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When it comes to war, American leaders have a long history of deceiving the public. In light of the Congressional introduction of the Executive Accountability Act in 2009, scholar Louis Fisher examines a record of misleading statements by US presidents used to justify conflicts, including the Mexican-American, Spanish-American, Vietnam, and Iraq wars.

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The Executive Accountability Act would have prohibited presidents, vice presidents, and other Executive Office officials “from knowingly and willfully misleading Congress of the United States for the purpose of gaining support for the use of force by the Armed Forces of the United States.” This, Fisher argues, would have pleased the Founders.

“They knew the danger of executive wars,” he writes. “They understood that executive military initiatives threaten the legislative powers of war and spending and undermine popular government.”

Take John Jay. In the Federalist, Jay wrote “Absolute monarchs will often make war when their nations are to get nothing by it, but for purpose and objects merely personal.” There were too many historical cases of a sovereign, Jay continued, engaging “in wars not sanctified by justice or the voice and interests of his people.”

Jay also warned about causes of war that were “pretended.” In his May 11, 1846, message to Congress, President James K. Polk pretended that Mexican forces had invaded US territory and shed American blood. He further claimed, notes Fisher, that a state of war existed between Mexico and the US. But it wasn’t American territory: the US had sent soldiers into Mexican territory. And no state of war existed because Congress had not (yet) declared it. There was Congressional pushback on these points, but not enough: Congress declared war two days later, putting the blame squarely on Mexico—“Whereas, by the act of the Republic of Mexico, a state of war exists.”

Congress would develop a backbone by early January 1848, when the House passed a resolution censuring Polk for “unnecessarily and unconstitutionally” beginning the war. One of those who voted in support of the censure was Representative Abraham Lincoln. Polk backed down from his claim that the initial battle had been on American soil, but the war was over. Just as Polk had wanted, the US significantly expanded its territory in the southwest at Mexico’s expense.

The casus belli, or justification, for the Spanish American War was the explosion that sank the battleship USS Maine in Havana’s harbor on February 15, 1898, writes Fisher. When President William McKinley charged Spain with an attack via an underwater mine, “Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain!” became the war’s rallying cry.

But was it a Spanish attack or the result of the appalling design of the Maine, which set up highly flammable coal bunkers next to weapons magazines? Since the mid-1970s, reviews of the disaster have pointed to an interior explosion as the cause of the Maine’s sinking. Maybe the slogan should be remembered as: to hell with Spain, navy contractors sunk the Maine.

But once again, the judgement of history was too late.

The events that rationalized Congressional passage of the August 1964 Tonkin Gulf resolution, which gave President Lyndon B. Johnson virtual carte blanche in Vietnam, were extremely murky at the time. Years later, Johnson’s former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara would say that the casus belli had not even taken place, Fisher writes. And who can forget Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, which turned out not to exist—just as the UN’s team on the ground before the 2003 invasion had said.

Only Congress can declare war. It has only done so five times in American history, the last time for WWII. Yet a list of armed conflicts involving the US numbers more than 100. Of course, legal declarations may seem beside the point for, say, the combined 92,000-plus Americans who died during the Korean “Police Action” (1950–1953) and the Vietnam “Conflict” (1955–1975).

That 2009 act never became law. While false statements before any of the three branches of government are illegal under the False Statements Act, proving that someone is knowingly and willfully misleading about a war can be difficult to prove, especially in the heat of war.

“Although recent presidents (Truman, Johnson, Bush II) have been chewed up by failed military commitments,” writes Fisher, “the aura remains that in order to be a great president, the occupant of the White House must be a war president.”

And sometimes, clearly, you have to start one to get one.

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Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 40, No. 1, Ethics and the Presidency (March 2010), pp. 171–184
Wiley on behalf of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress