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The History of Macho Presidents

Since antiquity, the use and abuse of monarchical, presidential, and other forms of executive power has troubled most societies. For this reason the founders of the American nation, through experience with the British crown and their reading of history, feared to entrust any one leader with unbridled power, particularly in matters of war and peace. They viewed the executive as the natural enemy of liberty and the potential leader of a military tyranny. In their new republic, therefore, they sought means to prevent the rise of a despot.

For these reasons in the nation's first constitution, the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, the founders omitted an executive office. The president of the congress, who could serve only one year in any three-year congressional term, had little or no legal power to deal with foreign affairs. When popular disturbances, as in Shays' uprising in 1786, alarmed conservative members of the new nation's establishment, they headed a movement to revise the Articles to strengthen the central government. As is well known, after convening in Philadelphia in 1787 they decided, instead, to fashion a new constitution.

In this document, the delegates granted much more power to the new congress. They also created the office of president, endowing it with substantial authority but subordinate to that of the legislature. Still feeling strongly about the dangers of allowing an executive to declare war, they vested that power in congress. They did give the president the title of commander in chief of the army, navy and militia but with no authority to declare or initiate war.

James Madison expressed well the dread of abuse of the war power through what today we might identify as a macho impulse. "War," he wrote, "is the true nurse of executive aggrandizement . . . . In war the honors and emoluments of office are to be multiplied; and it is executive patronage under which they are to be enjoyed." Axiomatically, "the executive is the department of power most distinguished by its propensity to war." Hence, "it is the practice of all states, in proportion as they are free, to disarm this propensity of its influence."

Since the founders revered George Washington, few feared that as president he would plunge the nation into another war. When he left office though, in part because of a squabble with revolutionary France, he had lost much of his popularity. Under John Adams, the quarrel escalated into the Quasi-War, America's first undeclared war, aside from conflicts with Native-Americans.

When Adams tried to end the conflict through diplomacy, France responded with insulting behavior, touching off in the United States a frenzy to expand the hostilities, rally-round-the-flag emotions, and an unaccustomed popularity for Adams. He took to strutting in a military uniform, sporting a sword, and making belligerent speeches to approving audiences telling them repeatedly "Let us have war." He also supported assaults on civil liberties as in the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Only when the public passion for full-scale war subsided and he realized congress would not declare it, did he opt for peace.


Bit by bit, subsequent presidents expanded their power to employ force unilaterally. James K. Polk, belittled initially as a mediocrity, did more. On the basis of a contrived crisis that Abraham Lincoln and other Whig opponents called a lie, he led the nation in war of aggression against Mexico. South Carolinian John C. Calhoun denounced Polk's tactic as "monstrous" because "it stripped Congress of the power of making war." Calhoun viewed it as setting a precedent for future presidents to maneuver Congress into declaring war "however opposed to its convictions of justice or expediency." Nonetheless, in keeping with popular sentiment eager for hostilities and expansion, a majority in Congress backed Polk.

Despite Lincoln's condemnation of Polk, in fighting the Civil War he, too, stretched the president's military power beyond constitutional limits. Lincoln justified his behavior as within his alleged authority as commander in chief. "Whether strictly legal or not," he explained, he acted out of necessity to save the Union. He prevailed because both the public and congress supported him. Scholars defend him because they considered his goals noble. He set as precedent, the dubious theory that in times of crises congress and the courts should defer to the president and that he should dominate the government.

Thereafter, in minor foreign confrontations, presidents frequently employed military force on their own. Historians usually portray William McKinley as resisting jingoes and a yellow press who wanted war with a Spain that posed no threat to the United States. Yet he used humanitarian concern over Spanish abuses in Cuba as a pretext for asking congress to allow him to initiate hostilities. A senator asked, why it should "give the President power to intervene and make war, if he sees fit, without declaring war at all?" Regardless, congress gave McKinley what he asked.

After defeating Spain, McKinley imposed a colonial regime on the Philippines and fought an undeclared war against Filipinos who merely wanted to govern themselves. American troops committed atrocities comparable to those attributed to Spanish colonizers. Theodore Roosevelt continued the war and even defended the American brutalities. He also came up with an exaggerated conception of an inherent presidential war power limited only by specific legal restraints dubbed the stewardship theory.

Woodrow Wilson claimed a similar power, as in his military intervention in Mexico in 1914. He asserted an implied constitutional authority to act as he wished "without recourse to the Congress." In seeking war against Germany, he did not ask congress to declare it but to recognize it had been thrust on the United States. Most historians acknowledge Wilson resorted to military force more often than any previous president but vary in their assessments of the rightness or wrongness of his interventions. They tend also to agree he added to the precedents for the president's unilateral exercise of military force.

Scholars differ also in their views of Franklin D. Roosevelt's use of the war power. Critics accused him of lying to the public in trying to involve the nation in Second World War. In September 1940 when he gave fifty over-age destroyers to Britain in exchange for bases, they called it an act of war and him a dictator. These dissenters comprised a minority. Much of the public applauded his initiative.

When Japan attacked, Roosevelt properly asked congress to recognize that a state of war existed. Congress did so but opponents charged he had brought the nation into war through deception. The public disagreed, rallying around the president, the flag, and the war effort. With augmented power voted by congress, he waged war with virtually dictatorial authority. Through it all, most of the public praised him while his intellectual defenders formed a kind of cult that exalted the strong presidency and belittled the constitutional authority of congress.

Legal scholars pointed out correctly that previous executive breaches of the constitution did not validate subsequent violations.

During Harry S. Truman's presidency and the cold war years, this cult flowered. Historians wrote multi-volume biographies of presidents, most of which praised their subjects. Intellectuals and others lobbied for presidential libraries built under the guise of aiding scholarship but usually to glorify presidents. As for Truman, even though he came to office admitting insufficient knowledge to lead a mighty nation at war, he quickly learned that anti-communism and macho behavior played well with the public.

In 1950 when North Korean communists invaded the Republic of Korea, an American client state to the south, Truman rushed into hostilities against the communists even though they did not menace American security. He circumvented both congress and the United Nations Security Council. When questioned if he had arrogated unto himself the authority to declare war, he called the intervention a police action that did not require a declaration. He and his Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, dismissed that constitutional requirement by claiming that as commander in chief the president possessed an inherent prerogative to make war. They also justified congressional sanction as unnecessary because opinion polls indicated broad popular support for the president. The public, congress, and the strong-president cult all applauded Truman's unilateral war making.

When the conflict stalemated, casualties mounted, and costs escalated, the polls showed a sharp drop in approval for what many now called "Truman's War." The president and his advisers then cited other small-scale military ventures as proper precedents for his war-making. Legal scholars pointed out correctly that previous executive breaches of the constitution did not validate subsequent violations.

Truman left office virtually repudiated but not because he had launched the nation's first large-scale undeclared conflict and had amplified the presidential war beyond anything attempted by his predecessors. He lost favor because he had failed to win the war quickly and cheaply. Later, though, sympathetic biographers attempted to build up his reputation by calling his macho posturing courageous and by discounting the vast death and destruction he had caused.


Like Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson relished having the power to act as on his own as a global gendarme. "The congressional role in national security," he maintained, "is not to act but to respond to the executive." He escalated clashes with North Vietnamese communists who had no offensive capability of harming the United States. In August 1964, he used an attack on American warships in the Gulf of Tonkin that never happened, as an excuse for full-scale war. Although claiming he possessed power to do so unilaterally, he did ask congress to approve a resolution modeled after one given to Dwight D. Eisenhower in a crisis over Taiwan. Only two senators dissented, one of whom protested "the Constitution does not permit the President to wage war at his discretion." As requested, Congress granted Johnson free reign.

With this backing and high public approval, Johnson enlarged the conflict in Vietnam. When, as in Korea, casualties mounted, misery spread, and the war became unpopular, he offered various implausible reasons to justify his intervention. He also flaunted the distorted judgments of White House attorneys who cited earlier illegal uses of force to give authority to his actions. When he realized the war had become an albatross and he could not win re-election, he terminated his candidacy. Up to this time, no president had exploited the war power as outrageously as he had.

When the well-known hawk, Richard M. Nixon, won the presidency, in part, by promising to end the war, he continued it for four more years. He, too, used hired-gun lawyers to dredge up flawed precedents to justify what became "Nixon's War." For instance, in defiance of the constitution, an assistant attorney general, William H. Rehnquist, argued that as commander in chief the president could initiate war on his own.

Finally, in November 1973 with the War Powers Resolution, congress made a half-hearted effort to curb the now disparaged presidential war power. This, as well as public pressure, compelled Nixon to terminate hostilities. Later, for other abuses of power he had to resign the presidency in disgrace. He claimed to have acted like other strong presidents who had lied, waged war covertly, and had skirted congress. True enough, but he had abused his power more than had his predecessors and even claimed that a president's criminal behavior became legal because of the office held.

In this ambience, congress passed the Foreign Assistance Act of 1974 that placed minor restraints on the president's use of covert military operations but also for the first time it openly accepted his assumed right to launch such ventures. Accordingly, almost as soon as Ronald Reagan entered the White House he directed the Central Intelligence Agency to engage in domestic spying, clandestine foreign paramilitary operations, and surveillance of Americans abroad. Undeterred by the War Powers Act and with a widely acclaimed machismo, he thrust American military might against small, weak nations in Central America, the Middle East, North Africa, and the Caribbean. Despite his simplistic thinking, his mangling of history to justify his ventures, and his violations of law, he left office a hero to many Americans and to the strong presidency cult.


Although called a wimp by some journalists, George H. W. Bush tried to follow Reagan's macho style. In a row with Manuel Noriega, the small-time dictator of Panama, Bush invaded a supposedly sovereign state, inflicted heavy casualties on the civilian population, captured Noriega, and jailed him. The president justified all this with his own interpretation of the commander-in-chief clause. The United Nations General Assembly condemned the invasion as a "flagrant violation of international law." Polls indicated the American public overwhelmingly approved Bush's muscle-flexing.

Bush turned next on another easily demonized dictator, Iraq's Saddam Hussein. In August 1990 Hussein's troops invaded Kuwait and quickly overran it. Rightly denouncing the assault as aggression, Bush took upon himself the role of policeman to reverse it. After a brief try for solution, he decided again to use force unilaterally, claiming with flawed precedents he could do so. Most pundits in the media sided with him but many legislators did not. He decided, therefore, to ask congress for a resolution approving force but not for a declaration war. It agreed. He then waged war on Iraq with massive force, blasting the country with air power, killing numerous civilians, and slaughtering hopelessly outgunned Iraqi troops in what journalists called a turkey shoot. He did not, however, occupy Iraq or oust Hussein. Bush's popularity zoomed to an unprecedented height and he bathed in the glory of a Caesar.

William Jefferson Clinton also took on the role of international policeman, employing military force on his own in Somalia, Iraq, and the disintegrating state of Yugoslavia. He even threatened to use it to oust a dictatorship in Haiti and claimed imperial prerogatives because he headed what he called "the indispensable nation." In the air war against the Serb remnant of Yugoslavia, American bombing killed numerous civilians, justified by the administration as unavoidable "collateral damage." As had predecessors, Clinton counted on the rally-round-the-flag attitude to sustain him. As aides pointed out, his muscle flexing also had a political dimension. It increased his stature as a vigorous leader and paid off at election time.


Although George W. Bush assumed office characterized by media analysts and others as a limited thinker with little knowledge of foreign affairs, he, too, soon learned the public responded well to macho behavior. On September 11, 2001, when Islamic terrorists hijacked commercial airliners, that smashed into skyscrapers in New York City and into the Pentagon, killing some three thousand people, the atrocity galvanized the nation. Again the citizenry rallied round the flag and behind the president who proclaimed a war on terrorism.

Although claiming authority to use military force on his own, Bush asked congress for a resolution approving such action, especially against the perpetrators of the attacks. In an overwhelming vote, congress with the Patriot Act agreed to a conception of war stretched well beyond the usual meanings of that term but without declaring war. The foe had no territory, no government, no army, navy, or air force and the "war" had no discernible boundaries, beginning, or perceivable end. It started as a crusade against one man, Osama bin Ladin, the prime suspect among those who plotted the slaughter of the American innocents.

Bush then morphed into a warrior-chieftain who demanded that Afghanistan, suspected of harboring bin Ladin, deliver him to the United States. When its rulers refused without seeing evidence of his guilt, the president of the mightiest nation on earth launched hostilities against one of the world's poorest and weakest nations. American air power added to the devastation of an Afghanistan already in shambles from previous warfare. Through collateral damage from allegedly surgical strikes, bombings apparently killed as many civilians as they did Afghan fighters but the American military did topple the fanatical Taliban regime.

With media pundits hailing Bush as a conqueror, his approval ratings in public opinion polls soared as high as any on record for presidents. Then, when the occupying troops failed to find bin Laden, Bush expanded his war on terrorism to take in Al Qaeda, defined vaguely as gang or society of Islamic extremists. Next, he took on the garb of global policeman dedicated to combating third-world nations making up what he designated an axis of evil. On his list of evildoers, he placed foremost his father's old nemesis, the unsavory Saddam Hussein. For a litany of reasons but especially because this dictator possessed the potential for making nuclear and biological weapons, Bush claimed he posed a threat to American security.

Using this, other flimsy reasoning, and all the media and other powers of the presidency, Bush and his hawkish advisers, drummed up support for a preemptory strike, also called euphemistically "anticipatory self-defense," meaning in simpler language an unprovoked war against Iraq. Polls indicated a majority of Americans would support such a conflict but a small number of opponents questioned the administration's eagerness to drag the nation into another war, pointing out it no hard data to back its fluctuating charges.

Suffering from eleven years of economic sanctions more stringent than those imposed on any other nation and from constant bombing by American and British planes, mainly in the fanciful thinking of the war zealots could Iraq measure up to the menace they depicted. As arms inspectors who had been there testified, Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction capable of inflicting major harm on the United States. Critics, some American and some foreign, charged the administration with deception in its clamor for war. Most heads of foreign states, and their peoples, with the exception of Britain's Tony Blair, deplored the war mongering as immoral.

Regardless, Bush persisted, still insisting he had the power to undertake the war without the sanction of congress. He, too, cited cooked opinions of administration lawyers to bolster his case. Nonetheless, the dissenting pressure persuaded him to agree to consult congress and the United Nations before initiating hostilities. Still, he continued the saber rattling, more doggedly and with less reason than had any previous president and, for the first time, for a preemptive war.


How can we explain this presidential drive? The reasons are many but we can note a prominent few. As the power of the United States grew, so did the military power available to presidents. As philosophers have long observed, power tends to corrupt those entrusted with it. While this rule has commonly applied to despots, few American presidents have been exceptions to it. Even in a democracy in times of real or feigned crises rarely have they been able to transcend the macho impulse, in large part because military swagger, when successful, brings rewards from a public that has always admired it.

The media, presidential cultists, pundits, and even journalists and academics who termed themselves presidential historians, all praised executive activism in foreign policy. Congress, too, abetted the growth of the presidential war power by abdicating its constitutional mandate to keep that power to itself. Usually fearful of bucking a popular president, of appearing unpatriotic, or of retribution at the ballot box, legislators have gone along with executive war making. In the case of the second Bush, this lack of congressional spine appears to legitimate his appetite for war. So does the failure of legislators to question the morality of his stance.
This matter of morality is important because presidents have used their assumed war power mainly against small, weak countries incapable of fending off American might. Executives have been much more cautious in dealing with major foes, such as the Soviet Union or China. In other words, they followed the hardly moral principle of bashing the weak and accommodating the strong.

In their teaching, books, and articles historians have long stressed the moral ingredient in American democracy, depicting it as exceptional for its openness to all peoples, its acceptance of conflicting ideas, and its commitment to right over wrong. In biblical terms, historians have referred often to this democracy as the light of the world, a city set on a hill. They told students it did not embark on preemptive wars, did not punish people collectively for the transgressions of one or of a minority, and did not resort to hostilities when diplomacy could preserve peace.

The Bush administration has mocked these principles, using an ill-defined umbrella conception of terrorism as the pretext to abuse civil liberties as well as the war power. It has demonstrated once again why the founders had reason to distrust uncontrollable executive power. So far, impelled by the macho impulse, backed by hawkish advisers, encouraged by high ratings in polls, and undeterred by a supine congress that questions the timing but not the unilateral war-making itself, the president appears well on his way to launching another needless bloodletting.