Contrary to conventional wisdom (which is invariably wrong), the United States Constitution is the nation’s strategy for greatness. The strategy entails invincible self-defense; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations; and, entangling alliances with none.
At present, that strategy means returning our troops stationed abroad back to the United States to defend we the people, not foreigners whose loyalties lie elsewhere. It means repositioning all of our air and naval forces to defend we the people, not foreigners whose loyalties lie elsewhere. It means devoting our cyber warfare capabilities to defending we the people, not foreigners whose loyalties lie elsewhere. And it means renouncing all of our treaty commitments to defend other nations militarily without congressional declarations of war.
Our national strategy of invincible self-defense; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations; and, entangling alliances with none, finds expression not in the Constitution’s text, but in its dispersal of power among the three branches.
Institutions possess distinct personalities that transcend the personalities of the occupants of the offices. These institutional personalities determine policies within a very narrow range.
The Constitution as our national strategy follows inexorably from its assignment of the war power exclusively to Congress, i.e., its prohibition of presidential wars. Article I, section 8, clause 11 empowers only the legislative branch to declare war.
The Constitution’s profound authors knew that Congress would be a “talking shop.” It would be highly risk-averse, like a dog that retreats to its kennel when danger appears. Members of Congress would have little to gain but much to lose politically by initiating war. No obelisk or monument had ever been constructed to honor a legislator’s vote for war. Legislative powers diminished during belligerency. And if the war ended in defeat or a truce because of the President’s ineptitude as commander in chief or otherwise, Members would not be able to evade political responsibility.
The Constitution’s drafters knew to a virtual certainty that Congress would only declare war in response to actual or perceived aggression against the United States, i.e., only in self-defense. Indeed, during the drafting, debating, and ratification of the Constitution, no participant conceived that the war power would ever be exercised for preemptive, preventive, humanitarian, economic, democratizing or other non-self-defense objectives.
History has vindicated the Constitution’s conception of the congressional personality. In 227 years, Congress has declared war in only five conflicts, and only in response to actual or perceived aggression against the United States: the War of 1812; the Mexican-American War; the Spanish-American War; World War I; and, World War II. The Declare War Clause required Congress to decide whether to cross the Rubicon from peace to war. Congress could not escape its responsibility by delegating the decision to the President. The June 18, 1812 Declaration of War is exemplary. It provided:
“Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States in Congress assembled, That war be and the same is hereby declared to exist between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the dependencies thereof, and the United States of America and their territories….”
The Constitution’s national strategy of wars only in self-defense and declared by Congress is vastly superior to all the alternatives that have ever been conceived or attempted. War diverts invaluable genius and resources from production to killing, which is an economic deadweight. War crushes liberty and silences the law. War breeds secrecy, which fathers fraud, waste, abuse, and crime. War subordinates civilian supremacy to tenuous claims of military necessity. War makes killings legal that would customarily be punished as first-degree murder. War makes children orphans and wives widows. War causes courageous soldiers to be slaughtered and maimed. It causes taxes to be raised or money to be borrowed to finance the war machine.
Abraham Lincoln elaborated:
“The provision of the Constitution giving the war making power to Congress was dictated…by the following reasons: kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This our convention understood to be the most oppressive of all kingly oppressions, and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us.”
Lincoln was echoing James Madison, father of the Constitution, who had lettered Thomas Jefferson:
“The constitution supposes, what the History of all Govts demonstrates, that the Ex. is the branch of power most interested in war, & most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care, vested the question of war in the Legisl. But the Doctrines lately advanced strike at the root of all these provisions, and will deposit the peace of the Country in that Department which the Constitution distrusts as most ready without cause to renounce it.”
Mr. Jefferson agreed in a letter to Mr. Madison: “We have already given in example one effectual check to the Dog of war by transferring the power of letting him loose from the Executive to the Legislative body, from those who are to spend to those who are to pay.”
James Wilson, delegate to the constitutional convention and future Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, similarly understood that depositing the war power with Congress would be the death knell to gratuitous wars. He informed the Pennsylvania Ratification Convention:
“This system will not hurry us into war; it is calculated to guard against it. It will not be in the power of a single man, or a single body of men, to involve us in such distress, for the important power of declaring war is vested in the legislature at large; — this declaration must be made with the concurrence of the House of Representatives; from this circumstance we may draw a certain conclusion, that nothing but our national interest can draw us into a war.”
The United States generally followed the Constitution’s national strategy for a century. We astonished the world with our vertical climb in riches and prosperity by devoting our energies and talents to making money in lieu of making war. We proved the prescience of Adam Smith’s instruction:
“Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice: all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things.”
But after a century, we lost our way. We were misled by the intellectual delusions and messianic ambitions of Woodrow Wilson and the rebarbative apotheosis of war and killing by Theodore Roosevelt. The former coveted war to transform the world into Camelot. The latter barked that,”[i]f there is not the war, you don’t get the great general; if there is not a great occasion, you don’t get a great statesman; if Lincoln had lived in a time of peace, no one would have known his name.” As President and commander in chief, Roosevelt warred against Filipinos fighting for self-determination in the aftermath of the Spanish-American war by employing waterboarding and perpetrating mass atrocities. The United States Senate Investigating Committee on the Philippines meticulously documented the grisly war tactics that flourished under President Roosevelt.
We ignored the warning of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams on July 4, 1821, that we could become dictatress of the world, but if we did, our policy would degenerate from liberty to coercion and domination, and we would plunge from light to darkness.
We have come full circle from fighting the empire ambitions of British King George III to embracing them. We have become the chosen people of the Old Testament bent on destroying modern counterparts of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Rephaims, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, the Jebusites, the Perizzites, the Ammonites, the Amalekites, and the Philistines.
To recapture our former greatness and prosperity attained by a national strategy of invincible self-defense; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations; and, entangling alliances with none, we need only to follow the Constitution’s entrustment of decisions on war or peace exclusively to Congress.
The Constitution’s authors were intellectual and philosophical giants that have never been equaled. In comparison, today’s leaders are pygmies.
Should we follow the giants or the pygmies?
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