A Foreign Policy for All Americans

Image: [Robert Taft, senator from Ohio]. Harris & Ewing. (c. 1939) Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2016876087/
How did Senator Taft distinguish cases in which the president could commit troops abroad from cases in which the president required Congress’ permission to do so? What is the basis for this distinction in the Constitution?
How would Senator Taft view the War Powers Resolution? How would Alexander Hamilton view the arguments Senator Taft made here, given his argument as Pacificus regarding the Neutrality Proclamation?

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Robert A. Taft (1889–1953) represented Ohio in the Senate from 1939 to 1953. A Republican and the son of former president William Howard Taft, Robert Taft was a critic of the internationalist and interventionist foreign policy that characterized the presidencies of Harry Truman (1884–1972) and Dwight Eisenhower (1890–1969). In particular, Taft opposed the commitment of American troops and military power overseas without a congressional declaration of war. In this selection from his book, A Foreign Policy for All Americans, Taft outlined his view of the roles of Congress and the president in foreign affairs. Published in 1951 in the midst of the Korean War, Taft’s book addressed a famous debate in the Senate over the constitutionality of the Korean War. President Harry Truman called the war a police action, and therefore did not ask Congress for a declaration of war, as the Constitution required.

—J. David Alvis and Joseph Postell

Robert A. Taft, A Foreign Policy for Americans (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1951), https://mises.org/library/foreign-policy-americans. Made available in electronic form on Mises.org with the permission and encouragement of Robert Taft, the grandson of the author and former governor of Ohio.

Chapter 2: The Place of the President and Congress in Foreign Policy

No one can question the fact that the initiative in American foreign policy lies with the president. But, if I can judge from my mail and from many considered editorial expressions, the American people certainly do not believe or intend that his power shall be arbitrary and unrestrained. They want a voice in the more important features of that policy, particularly those relating to peace and war. They expect their senators and congressmen to be their voice. Before discussing the correctness of the principles of foreign policy, therefore, I shall try to define the place of Congress and the president under our Constitution. The debates in the Senate in early 1951 had even more to do with the question of who shall determine policy than with policy itself.1

There can be no question that the executive departments have claimed more and more power over the field of foreign policy at the same time that the importance of foreign policy and its effect on every feature of American life has steadily increased. If the present trend continues it seems to me obvious that the president will become a complete dictator in the entire field of foreign policy and thereby acquire power to force upon Congress all kinds of domestic policies which must necessarily follow.

The fundamental issue in the “great debate” was, and is, whether the president shall decide when the United States shall go to war or whether the people of the United States themselves shall make that decision. Also, for many years the State Department has been developing a theory that almost any action can be taken by executive agreement, which does not absolutely require any congressional approval at all, instead of by the treaty method prescribed in the Constitution.2

Undoubtedly, the necessity of obtaining a two-thirds vote in the Senate is very difficult and has encouraged many people to think that this development was necessary. But if the treaty method is not satisfactory, then the Constitution should be amended to provide for the approval of all executive agreements and to define the scope of and effect of such agreements much more clearly than at present. . . .

The matter was brought to an issue by the intervention of the president in the Korean War without even telling Congress what he was doing for several weeks. And it was brought still further to the fore by the proposal that we commit troops to an international army under the control of a council of twelve nations. I do not think that the American people have ever faced a more serious constitutional issue or one which in the end may present a greater threat to their freedom. . . .

If the president has unlimited power to involve us in war, then I believe that the consensus of opinion is that war is more likely. History shows that when the people have the opportunity to speak they as a rule decide for peace if possible. It shows that arbitrary rulers are more inclined to favor war than are the people at any time. This question has become of tremendous importance, perhaps greater than any particular problem of troops to Europe or the manner in which the Korean War shall be conducted. The claims made by the president of the United States and by various documents presented to the Senate by the executive representatives far exceed the powers claimed by President Roosevelt during World War II, those claimed by President Truman when the United Nations Charter was passed, and those claimed by President Truman when the Atlantic Pact was adopted. . . .

. . .I was shocked in the very beginning of this controversy by the speed with which blind partisans in the administration rushed to the defense of the proposition that the president can make war and warlike commitments. Senator Connally,3 the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, made this extraordinary assertion on the floor of the Senate: “The scope of the authority of the president as commander in chief to send the armed forces to any place required by the security interests of the United States has often been questioned, but never denied by authoritative opinion.”

That certainly is a complete misrepresentation of the discussion of these constitutional powers which has taken place since the foundation of the nation. . . .

Of course, the president has wide powers in foreign policy, but the framers of the Constitution provided expressly that only Congress could do certain things. Those powers are expressed in section 8 of Article I. Of course, Congress is given the power, and the exclusive power—

To declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water.

To raise and support armies, but no appropriation of money to that use shall be for a longer term than two years.

That reflects a certain and definite suspicion of a possible desire on the part of some president to set up a great permanent military force. Further powers of Congress as stated in section 8:

To provide and maintain a navy.

To make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces.

There are other powers, such as calling forth the militia and disciplining the militia.

The Constitution also provides that the president shall have the power to make treaties, but only by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, provided two-thirds of the senators present concur. The president’s relationship to the armed forces is stated only in section 2 of Article II of the Constitution: “The president shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States. . . .”

There is one very definite limit—and I think it is admitted by every responsible authority who has discussed the problem—on the president’s power to send troops abroad: he cannot send troops abroad if the sending of such troops amounts to the making of war. I think that has been frequently asserted; and whenever any broad statements have been made as to the president’s power as commander in chief to send troops anywhere in the world the point has been made that it is always subject to that particular condition. . . .

My conclusion, therefore, is that in the case of Korea, where a war was already under way, we had no right to send troops to a nation, with whom we had no treaty, to defend it against attack by another nation, no matter how unprincipled that aggression might be, unless the whole matter was submitted to Congress and a declaration of war or some other direct authority obtained.

The question of sending troops to Europe is certainly much more complicated. There is no doubt about the president’s power to send troops to occupied Germany. There is no question that he can send them if he wants to do so, as commander in chief of the Army and Navy. Whether Congress could limit the number to be sent is a point which may be open to question. However, certainly the president has the power to do so if Congress does not act.

I think he can station troops in a friendly country if such country asks that the troops be sent and if there is no imminence of attack and if they are stationed there for some possible convenience in repelling a general attack upon the United States itself. Particularly, it seems to me that the president of the United States may station air forces and may send the Navy to odd places throughout the world, as presidents have done many times, because the sending of such forces does not necessarily involve or threaten involvement in war. Such forces can be easily withdrawn in case an attack is made upon the country. There is no question about their remaining there and becoming involved in a war, if our country determines that it does not wish to become involved in a war.

But it seems clear to me that the sending of troops without authorization by Congress to a country under attack, as was done in Korea, is clearly prohibited. The sending of troops under the Atlantic Pact as a part of a defensive operation against Russia without previous authority from Congress appears to me to be also prohibited, because the fact that these countries are threatened by an actual attack is the very justification and reason for sending the troops. The only reason for sending troops is to defend a country against a threatened military attack which would necessarily involve the United States in war. . . .

  1. 1. The debates to which Senator Taft referred took place in the Senate over the constitutionality of the Korean War, which President Truman alleged was merely a “police action” rather than a war
  2. 2. “Executive agreements” are agreements between presidents and the heads of foreign nations that are not ratified by the Senate.
  3. 3. Thomas Connally (1877–1963) was a Democratic senator from Texas.
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