Historical Regression

The same phenomenon may be at work in Arthur M. Schlesinger’s most recent book. This iconic scholar has perhaps done more to contribute to our understanding of the American presidency than any other living historian. In War and the American Presidency, Schlesinger tries to answer some big questions about the presidency and war powers. But he never gets very far–he is just too steamed to get much beyond venting.

That is not to say that War and the American Presidency is a dull read. With his trademark elegance, the dean of American historians blasts the Bush administration for its embrace of preventive war and its zeal in consolidating power within the executive branch. The White House, he writes, has gone well beyond historical precedent, and overstepped even constitutional bounds. “Since we arrogate to ourselves the exclusive right to wage preventive war, we ignore the dark warning of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams against going abroad ‘in search of monsters to destroy,'” he warns. “When we initiate war unilaterally, we set the republic up as the world’s judge, jury, and executioner. The direct consequence is that never before in American history has the United States been so feared and hated by the rest of the world.”

Nor has Schlesinger lost his knack for finding a historical nugget that informs the contemporary situation. He notes, for instance, that presidents Truman and Eisenhower rejected preventive war out of hand. (Truman scoffed that “You don’t prevent anything by war except peace.”) And he points out that while there are famous cases of American presidents undertaking constitutionally dubious measures during times of conflict–Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 decision to launch an undeclared war in the North Atlantic–there was an equally long-standing tradition among these presidents that such measures were generally understood as emergency powers, not as inherent rights of the president. (One great exception, of course, was Richard Nixon, as Schlesinger argued in an earlier work, The Imperial Presidency.)

But in contrast to that book and the other richly detailed studies Schlesinger has produced over the years, this book is rather slight–it runs a modest 141 pages. The short chapters read more like extended op-eds than scholarly analysis, and it is clear that the author is writing from the gut. Typical is this lament: “Looking back over the forty years of the Cold War, we can be everlastingly grateful that the loonies…were powerless. By 2003, however, they ran the Pentagon.”

It is hard for liberals not to write from the gut about this administration, but for a historian of Schlesinger’s erudition, this disposition means a wasted opportunity. He strews interesting anecdotes about executive power and American foreign policy haphazardly throughout the text without any cohesive analysis as to undercut any sustained argument. His cases do not add up to a larger argument that readers could apply to central questions about government and war-making powers today. He could have used his discussion of the Cold War phenomenon of the imperial presidency, for example, to weigh in on whether post-Sept. 11 America will see the kind of long-term buildup of executive branch muscle that the Cold War produced. Instead, he launches into a rather sudden critique of the state of civil liberties under Attorney General John Ashcroft before making another abrupt turn to discuss whether Americans are natural imperialists. (They are not, he concludes.) Later in the book, Schlesinger randomly devotes a chapter to plug an idea that he promoted after the 2000 presidential election: a reform of the electoral college so that the winner of the popular vote wins an additional 102 “bonus” votes. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, but it doesn’t have much to do with presidential war powers, either.

Schlesinger merely dabbles with questions that desperately need his full attention. If preventative war lacks precedent in American history, what made it possible under Bush? Does the Cold War offer any parallels or lessons for the war on al Qaeda, and if so, what are they? What is the future of America’s on-again, off-again flirtation with unilateralism? After all, inquiring voters will want to know. But the book which will inform them still needs to be written–and preferably soon.

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