The American constitutional project was an attempt to deal with the fundamental
paradox of governmentany government strong enough to protect the rights of
citizens is also strong enough to undermine those rights. War poses an especially unique
challenge to constraining Leviathan since war making tends to increase the scope and
scale of state power over almost all aspects of citizens lives. To check the states warmaking
powers, the American Founders designed a set of checks and balances through a
separation of powers. The legislative branch was empowered to declare war, and the
executive branch was empowered to serve as the commander in chief once war is
declared. As Michael Beschlosss new book Presidents of War clearly demonstrates, this
system has failed. As he notes in the opening pages, [D]uring the past two centuries,
Presidents, step by step, have disrupted the Founders design, with the result that the
life and death of much of the human race has now come to depend on the character of a
single person who happens to be the President of the United States (p. viii).
To provide insight into this process of constitutional erosion, Beschloss examines
eight presidents and the wars they oversaw. His sample includes James Madison and the
War of 1812, James Polk and the Mexican-American War, Abraham Lincoln and the
Civil War, William McKinley and the Spanish-American War, Woodrow Wilson and
World War I, Franklin Roosevelt and World War II, Harry Truman and the Korean
War, and Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War. These cases offer insight into three general correlates of war in societies with mature, constitutionally constrained
First, war making is associated with expansions in the scope of state power and the
trampling of civil liberties. Beschloss provides numerous examples of this correlate
across instances of war. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and authorized the use of
military tribunals to try citizens. Wilson implemented loyalty tests and lobbied Congress
for an espionage bill, resulting in the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of
1918, to punish disloyalty and language that demonstrated contempt for America.
Roosevelt authorized the internment of Japanese Americans, secretly gave J. Edgar
Hoover the power to engage in illegal wiretapping of domestic enemies, and ordered
military tribunals for eight German prisoners, two of whom were naturalized Americans.
In his constant search for domestic Communists, Johnson authorized the CIA to
violate its charter by engaging in illegal surveillance of U.S. citizens and infiltrating
targeted groups. As this nonexhaustive list illustrates, war making has consistently been
a means for the state to ignore constitutional constraints and trample on the civil
liberties of the domestic populace.
Second, war making is correlated with executive deception. Historically, this
deception has taken on various forms and occurred to varying degrees. As Beschloss
documents, presidents have repeatedly lied to Congress and to the American public
about the pretext for war, the costs of war, and the status of ongoing wars. He traces
war-related deception back to James Madison and the War of 1812, noting that [i]f
later Americans loathed a lack of candor and forthrightness in their wartime Presidents,
they would be justified to point an accusing finger at Madison for setting expectations
too low (p. 93). Various forms of deception played a key role in initiating and perpetuating
wars in several other cases. In at least one instanceWorld War Ideception
was formally institutionalized through a dedicated propaganda apparatus when President
Woodrow Wilson authorized the Committee on Public Information to proactively
influence public opinion in support of the war effort. In general, war making has
historically been correlated with half-truths, outright lies, and systematic secrecy by
those in power to advance their goals.
Government deception is highly problematic for a free society, even if it is
employed for supposedly noble ends. Lying by the political elite creates a culture where
the citizenry is viewed as an oppositional power that stands in the way of the executive
achieving his goals. Rather than serving the citizenry by seeking genuine consent, the
executive conceals and manipulates information so that potential opposition by citizens
is neutered. Whether this deception is well intentioned or not does not change the fact
that it reverses the relationship between citizens and the state from one in which the
former is viewed as the driving force in politics to the reverse.
Third, war making is correlated with the weakening of constitutional constraints.
A key theme of Presidents of War is that war has led to the centralization of power in the
executive branch and a disregard for legislative approval. Of the sample of eight cases of
war studied by Beschloss, three presidentsLincoln, Truman, and Johnsondid not even bother seeking congressional approval. The lack of consequences for blatantly
ignoring the Constitution make clear that the constraints on executive war making are
nothing more than ink on parchment.
Even those presidents who did seek congressional approval for warMadison,
Polk, McKinley, Wilson, and Rooseveltactively contributed to undermining the
effectiveness of the constraints on executive power. For example, Madison pushed and
deceived an ambivalent Congress to declare war, which started the long presidential
encroachment on Congresss war-making power that marked the next two centuries
(p. 92). James Polk also secured congressional approval prior to the onset of the
Mexican-American War. However, [a]s soon as Congress had declared war, Polk had
started machinating to expand [the wars] goals far beyond what the two houses had
explicitly authorized (p. 122). Moreover, neither Congress nor the American people
were informed about the portentous expansion of the wars mission (p. 123). As this
example illustrates, the separation of powers presents significant slack for discretionary
decision making by the executive, and presidents have historically been all too willing to
take advantage of the slack to achieve their goals.
Although Presidents of War does an excellent job of documenting these correlates
of war, it does have some faults. For example, Beschloss simultaneously notes
that Abraham Lincoln seized unprecedented power to address the national emergency
[the CivilWar] (p. 198) and that he did so within the democratic process
(p. 236). It is far from clear that many of Lincolns actsfor example, the blockade of
Confederate ports, the suspension of habeas corpus, the use of military tribunals, and
so onwere within the confines of the democratic process as envisioned by the
Beschloss further justifies Lincolns behavior by noting that he made clear that his
expansion of presidential authority was intended merely for the duration of the conflict
and should not be taken as a precedent either by himself in peacetime or by later
Presidents (p. 236). This attempted justification fails given that one of Beschlosss key
insights is that wartime presidents actions create institutional precedents that future
presidents could use and have used. These precedents are established even if the
president in power viewed the original action as necessary, noble, and short term.
Lincoln may have thought he was taking the right steps to end the war, and Beschloss
might agree, but that does not excuse Lincoln as a significant contributor to the step-bystep
process through which the U.S. Constitution has been eroded through war
Beschloss praises Franklin Roosevelts war effort as the catalyst of the post-
Depression economic recovery. It was Roosevelts rearmament program, he
writes, that managed to stimulate the economy and put the jobless to work (p. 433).
But as Robert Higgs has documented, the idea of wartime prosperity is a myth, and
Roosevelts policies created regime uncertainty that retarded economic recovery until
after the war ended (Depression, War, and Cold War: Challenging the Myths of Conflict
and Prosperity [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006]).
Finally, the book is written from the perspective of the eight presidents who
engaged in war. This president-centric perspective adds value by focusing on the various
dynamics that influenced presidential decision making as it pertains to war. At the same
time, however, it necessarily downplays various effects of war on other key domestic and
foreign actors. The domestic effects of war are discussed, but the full extent of the costs
imposed on ordinary citizens is downplayed relative to other topics, such as the physical
and mental health of the American presidents during their time in office.
Foreigners receive even less focus, as Beschlosss approach pays little attention to
the costs imposed on those outside Americas borders. Although Beschloss demonstrates
that constitutional constraints are flimsy domestically, it is important to keep in
mind that constitutional constraints are largely absent when the U.S. government
intervenes abroad. The result is that the U.S. government has often imposed significant
costsboth in blood and in treasureon foreigners. Presidents of War presents insight
into the domestic consequences of war making in terms of expansions of state power
and the erosion of the U.S. Constitution, but its domestic, president-centric focus
understates the global costs of U.S. wars.
Nonetheless, Beschloss poses an important challenge to the constitutional project by
documenting how the states core protective functions have historically been major
contributors to the weakening of constitutional constraints and the expansion of state
power in ways that threaten the domestic freedoms of the American populace. This is not
a recent phenomenon but instead is the result of an ongoing process of constitutional
erosion that began in the early 1800s and shows no signs of reversing anytime soon.