Who can declare war?
Ruth Rosen, USA
September 15, 2002
Once, I was a history professor. For a quarter of a century, I taught American history to thousands of undergraduates. Regardless of the subject matter, I was passionate about helping my students appreciate the
unmatched brilliance of the U.S. Constitution.
Some students, aware of my lifelong devotion to civil rights and feminist causes, wondered why I seemed so uncritical of a document that enshrined slavery and denied women citizenship. Still others, who knew nothing about me, sneered at my "naive and patriotic" attachment to what one student described as "a bunch of old papers."
I'd explain that our Constitution—despite our nation's frequent violations of its ideals—established the principles by which we ended slavery and granted women suffrage. I'd remind them that the Constitution
guarantees civil rights and liberties that deserve our defense and dedication. Some students would get it; others would fuss with their cell phones.
Now it turns out that many other historians feel the same as I do. Tuesday, Sept. 17, is Constitution Day, an obscure holiday that is rarely celebrated. This year, it will get noticed. A delegation of American
historians will present members of Congress with a petition reminding them of their constitutional duty to debate and vote on whether or not to declare war on Iraq.
Organized just weeks ago by Joyce Appleby and Ellen Carol DuBois, two UCLA >history professors, the petition drive received an enthusiastic and
overwhelming response from historians across the political spectrum. So far, 1,221 American historians from 50 states have signed the 131-word petition, which will be presented at noon on Capitol Hill.
Joyce Appleby, past president of both of the country's two major historical associations, wants President Bush—as well as the American people—to know that it is not sufficient that he "consult" with Congress. "The power to declare war," she points out, "rests with Congress, not the executive. Nor can Congress evade its grave responsibility to vote on declaring war by holding hearings and passing
Many Americans, alas, have never read the Constitution. If they had, they would realize that our founding fathers, above all, feared the tyranny of
concentrated power. So they came up with the brilliant solution of balancing the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. In Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution, for example, the founders
specifically balanced the president's power as commander-in-chief with Congress's responsibility to declare war.
"We believe it is particularly urgent," reads the historians' petition, "that Congress reassert its authority at this time since an attack on Iraq, if made, would be an American initiative. Since there was no discussion of Iraq during the 2000 presidential campaign, the election of George W. Bush cannot be claimed as a mandate for an attack. Only a debate
by Americans' elected representatives can engage the public in a serious consideration of the costs, risks and wisdom of such a war. At the very time that people around the world are restive under despotic governments, we should be showing how a democracy works."
Many Americans apparently do not remember who has the power to declare war. "It is striking," Appleby told me, "that after a half century of the Cold War's covert operations and proxy wars that few remember that the Constitution unequivocally gives the war-making powers to Congress."
It's not that this country never declares war. But ever since the end of World War II, we've only declared war on intractable social problems such as poverty and drugs, not when actual military force is used.
Americans are justly famous for their historical amnesia. We are a nation of immigrants, focused on the future, infatuated with the next new thing. But we ignore our cherished political traditions at our peril.
Perhaps, as Appleby suggests, it will take "citizens and citizen-historians, with their cultivated memory of American traditions, to bring the nation back to the rules that have given democracy its strength and stability." If so, let's hope the president and Congress are listening.
Ruth Rosen is an editorial writer and columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.
From the San Francisco Chronicle, September 15, 2002. Copyright 2002 SF Chronicle