Magazine article The American Conservative

The Pleasure of the President

Magazine article The American Conservative

The Pleasure of the President

Article excerpt

The Pleasure of the President [Commander in Chief: How Truman, Johnson, and Bush Turned a Presidential Power into a Threat to America's Future, Geoffrey Perret, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 436 pages]

I SUSPECT THAT the title of Geoffrey Perret's excellent new book was the work of his publisher. The reader will not find here an evaluation of the Constitution's commander-in-chief clause, followed by example after relentless example of its expansion or distortion, or even a conclusion that wraps up the story and ties the experiences of these three presidents together.

Yet this book is none the worse for all that This is a chronicle of half a century of presidential supremacy, told primarily through the presidencies of Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and George W. Bush, that reads more like a novel than a dissertation. And although Perret obviously considers Bush the worst of the lot, the history this book imparts suggests that we've been through it all before-the recklessness, the stupidity, the bull-in-a-china-shop foreign policy.

It is interesting to evaluate some of the earliest Cold War claims that emanated from Washington in light of the barrage of Pentagon and White House propaganda to which Americans have been subject since the Iraq War. Our recent experience is not such an anomaly after all. We now know that the extent of the Soviet threat around 1950 was far less severe than Americans were led to believe and that American officials trumped up the threat in order to secure the congressional appropriations they wanted. In a telegram of March 1, 1948, for example, U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union Walter Bedell Smith told Secretary of State George Marshall, "Full information and explanation to our own Congress of significance of recent Soviet moves in Czechoslovakia and Finland may result in speeding consideration and adoption of universal military training and building programs for Army, Navy, and particularly Air Force." "The next day," writes Perret, "a full-blown war scare was put together over lunch by Marshall and Secretary of Defense [James] Forrestal."

Meanwhile, the director of the CIA was reporting, "We do not believe that this event [consolidation of Soviet control over Czechoslovakia] reflects any sudden increase in Soviet capabilities, more aggressive intentions, or any change to current Soviet policy and tactics." Marshall ignored him.

Yet even Marshall himself, who seized upon the incident as evidence of aggressive Soviet intentions, privately conceded, "In the last three years Czechoslovakia has faithfully followed the Soviet policy. ... A communist regime would merely crystallize and confirm for the future previous Czech policy."

Gen. Lucius Clay, who oversaw the American zone of occupation in Germany and commanded U.S. forces in Europe, obligingly provided a telegram, whose contents he did not believe for a single moment, that in light of this event, war with the Soviet Union "may come with dramatic suddenness." The head of Army intelligence had asked Clay to issue such a statement in order to grease the skids for the reinstatement of the draft, which Congress was then resisting.

Commander in Chief does contain an excellent if brief discussion of presidential war powers and the framers' views on the subject. It also addresses the claim that even before Truman went to war over Korea in 1950, previous presidents had initiated military force countless times without congressional authorization and that Truman's behavior was therefore not all that unusual. In 1960, Dean Acheson and the State Department prepared a list containing scores of such alleged cases. "Nearly all were trifling incidents in places from China to the Caribbean," Perret points out, "where Americans had got themselves into a jam and a corporal's guard of soldiers or marines got them out of it. Not one of them was, or even approached becoming, a major war. It was as spurious a document as Acheson ever concocted. …

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