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The Road to War

Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed

Marvin Kalb

Publication Year: 2013

Not since Pearl Harbor has an American president gone to Congress to request a declaration of war. Nevertheless, since then, one president after another, from Truman to Obama, has ordered American troops into wars all over the world. From Korea to Vietnam, Panama to Grenada, Lebanon to Bosnia, Afghanistan to Iraq —why have presidents sidestepped declarations of war? Marvin Kalb, former chief diplomatic correspondent for CBS and NBC News, explores this key question in his thirteenth book about the presidency and U.S. foreign policy.

Instead of a declaration of war, presidents have justified their war-making powers by citing "commitments," private and public, made by former presidents. Many of these commitments have been honored, but some betrayed. Surprisingly, given the tight U.S.-Israeli relationship, Israeli leaders feel that at times they have been betrayed by American presidents. Is it time for a negotiated defense treaty between the United States and Israel as a way of substituting for a string of secret presidential commitments?

From Israel to Vietnam, presidential commitments have proven to be tricky and dangerous. For example, one president after another committed the United States to the defense of South Vietnam, often without explanation. Over the years, these commitments mushroomed into national policy, leading to a war costing 58,000 American lives. Few in Congress or the media chose to question the war's provenance or legitimacy, until it was too late. No president saw the need for a declaration of war, considering one to be old-fashioned.

The word of a president can morph into a national commitment. It can become the functional equivalent of a declaration of war. Therefore, whenever a president "commits"the United States to a policy or course of action with, or increasingly without, congressional approval, watch out —the White House may be setting the nation on a road toward war.

Published by: Brookings Institution Press

Front Cover

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p. 1-1

Inside Flap

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pp. 2-5

Title Page

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p. 6-6

Copyright Information

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pp. 7-9

Table of Contents

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

This book is one product of my time at the Brookings Institution. It would be foolhardy to list all of my colleagues there who have been so generous with their time, support, and encouragement. They know who I mean. I must, though, name Vassilis Coutifaris, whose technological wizardry always dazzled me, and Melissa Wear, ...

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pp. 1-8

Over the years, presidential commitments have come in different shapes and sizes, suggesting honor and integrity, strength and determination, the word of a president backed by the military power of the United States. No trifling matter, in diplomatic affairs. ...

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1. Truman's War in Korea

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pp. 9-26

As the United States demobilized and dramatically swung from a war-time to a peace-time economy after World War II, the Soviet Union tightened its military and ideological grip over Eastern Europe, gobbling up first Albania, then Yugoslavia, and then, in short order, from 1945 to 1947, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and East Germany. ...

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2. The Hatching of an American "Commitment"

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pp. 27-38

When Franklin D. Roosevelt died in April 1945 and Harry Truman became president, Vietnam was a problem on the periphery of America’s concerns. In time, it was to become the central problem, leading to the only war America ever lost. ...

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3. Eisenhower: "My God, We Must Not Lose Asia!"

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pp. 39-54

During the 1952 presidential campaign, the Republicans, led by a popular wartime hero, wanted to put some strategic distance between their candidate’s vision of the world and the Truman policy of “containment.” They proclaimed a new policy: Once Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, the United States would no longer just contain communist aggression, ...

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4. Kennedy: The Coup That Failed

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pp. 55-76

On January 19, 1961, when Dwight D. Eisenhower, the last of the presidents born in the nineteenth-century, was preparing to yield power to John F. Kennedy, the first of the twentieth-century presidents, he spoke a language both used and understood. It was the language of the cold war. ...

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5. Johnson: "Let Us Continue"

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pp. 77-105

“Let us continue,” proclaimed the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, two days after John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963. What Kennedy had begun, Johnson would continue—and finish. He saw himself as a tough Texan standing tall at the Alamo of America’s Vietnam policy; ...

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6. Nixon: "There Is No Way to Win This War"

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pp. 106-136

It has been argued by Otto von Bismarck, Henry Kissinger, and others that the business of statecraft should not be seen as a showcase for a nation’s morality—in fact, that morality might even be an impediment to a cold assessment of the facts. A nation, to survive, might have to engage in immoral acts, only to argue later that the highest form of morality was ultimately the survival of the nation. ...

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7. One Way or the Other: Getting Out, Finally

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pp. 137-174

China had always tantalized Richard Nixon, even before he became president. China, he knew, was more than an ancient civilization shrouded in mystery. It was, at the right time, a card to be played. ...

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8. "Honorable Exit" or "Decent Interval"

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pp. 175-198

With the election now behind him, Nixon again focused on the unfinished business of Vietnam. He did not want to start a second term with the war still unresolved. Yet, in a number of different ways, he found himself at a dead end in Vietnam. For one thing, he was certain that by February 1973, Congress would begin to cut off all funding for the war. ...

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9. The Israel Model: Unprecedented and Unpredictable

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pp. 199-224

If the U.S. relationship with South Korea has been based on a mutual defense treaty, buttressed by the presence of 28,500 troops and backed until 1991 by nuclear weapons, and if the U.S. relationship with South Vietnam was based on a string of solemn presidential commitments and a joint resolution of Congress, ...

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10. Where Are They Now?

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pp. 225-244

Since the end of World War II, the United States has made many “commitments” to defend countries considered vital to its national security interests. One such commitment was the mutual defense treaty with South Korea in the early 1950s. Like all treaties, it was ratified by the Senate, and it mushroomed into a major military obligation, ...


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pp. 245-260


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pp. 261-287

Back Cover

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p. 303-303

E-ISBN-13: 9780815724438
E-ISBN-10: 0815724438
Print-ISBN-13: 9780815724933

Page Count: 287
Publication Year: 2013