this remarkable transition from Congressional to presidential war-making power. Kalb, Edward R. Murrow Professor (Emeritus) of journalism at Harvard, argues America’s post-World War II military engagements in Asia can be traced primarily to a long series of presidential commitments which proved far more influential than anything Congress said or did. In recent decades the president ‘has accumulated almost unprecedented power in the area of national security’ (pp. 225–226).

Little wonder, then, that the war-making power of Congress has waned. No matter what the eighteenth century authors of the US Constitution may have written, America goes to war these days when the president decides it should. The president is the ‘master’. He leads, Congress follows. There are exceptions, but they are rare. The most famous exception occurred almost 50 years ago when members of Congress, seeing the futility of the war in Vietnam, began to pass legislation restricting President Richard Nixon’s capacity to continue the war (p. 127, pp. 225–226). Eventually, Nixon’s long list of ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’ prompted Congress to take steps to remove him from office (pp. 196–197).


President Harry Truman set the pattern for the executive-led road to war when he responded to the massive North Korean attack on South Korea in 1950. On 24 June, Truman received news that 135,000 North Korean troops, equipped with Soviet-made tanks and planes, had crossed the 38th parallel to invade South Korea. Already smarting from political attacks at home over the ‘fall’ of China to communism, Truman decided the United States could not ignore the North Korean aggression (pp. 14–15).

The war-making power of Congress has waned.

By June 1950 Truman was certainly no stranger to the burdens of high office. As vice-president to Franklin D. Roosevelt, he had assumed the presidency when Roosevelt died in April 1945. Truman went on to win the office in his own right in the 1948 election. It was a remarkable victory because, when Roosevelt died, many Americans thought of Truman as little more than a light-weight machine politician from Missouri. Yet, almost immediately, Truman was called upon to make some of the most important decisions in American history.

In August 1945, only months after he became president, Truman approved the use of two atomic bombs to defeat Japan and end the Second World War. Less than two years later came the announcement of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan establishing the framework for America’s response to the Soviet threat and the onset of the Cold War. In short order, Truman then had to deal with the Soviet attempt to blockade Berlin, the Berlin Airlift, formation of NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and Mao Zedong’s victory in China in October 1949 (pp. 9–12). In this volatile international climate, North Korea’s invasion of South Korea represented just another unwelcome international challenge.

Truman realised it would be unwise to act too precipitously in Korea. If asked, Congress would have granted a formal declaration of war, but to what end? On the one hand, Truman was determined that a naked act of aggression as blatant as the North Korean invasion could not be ignored, but what exactly was the United States to do? Truman did not know for certain whether North Korea was acting on its own initiative or perhaps had a promise of support from China and/or the Soviet Union. The United Nations promptly condemned the North Korean invasion, avoiding a Soviet veto only because the USSR delegation had walked out of the UN in protest over the non-admission of the People’s Republic of China. Officially, the UN would respond to the North Korean attack, but everyone knew the United States would carry the main burden (p. 3).

Three years of bitter fighting followed before the war ended about where it began, along a 38th parallel truce line that exists to this day. There was no victory for either side. One US journalist described it as a mutually unsatisfactory compromise. By the 1950s, the existence of a Cold War between the United States on the one hand and China and the Soviet Union on the other meant the probable costs of widening the war in Korea were too great. Kalb notes that for the first time in its history, ‘the United States decided to fight to a draw rather than fight to win’ (p. 26). And it was a costly ‘draw’. More than 224,000 South Koreans, 54,000 Americans, 297 Australians, 34 New Zealanders and 1.5 million Chinese died in the Korean War (p. 3).


Even before the Korean War began, the United States made a series of incremental commitments in Indochina that led eventually to full-scale battle in yet another undeclared war—Vietnam. At the end of the Second World War, many American officials, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, were opposed to the reimposition of French colonial rule in Indochina. But the necessity of co-operation with France in Europe far outweighed what seemed at the time a minor debate over the fate of former French colonies in Asia. In its attempt to support France and forestall communist influence in both Europe and Asia, the United States found itself gradually assuming more and more commitments in Southeast Asia (pp. 29–34).

The year 1954 proved a turning point in several respects. The collapse of the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu spelled the end of France’s waning influence in Indochina. In April, the Geneva Conference divided Vietnam ‘temporarily’ at the seventeenth parallel and the two Vietnams, one north and one south, came into existence formally for the first time. In September, SEATO (the South-East Asia Treaty Organization) was formed in what Kalb calls an American fit of ‘pactomania’ that, in the early 1950s, included weakly worded defence agreements between the United States and, among others, the Philippines, Thailand, Pakistan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand (pp. 46–50).

President Harry Truman set the pattern for the executive-led road
to war.

All these mutual defence agreements shared a striking common feature. Taken literally, none of them committed the United States to do anything but consult in the event of a foreign threat or emergency. American negotiators were acutely aware that any treaty had to go to Congress for approval. Weak and ambivalent treaty wording served to preserve maximum flexibility in the conduct of US foreign policy and it maximised the likelihood of congressional approval. There was no way Congress would ever approve the United States going to war automatically simply because some nation decided to attack, say, Australia or New Zealand. Indeed, to consent to such a thing would be a violation of the Constitution itself. Kalb notes, ‘In all of these treaties, one would have to look long and hard to find language that locked the United States into a firm commitment to come to the defense of the other country’ (pp. 226–227).

Therefore, in one treaty after another (including ANZUS, the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty), the United States merely agrees, in the event of an emergency, to ‘consult’ with its treaty partners. After that, each partner is free to ‘act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes’ (p. 227). In retrospect, were it not for the fact that Australian defence (as well as that of other allied nations) is predicated on the notion the United States would do far more than just ‘consult’, much of this 1950s ‘pactomania’ rhetoric borders on the bizarre. The United States, for example, could ‘consult’ (which, presumably, it would do with or without a formal treaty) and decide to do nothing. Then there is this matter of acting within ‘constitutional processes’. When it comes to a formal declaration of war, the United States has not acted in accord with its own ‘constitutional processes’ for more than seventy years!

By the time the above treaties were being negotiated, the United States was already paying 75 per cent of French military costs in Indochina. In February, 1954 the Eisenhower Administration took another incremental step toward war. Following further French appeals for military assistance, the United States sent ten B-26 bombers, several C-119 ‘Flying Boxcars’ (capable of delivering napalm), along with 200 US Air Force support personnel, to Vietnam. By the end of the decade, America’s piecemeal ‘commitments’ had the United States well on the road to war in Southeast Asia (pp. 42–43, 117–118).

Marvin Kalb traces the evolution of those ‘commitments’ from their origins in the 1940s through the successive administrations of six American presidents: Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Four of the six were Democrats and two (Eisenhower and Nixon) were Republicans, but in terms of the development of US policy in Southeast Asia, it did not seem to matter who was in the White House. All feared the threat of communist expansion; all were subject to often hysterical anti-communist sentiment at home; all were influenced by the ‘domino theory’ that saw the loss of one nation to communism toppling neighbouring nations; and all were determined not to be the first president in American history to lose a war.


By the late 1960s, continued slaughter in Vietnam and a crescendo of anti-war protest in the United States made it clear that, as Richard Nixon himself put it, ‘There is no way to win this war’ (p. 106). The search was on for an ‘honorable’ way out. Three of the ten chapters in Kalb’s book are devoted to trying to make sense of Nixon’s long, torturous, often secretive and sometimes illegal, struggle to find a way out of Vietnam. Nixon won the 1968 election partly on the promise he had a ‘secret plan’ to end the war with ‘honor’. He had no such plan. There was no ‘honor’ left in Vietnam. In a process condescendingly called ‘Vietnamization’, Nixon began a slow withdrawal of American troops as he tried to gradually hand the war over to the South Vietnamese. (Parallels to current US policy in America’s longest war, Afghanistan, may disturb some readers.)

In August 1973, the United States finally ceased combat operations in Vietnam.

In August 1973, the United States finally ceased combat operations in Vietnam. By that time, the South Vietnamese were deemed to be ready to fight their own battles. Less than two years later, in April, 1975, the army of North Vietnam swept into the old southern capital of Saigon and the war ended. Kalb concludes decades of US rhetorical, financial and human commitments to the survival of South Vietnam began with presidential fiat and were ultimately betrayed by presidential fiat (p. 198).

The costs to all concerned—the Vietnamese, the Americans, US allies and others—were enormous. Kalb notes that in 1969 when Nixon came to power 30,000 Americans had already died in Vietnam (half during the 1968 presidential election year alone). Presumably to prove that these had not died in vain, more were called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice. By the time the war ended in April 1975, the US death toll had reached 58,191 (p. 106). In the midst of it all, on 9 August 1974, in the wake of the Watergate investigations revealing massive presidential illegalities, Richard Nixon became ‘… the only president in American history to resign in disgrace’ (p. 198).


The conclusion of Kalb’s The Road To War has a surprising twist in the tail. After devoting eight chapters to the evolution of American policy in Korea and Vietnam, Kalb’s penultimate chapter is on US relations with Israel. The very last sentence in the book calls for the United States and Israel to sign a formal mutual defence pact. It is an uncomfortable fit. Readers could be forgiven for concluding that the previous chapters on ‘presidential commitments honoured and betrayed’ in Asia are a mere prelude to the proposition the United States should act now to assure Israel will never be added to the list of the ‘betrayed’ (p. 243).


Richard Haass’ brief but provocative book, Foreign Policy Begins at Home, goes well beyond a consideration of presidential war-making power to turn the focus inwards. He argues that most contemporary threats to American security originate at home and do not even involve a creditable foreign threat (p. 1). Haass is one of a select few American specialists with the experience and standing to be taken seriously when proposing sweeping change in vital aspects of American foreign and domestic policy. Such an ambitious effort is bound to be controversial. Haass is unafraid to offer policy recommendations even he thinks are unlikely to be adopted. His book sparkles with its offering of interesting reform proposals. Realistic prospects for the actual implementation of many of these proposals may not be great, but the book is guaranteed to inspire creative thought.

A former Director of Policy Planning at the US State Department, Haass is now the long serving head of the independent and prestigious US Council on Foreign Relations. To him, the most serious threats to American national security come ‘not from abroad but from within’ (pp. 1, 81). Haass argues the United States has stumbled repeatedly into wars of choice (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan) rather than limit itself to wars of necessity (World War II) and it has done this primarily because, for years, the nation’s entire foreign policy focus has been misdirected. What the United States requires is a whole new approach to both domestic and foreign policy. Haass argues the United States currently enjoys an historic ‘strategic respite’ in which foreign threats are minor compared to the 1930s (Germany) and the Cold War era (Soviet Union). Contemporary challenges (North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, terrorism) all pale in significance when considered in light of more serious historical threats. At a time when the United States has no real ‘peer competitor’ it should be seizing opportunities to rethink, reform and remodel its foreign policy (pp. 81–82).

Foreign Policy Begins at Home is also based on the assumption the world needs active and continued American leadership. But, critically, that leadership requires the United States to first puts its own house in order and then be ‘more restrained in what it tries to do abroad’ (p. 160)—in other words, to concentrate less on remaking other nations and more on remaking itself. What is needed, in fact, is a whole new American foreign policy. The last third of the book discusses domestic challenges that have a direct bearing on foreign policy: the national debt, energy, education, infrastructure, immigration, the economy and domestic politics (pp. 121–163).

Haass is well aware he is advocating significant reform at a time when the United States appears poorly prepared to grapple with broad-spectrum change. It has been years since the Vietnam War ended, but the legacy of doubt, disappointment and confusion lingers. Furthermore, new ‘threats’ pop up everywhere. The US debt leads Haass’ list of fundamental domestic problems that must be dealt with if American foreign policy is to be effective (p. 123). The debt is now roughly equivalent to the nation’s GDP and is growing rapidly. To make matters worse, national productivity and employment still lag as a result of the 2008 global financial crisis (pp. 29–30).

Haass is unafraid to offer policy recommendations even he thinks are unlikely to be adopted.

Other national problems loom as well. K-12 education is failing in many parts of the United States. This problem alone is so serious Haass wonders if many young Americans are receiving an education sufficient to equip them to compete in a dynamic and rapidly changing world. Meanwhile, the nation’s infrastructure (roads, bridges, etcetera) continues to deteriorate. The plight of 11 million illegal immigrants remains unresolved and national economic growth, which averaged 3.3 per cent for 50 years, is now half that (pp. 134–149, p. 161).

As if all this is not worrisome enough, the United States is burdened with a dysfunctional national political system in which unregulated special interest group money often overrules the public good. Haass offers a list of urgent and essential domestic reforms—which ranges from the unlikely through the contradictory, to the impossible. These include political reforms to break the two-party stranglehold on elections, restore campaign finance regulations, make registration and voting easier, abolish the Electoral College, adopt the Australian model of compulsory voting and restore a ‘culture of compromise’ to a properly functioning federal Congress. Haass also recommends a swathe of other measures, including raising taxes on ‘those most able to pay’, selective reduction of entitlements, curbing ‘the power of public service unions’, legislating a meaningful shift away from fossil fuel, adopting national standards on education and ‘creating new public-private mechanisms for funding much-needed infrastructure improvements’ (pp. 154–166).

As grim as all this may sound, Haass remains guardedly optimistic, reminding us previous generations have successfully overcome far more serious challenges. But he also admits that his own proposals for comprehensive reform are unlikely to be adopted, doubting the ability of the present political leadership, burdened as it is by argumentative and under-achieving federal legislators, to tackle the job he says ‘most Americans already know needs doing’ (pp. 163–164).


Iraq and Afghanistan are the two leading examples of American (undeclared) wars so far in the 21st century. The Iraq war cost almost 4,500 US military deaths with more than 30,000 wounded (Maceda 2013). In ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ in Afghanistan, more than 2,000 American lives have been lost so far in what is now America’s longest ever war (Crowley 2013). According to Haass, the American invasion of Iraq was a war of choice from the beginning. The Afghanistan campaign began in 2001 as a war of necessity in the wake of the 9/11 attacks but it soon ‘morphed’ into a war of choice when the United States decided to remake Afghan society. With the war now clearly winding down, future prospects for Afghanistan do not appear promising (pp. 24–28).

Haass warns the United States should not be distracted by peripheral conflicts in the Middle East at a time when the rise of China is a far more significant development. He believes China has enough domestic and regional problems to keep it occupied for years to come (pp. 31–37). China’s leadership also has compelling financial and commercial reasons to be co-operative rather than confrontational. He also argues US military power and advanced technology will remain superior to that of China for years to come. This huge disparity of power is a key factor in Haass’ optimistic conclusion that great power conflicts, such as the 20th century’s two world wars, are not likely to be repeated in the foreseeable future (pp. 63–66).

Haass’ optimism is tempered by the existence of problems that could easily evolve from a local or regional nuisance to a global disaster. A nuclear capable North Korea, for example, ‘poses multiple threats to the region and the world’ (p. 68). Iran, implacably opposed to the very existence of the nation of Israel and now on the brink of becoming a nuclear power, is equally, if not more, dangerous to regional and global stability than North Korea. If Israel decided to act independently to destroy Iran’s nuclear capability, what would be the US response? Haass’ answer is vague: ‘the United States would want to do all it could to limit Iran’s reaction’, presumably by relying on deterrence in the form of a US threat to unleash nuclear strikes on Iran if it chose to attack Israel (p. 71).

Nuclear proliferation is but one persistent headache for American policy-makers.

Nuclear proliferation is but one persistent headache for American policy-makers. Haass also raises the problem of what to do about weak states. Having argued ‘foreign policy begins at home’, he also gives numerous examples of where it may not. He defines a weak state, for example, as one lacking the capacity to fully command its own sovereignty and territorial integrity. Pakistan may possess nuclear weapons, but it is still a weak state. Haass worries about terrorist groups finding safe haven in parts of Pakistan. He is far less concerned about violations of Pakistan’s sovereignty in the form of American lethal drone strikes aimed at disabling these groups. He argues the United States should continue to aid and support Pakistan, but ‘where necessary (as was the case in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden) the United States should act independently, even at the risk of introducing further strain into an increasingly strained relationship’ (pp. 72–73).

In addition, American intervention in Pakistan and elsewhere may on occasion require ‘training, advising, and arming national or local police forces to deal with internal challenges to stability’. While Haass describes all of this as ‘a modesty of effort on the part of the United States’, it sounds, to this reviewer at least, less like a prescription for a new American foreign policy than a description of an old one (p. 73).

In a three and a half page chapter on ‘The Middle East morass’, Haass describes the greater Middle East as a region of ‘seemingly insoluble conflicts’. What should the United States do? Glib critics of American foreign policy have long argued it is ‘all about the oil’. In fact, the United States gets only about 20 per cent of its oil imports and ten per cent of the oil it consumes from the Middle East. Taking a wider view, it is certainly true that Middle East oil is vital to the global economy and is inescapably linked to the Arab-Israeli conflict, one of the world’s most intractable geo-political powder kegs. In such a complex situation, it seems merely stating the obvious for Haass to declare, ‘achieving peace will not be easy no matter what the American diplomatic effort’ (p. 76).


Marvin Kalb’s The Road to War and Richard Haass’ Foreign Policy Begins at Home make an instructive combination. Kalb is fundamentally concerned about the growth of presidential power to the point where Congress has effectively ceded its war-declaring authority to the ‘Chief Executive’. Critical national security decisions are now made, not so much by the elected representatives of the people, but as a result of a series of presidential decisions and ‘commitments’, many of which may be made in secret and have unforseen and very serious consequences. For his part, Haass is concerned that the entire US foreign policy approach requires reform. While US policy-makers and the American public worry about potential foreign ‘threats’ emerging from China, Iran, North Korea and international terrorism, the real ‘enemy’ lies much closer to home. Haass argues no significant foreign power can rival America today. The real threats to American security are domestic. The United States must get its own house in order if it is to maintain its position as global leader.


Crowley, D. 2013, ‘The 12-year war: 73% of US casualties on Obama’s watch’, 11 September [Online], Available: http://cnsnews.com/news/article/dennis-m-crowley/12-year-war-73-us-casualties-afghanistan-obamas-watch [2014, Feb 4].

Roosevelt, F.D. 1941, Transcript of joint address to Congress leading to a Declaration of War against Japan (1941) [Online], Available: http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=73&page=transcript [2014, Feb 4].

Maceda, J. 2013, ‘Ten years after Iraq invasion, US troops ask: “Was it worth it?”’, NBC World News, 18 March [Online], Available: http://worldnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/03/18/17326297-ten-years-after-iraq-invasion-us-troops-ask-was-it-worth-it [2014, Feb 4].

Before retirement in 2010, Dr Dennis H. Phillips taught US politics and foreign policy at Macquarie University and The University of Sydney.