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In the age of the imperial presidency, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that, in the totality of American history, a powerful chief executive has been the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, until the mid-twentieth century, the most powerful person in peacetime American governments was the Speaker of the House of Representatives rather than the president. Prior to World War II, presidential power was ascendant only during wartime. It is no mistake that the three men commonly cited as our greatest presidents also led the nation through its three most important wars.
The image of George Washington as president is inseparable from his role in the American Revolution. Abraham Lincoln is remembered for his role in preserving the Union through the Civil War; other aspects of his presidency are largely ignored. Although Franklin Roosevelt accumulated considerable personal power during the 1930’s, he will be remembered for guiding the United States through World War II in the 1940’s.
George W. Bush often refers to himself as the “Commander in Chief” rather than simply the “President” or the “Chief Executive”.
This reflects President Bush’s acknowledgement of the fact that “Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces” is the most concentrated and unchecked power that a president is granted under the constitution. Any student of history is aware that a president is far more powerful when he is perceived to be not just a chief executive but a commander in chief. In other words, for a president to be historically powerful, there must be a war on.
The watershed moment for the imperial American presidency was the aftermath of World War II.
After every prior American war, the nation had demobilized, the president had assumed his traditional, more limited portfolio, and the Congress had reestablished its position as the pivotal branch of the federal government. After World War II, however, and especially after the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, there was no demobilization. Instead, the executive branch of the federal government underwent an overhaul and reorganization that irreversibly changed the nature of the presidency and of the United States itself.
President Truman would mold a policy that was without precedent in American history; this policy would call for large standing armies in peacetime, a radically strengthened and centralized executive, and a willingness to project American force around the world, at times without direct congressional approval. The underlying logic to this revolution in American government was the need to contain the expansionist designs of the Soviet Union. In 1947, the National Security Act created the CIA, the Department of Defense, and the National Security Council.
This creation of a spy agency, a permanent standing army, and a radically strengthened executive changed forever the nature of American government. After the National Security Act of 1947, a permanent war footing, or at least a war psychology, settled over Washington, D. C. Although the United States was technically at peace more often than not for the rest of the century, the president’s identity as “commander in chief” maintained a gravity that simply would have been impossible in prior periods.
One mitigating factor in this shift was the logistical realities of modern warfare, embodied most purely and terribly by nuclear weapons. The incomparable damage that such weapons could exact, and the relative speed with which they could be delivered, precluded consultations between the President and the Congress under many feasible scenarios. This inevitably strengthened the latitude and increased the responsibility of the chief executive, who could become the commander in chief, responsible for the physical survival of the United States, at any given moment.
The psychological shift was just as important as the revolution in weaponry. For the first time the United States, or at least its leadership, perceived itself to be under siege even in the absence of a hot war. The idea of a global and aggressive Soviet menace led to a willingness in American leaders to interpret local and isolated conflicts as part of a broader communist conspiracy that must be contained by a massive American military machine.
Human nature being what it is, the unprecedented size and power of the Pentagon made it far easier for American presidents to order the use of force, which in turn consolidated their power as active “commanders in chief”. From 1947 through 1991, the United States fought two major wars in Korea and Vietnam, but the overarching Cold War solidified the idea that the president’s primary and permanent role was to serve as commander in chief. This notion would have known no place in America prior to World War II.
The nation was founded on a well-reasoned fear of centralized executives and the nation had spent most of its early history avoiding such pitfalls. During the Cold War, it embraced this pitfall as an unfortunate necessity, if not a virtue. At the end of the Cold War, there was talk of a “peace dividend” which would allow for radically reduced defense spending and, by implication, a more restrained presidency. The Gulf War of 1991 arrived just in time to forestall any radical lurch in that direction.
During the Clinton administration, the presidency remained powerful, and the United States carried out several military operations from Haiti to Kosovo. The strength of the presidency was only magnified by the fact that the United States was now the only global superpower. The 9/11 attacks, of course, put America on an indefinite war footing analogous to the Cold War. George W. Bush declared with what looked to some as great excitement that he was a “war president”.
Since the United States has been at war in Afghanistan and Iraq for six years, Bush’s personal power has been established by stressing his identity as commander in chief, identifying the defense of the United States as his most important task. Another issue that has risen out of Bush’s embrace of the imperial presidency is how such power is exercised domestically as opposed to internationally. President Bush and his attorneys have argued that the United States is involved in a war in which all of the Earth, including the United States, is the “battlefield”.
This means, according to their arguments, that the president’s power as commander in chief applies just as much in the United States as anywhere else. This dubious and dangerous idea has led to unwarranted surveillance of American citizens in the United States, indefinite detention without charge or legal representation for anyone identified by the commander in chief as an “enemy combatant”, and the use of “enhanced interrogation” on detainees, which any honest person would call torture.
These draconian measures are best embodied in the Military Commission Act of 2006, which effectively suspends Habeas Corpus and all subsequent legal rights to any individual declared an enemy on the sole authority of the commander in chief. The domestic and international conditions which prevailed when the founding fathers wrote the constitution are obviously no longer valid. It is a testament to the genius of these men that the American system has lasted as long as it has.
While certain changes are necessary and inevitable over the decades and the centuries, I am personally very uncomfortable with the level of power that is concentrated in the modern presidency, especially as manifested by the Bush administration. The current administration is the embodiment of the danger inherent in so much power being vested in a single person. After World War II, new global realities called for a more robust presidency, but the balance that was struck with varying degrees of success throughout the Cold War is absent from the current situation.
The Military Commission Act of 2006 allows the President to kidnap an American citizen, hold him in prison without charging him with a crime, letting him see a lawyer or a judge, or telling his family where he is, torture him, and never release him. This is not hyperbole; it is now allowable under American law. Most people with respect for human dignity and for the American constitution can agree that this is not the America we want to live in. “A democracy cannot wage war. When you go to war, you pass a law giving extraordinary powers to the President.
The people of the country assume when the emergency is over, the rights and powers that were temporarily delegated to the Chief Executive will be returned to the states, counties and to the people. ” –General Walter Bedell Smith (Weiner 189).
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