When Washington burned

Conventional wisdom says the country comes together during wartime. But that has not always been the case, says historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. -- not even when the British torched the nation's capital in 1812.

By Jeff Horwitz

Published September 2, 2004 11:23PM (EDT)

In an election where partisans on both sides claim the future of American democracy is on the line, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. is entitled to offer some historical advice. Only a few months shy of his 87th birthday, the former advisor to President Kennedy has spent his career defending liberal democracy from Nazism, Communism and its own excesses.

For Americans who see Bush's unilateral foreign policy in apocalyptic terms, Schlesinger's new book, "War and the American Presidency," is a reminder that the executive branch has a history of embroiling the country in global wars under suspect circumstances.

"War customarily expands presidential power," Schlesinger warns. "The imperial presidency has been born again, with its usual cavalier attitude toward due process and individual freedom."

Thomas Jefferson, for example, didn't let his belief in limited executive authority stop him from starting the Barbary War without even informing Congress.

When Schlesinger talks about current events, he usually ends up speaking about American history, and when he talks of the Bush administration, he is worried.

Salon spoke to Schlesinger by phone on Thursday.

A long-standing perception in our country is that after an attack, we come together, dissent stops, and we firmly back the war effort. Does American history support that claim?

Not at all. FDR was a very popular president, but in the midterm congressional elections in 1942, which the interventionists tried to make a "win the war Congress," he lost a lot of seats in the House and some seats in the Senate. And the pre-Pearl Harbor isolationists and America First'ers like Hamilton Fish, in FDR's own district, were returned to office. So it wasn't an antiwar thing, it wasn't a pro-Japanese or pro-German thing, it was anti-Roosevelt.

During the War of 1812, New England states felt they were descendants of Britain, and the trade embargo with the British handicapped them economically. The states joined together in resisting, and very few New England governors assisted the Army by providing it with state militias.

Indeed, even when the British troops invaded Washington, burned the White House, that did not excite the country. People did not fall into line behind the president -- historian Sam Morison said it was the most unpopular war in American history, even including the Vietnam War.

You note in "War and the American President" that the executive branch -- from Jefferson to Kennedy -- has frequently lied to Congress about its military endeavors. Was the Bush administration's use of inflated evidence to make the case for the Iraq war similar?

Yes, and there are plenty of other cases when presidents have done that. Jefferson, for example, sent a naval squadron into the Mediterranean under secret orders to fight pirates in the Barbary War. His administration then misled Congress as to the nature of his orders, he engaged in rearmament without congressional appropriations, withheld information from Congress, and invoked Locke's doctrine of emergency prerogative -- that is to say the law of self preservation -- to justify action beyond congressional authorizations.

Early presidencies did not have a CIA but they dealt in covert action against foreign states and did so without congressional knowledge or authorization. Both Madison and Monroe used covert action to facilitate the annexation of Florida.

But the lead-up to the Iraq war wasn't quite the same, right? This time, there was a chance to debate the war in Congress first, but the opposition was pretty quiet.

I think Congress has an inferiority complex regarding the president's foreign policy, and particularly military affairs. It assumes that the president has superior knowledge and sources of information, and Congress yields its authority to the president because, well, they don't want to be in the line of fire.

And honestly, as Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers, the nature of war leads to an increase in executive authority and a surrender of Congress's prerogatives. For example, there hasn't been an official declaration of war made since 1941, though there were unofficial authorizations in the case of the Tonkin Resolution and the first Gulf War. So even though the exclusive authority to declare war was rested by the founding fathers in the Congress, that power has suffered erosion. It has been eaten away.

If the authority to make war always gets abdicated to the president, why was it necessary for Bush to get a congressional resolution authorizing him to invade Iraq?

I think that Bush, wisely from his point of view, introduced the resolution to authorize war. Like many presidents, Bush said that a congressional resolution was unnecessary. But by embracing the resolution, he cut the ground out from under the opposition to the war. And it worked. Except for 23 Democrats -- led by Sens. Byrd and Kennedy -- every Democrat, Including Kerry and Edwards, voted for the war.

Since the executive branch traditionally does a power grab and Congress rolls over, should we write off what the Bush administration is doing right now as business as usual?

Well, one thing thats different is that the Bush administration has evoked presidential authority to suppress due process. For example, American citizens have been detained without charges, without due process of law. And Jefferson and Madison did not imprison people without due process. Lincoln did. But that was a civil war.

It's the collateral damage wrought to our civil liberties and our system of justice that distinguishes the Bush presidency from that of other misleading presidents. I think Bush honestly believed there were weapons of mass destruction. He must have said, "They're buried somewhere, they're concealed, and lets sharpen our investigation and we'll find out where they are." It's that sort of thinking that percolated down into Abu Ghraib. The detention and torture of those prisoners is a blot on the American cause.

I think the Congress and the media have been delinquent in their explorations of Abu Ghraib. For two or three years, theres been an exchange of memoranda that kept expanding the limits of interrogation, stating how interrogations could be pushed to the extreme. We never heard anything about it.

The torture case is a singular case, and the State Department announced the other day that more documents had been stamped secret than every before. But regardless of whos in the White House, the secrecy of the imperial presidency rarely protects vital secrets. It protects incompetence and stupidity and absurdity in the government.

Why are the Geneva Convention protocols so "singular" in this case?

There are three reasons why we shouldnt fool around with the Geneva conventions -- the first is to protect American soldiers who are prisoners of war. The second is that information yielded by torture is very often unreliable. The third is the heart of darkness -- exposing our troops to torture is corrupting and incriminating. I think the revelations of Abu Ghraib have made Americans even more hated and feared around the world.

You note in the book that even with its military and diplomatic powers concentrated in the executive branch, America cant get what it wants from other countries. Why is that and how does it apply to Iraq?

The Roman Empire, British Empire and French Empire of the 19th century were empires in the old sense that they really ruled. The American empire is sort of a feeble imitation. We become virtual prisoners of our client states because we are unwilling to enforce our authority through military or economic action. We were the virtual prisoners of the Saigon government 40 years ago during the Vietnam War, and we became the virtual prisoners of Tel Aviv.

It's impressive. Were the only military superpower in the world that can't even persuade Latin America to do our bidding. Canada is irritating in its independence; and we can't persuade those little islands in the Caribbean to deny refuge to Aristide. We cant even significantly reduce American aid to Israel, Egypt, Pakistan, Taiwan, South Korea, or the Philippines. Our client states know that they can defy or deny any instruction because we cant afford the internal political consequences of drastic intervention in another countrys affairs. Americans simply are not competent imperialists.

You say that historically the United States always "hates ourselves in the morning" after we allow an imperial president to abuse his power. Do you think we'll hate ourselves after waking up to what Bush has done?

Well, theres a lengthy history of us doing just that. The Red Scare from the first World War, for example. The Wilson administration arrested a lot of people, sent them to prison, including Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party candidate, and deported some others of foreign birth. After the war, people began to wonder what the actual threat had been and we hated ourselves in the morning. As a result, the American Civil Liberties Union was founded and Holmes and Brandeis led the judicial reaction.

After the Second World War, we finally paid reparations to the Japanese who had been interned. After the Civil War, the Supreme Court regarded Mulligan [a case in which a Confederate sympathizer from Indiana was imprisoned without charges] as a miscarriage of justice.

I think the best current example might be the Patriot Act -- its excesses are a lot like those of the Alien and Sedition Acts. In fact, the spinmeisters of 1798 should have called the Alien and Sedition Acts "the Patriot Act." America was engaged in undeclared naval warfare against France at the time, but afterward, the Alien and Sedition acts were quickly repented as an overreaction to criticism of government.

We overreact and then were sorry. Panic is not a wise basis for judgment. I think it will happen like that again. The rather conservative Supreme Court has already rebuked the imperial president by ruling that the Guantánamo prison detainees are subject to due process.

However, as we've seen, the great virtue of democracy is its capacity for self-correction.

Jeff Horwitz

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