On Monday, an op-ed by historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. appeared in the Washington Post. In it, Schlesinger condemned the doctrine of preemptive war--which he referred to as "preventive war"--which informed President Bush's decision to take the United States to war in Iraq and which Schlesinger points out, lays behind the President's willingness to consider war with Iran.
The issue of preventive war as a presidential prerogative is hardly new. In February 1848 Rep. Abraham Lincoln explained his opposition to the Mexican War: "Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose -- and you allow him to make war at pleasure [emphasis added]. . . . If, today, he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, 'I see no probability of the British invading us'; but he will say to you, 'Be silent; I see it, if you don't.' "The point I want to make here isn't political, but historical. Schlesinger's entire argument hinges on a statement made by Abraham Lincoln back when he served as a one-term Whig congressman from Illinois.
This is precisely how George W. Bush sees his presidential prerogative: Be silent; I see it, if you don't. However, both Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, veterans of the First World War, explicitly ruled out preventive war against Joseph Stalin's attempt to dominate Europe. And in the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, President Kennedy, himself a hero of the Second World War, rejected the recommendations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for a preventive strike against the Soviet Union in Cuba.
Any sensible person knows that there are legitimate reasons to debate the wisdom of preventive or preemptive wars. But Lincoln's may not be the best voice to invoke in such a debate.
By way of background, the Mexican War was surely one of the more sordid and less justifiable actions in our country's history. The US and Mexico had long been at odds over their boundaries. But things came to a boiling point when the newly-independent Republic of Texas was invited to apply for admission into the Union. Mexico was incensed by this action and the border disputes between the two countries heated up, focused on the Texas claim that its territory extended to the Rio Grande. Mexico said that Texas was bound on the south by the Nuences River.
James K. Polk, the Democratic President of the United States, was an ardent believer in "Manifest Destiny." So, he told General (later President) Zachary Taylor to take his troops into the area south of the Nuences claimed by Mexico.
A diplomatic impasse, provoked by intransigence on both sides, ensued. On May 9, 1846, Polk's cabinet--at this time, the US President's cabinet had much more influence than it does today--agreed with Polk's desire to seek a declaration of war against Mexico and added their weight to his recommendation.
But on May 10, it was learned that just fifteen days earlier, on April 25, a large Mexican force had crossed over the Rio Grande and assaulted a smaller US force. Eleven Americans were killed, while the rest of their number was captured, some of them being wounded. Polk took the unusual step of asking Congress not for a declaration of war, but a recognition that because Mexico had "shed blood upon the American soil," a state of war, initiated by Mexico, already existed. (This is similar to the wording of the declaration that Congress passed after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Of course, in this latter case, there can be no doubt that the Japanese were the aggressors and that their attack was, as President Franklin Roosevelt characterized it, "unprovoked.") Clearly, Polk wanted to take the moral high ground in the conflict, claiming that the US was the innocent victim of Mexican aggression, that Mexican forces had invaded the United States.
The war ended in less than two years, with several of the major battles having been fought and won even before Polk's declaration was passed by Congress on May 13.
Abraham Lincoln came to Congress after the war had ended. Because it had resulted in a quick victory for the US, the war was wildly popular. But Lincoln determined, as he told his friend and law partner William Herndon, to make a name for himself by challenging the legality of the Mexican War.
Specifically, he questioned President Polk's claim that the war had begun with the shedding of blood on American soil. (Because he insisted on knowing the spot where this took place, Lincoln became known as Spotty Lincoln.) Lincoln introduced resolutions into the Congress calling for the President to explain himself and gave several speeches in which he employed uncharacteristically shrill rhetoric, a contrast to Lincoln's lifelong penchant for cool reason. The thrust of his argument was that if American blood was shed on Mexican soil, then the President's entire rationale for going to war was bogus. The United States would prove to be the aggressor. The President, Lincoln argued, did not have the right to incite war.
The result of his pressing this case was disastrous for Lincoln, though. Predictably, Democrats condemned his resolutions and his arguments. But in his home state of Illinois, where the war had been especially popular, Lincoln suffered condemnation, even from his fellow Whigs. Herndon received a rather acid letter from Lincoln, testily refuting his arguments against Lincoln's resolutions.
Lincoln, says one of his finest biographers, David Herbert Donald, felt that Herndon and other of his fellow Whigs "...failed to understand the real intent of his attack on Polk. Now that the fighting was over and the peace treaty was expected in Washington momentarily, the only purpose that Lincoln and other Whigs had for assailing the President's course in beginning the war was political. Their object was to hurt the Democrats in the next presidential election... [italics added by me]
Donald goes on to point out:
They [Lincoln and his Whig allies] were aware that this course entailed a considerable risk; attacking the President's actions in beginning the war might easily be misunderstood as opposing the war itself. Whigs with a long memory knew how dangerous this position could be. When someone asked Justin Butterfield, a leading Chicago Whig, whether he would condemn the Mexican War as he had once denounced the War of 1812, he responded, "No, indeed! I opposed one war and it ruined me. From now on I am for war, pestilence, and famine."This was the conclusion that Lincoln seems to have reached. Donald says that Lincoln and the other young Whig congressmen with whom he was allied on this issue could avoid being labeled anti-war while working to draft the hero of the Mexican War, General Taylor, to be the Whig nominee for President. They got Taylor nominated, but Lincoln was nonetheless badly wounded politically. When he went back to Illinois after one term in Congress, something to which he had earlier agreed with several other would-be representatives from his district, he couldn't even nail down a federal job he wanted.
Years later, of course, Lincoln's career rebounded. But as Doris Kearns Goodwin remarks in her wonderful joint biography of Lincoln and his cabinet:
Both [New York pol and Lincoln secretary of State William] Seward and Lincoln agreed that "one fundamental principle of politics is to be always on the side of your country in a war. It kills any party to oppose a war." As, indeed, Lincoln knew from his own experience in opposing the Mexican War.The point? Schlesinger may be right in opposing preventive or preemptive war. But he doesn't buttress his case by advancing Lincoln's ex post facto campaign against the Mexican War. Lincoln was always laudably shrewd as a politician. (It's one of the things I admire about him.) But in this instance, he was demonstrably cynical. He may not have even believed in what he was saying.
Schlesinger is surely one of our most eminent historians, although his Thousand Days puff job of John Kennedy is poor history. But in this case, he should go back to the drawing board and get his arguments from someone who has genuinely argued against preemptive war.
[This begins a new occasional series in which I look at rhetoric or ideas that are historically rooted and look at the history behind them.]
[Thanks to John Schroeder of Blogotional for linking to this post.]