Presidents at War: From Truman to Bush, The Gathering of Military Powers To Our Commanders in Chief

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9780471696551: Presidents at War: From Truman to Bush, The Gathering of Military Powers To Our Commanders in Chief
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The Korean War, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, Cambodia, Lebanon, El Salvador, Grenada, Iran-Contra, Nicaragua, Panama, the Gulf War, Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq

What do these events and scores of others have in common? Each of these wars, incursions, invasions, and covert actions was undertaken by the United States without the benefit of a declaration of war. Where congressional sanction was sought, it usually took the form of a resolution, frequently issued after the fact.

Presidents at War is the first book to examine all of America's post-World War II military actions through the lens of the president's authority as commander in chief. Author Gerald Astor analyzes the various presidents' rationales for undeclared warfare, from Truman's citing of an international agreement (the United Nations) to Eisenhower's domino theory, to Kennedy's defense of the Monroe Doctrine, to bald assertions of authority by a commander in chief because of fears of communist expansion, threats to oil in the Middle East, humanitarian concerns in the Balkans, or provocations by terrorists. Each commander in chief served as a precedent for those who followed. Astor contends this cumulative process was accelerated by the September 11, 2001, attacks that led to the war on terrorism, the invasion of Iraq to oust the cruel regime of Saddam Hussein for his alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction, and the potential trampling of civil liberties in the United States.

Has the president become free to take military action on the slightest whim? Is it now true that, as Richard Nixon said, ""If the president does it, then it is not illegal""? Is the Constitution obsolete? And does Congress have the tools with which to curb this seemingly unbridled power? Read Presidents at War and find out.

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From the Inside Flap:

"It is now established as an irreversible precedent, that the President of the United States has but to declare that War exists, with any Nation upon Earth, by act of that Nation's Government, and the War is essentially declared."
—John Quincy Adams on the start of the Mexican War

The Constitution is clear: the president is commander in chief of the armed forces, but Congress alone has the power to declare war. Yet, while war has been declared war only five times since the nation's birth, American forces have taken part in more than two hundred armed conflicts, large and small, overt and covert, on orders from the commander in chief.

In Presidents at War, military historian Gerald Astor examines the history and evolution of the president's most crucial role. Focusing on the period following World War II, he traces the history of America's post-war conflicts and asks probing questions about the meaning and import of each event. Did the president overstep his authority? Could Congress have prevented the commander in chief's actions? Is the Constitution, despite its apparent clarity, deliberately ambiguous on these matters? Does the United States' role as a superpower nullify constitutional restraints and laws enacted by Congress on a president's executive authority?

Drawing on new interviews with current and former members of Congress, unpublished oral histories by senior military officers, official papers, and other literature, Astor analyzes presidential justification for the United States' military adventures. His investigation deals with major actions, such as Truman's "police action" in Korea and George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, as well as limited and covert measures, including Kennedy's Bay of Pigs invasion and Ronald Reagan's support for the Contras in El Salvador. While each of these presidents offered specific reasons for each action, an overriding theme emerges: as commander in chief, the president has assumed he has the authority to direct American military and paramilitary actions as he sees fit.

At the center of Astor's discussion are the Vietnam War, which involved four successive presidents, and an escalating series of actions taken under the commander-in-chief authority by George W. Bush in the current war in Iraq. Even more troubling, many of the commander in chief's specific justifications for and descriptions of these actions are now known to have been exaggerated or even false.

Are there no limits on a commander in chief's power to take military action without congressional consultation? Would any such limitation endanger the nation in times of crisis? Astor makes numerous suggestions that would allow Congress to exercise its constitutional obligations without hamstringing the president during an emergency.

Few issues have a greater impact on the United States and the world than the president's prerogative to take military action. Presidents at War is the only book that tackles this complex and singularly important subject head on.

About the Author:

A former magazine writer and editor, GERALD ASTOR has published twenty-four books, twelve on World War II, including The Jungle War: Mavericks, Marauders, and Madmen in the China-Burma-India Theater of World War II, also available from Wiley. He lives in Scarsdale, New York.

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