Making War: A Conversation with Thomas E. Woods Jr.

In his excellent new book, 33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask, Thomas E. Woods Jr. explodes the common myths that surround the short life of our nation. Brian Saint-Paul spoke with him about two of those errors, which have appeared frequently in the media and popular opinion.

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Brian Saint-Paul: We know that the Left opposes the current war in Iraq, as they opposed the first Gulf War and Vietnam before that. Further, it’s popularly thought that the Left is fundamentally opposed to war. Has that been the historical reality?

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Thomas E. Woods Jr.: No, and this is one of the things in my book that will surprise some of the conservatives and libertarians who read it.

If you go back and look at the major wars America has fought — from the Spanish American War to the present — the mainstream Left has been right behind them. The idea that those on the Left hate war and are all pacifists is false — overwhelmingly, provably false. The progressives were all in favor of the Spanish American War. “We have to go after backward, corrupt Spain and wipe them from the face of the earth” — that kind of thing.

The mainstream Left couldn’t have been happier about World War I, and the social gospel clergy were overwhelmingly in favor of that war.

In fact, the progressives — like the people around the New Republic — thought this would be a great opportunity to cultivate the idea of domestic economic planning. Wartime always leads to economic controls, so they thought, “We live in this stupid society that still believes in quaint ideas like private property and free enterprise. We can disabuse people of these primitive notions through the wartime experience, which we hope to transfer over to peacetime.”

So they were all in favor of it — John Dewey, all those guys.

Now, that isn’t to say that no one on the Left opposed the war: Eugene V. Debs, Jane Addams, and Senators Robert La Follette and George Norris all opposed it. People often cite La Follette’s speech in the Senate against the war, but I think Norris’s was better. It was very sound — I think he gave excellent reasons for staying out.

Of course, World War I was just the beginning.

Naturally the Left supported World War II, which had the support of a great many Americans after Pearl Harbor. But they also continued that support into the Cold War. I mean, who goes into Korea? Harry Truman. Although perhaps not a liberal, Truman was certainly on the Left and was a mainstream Democrat. At a time when budget-conscious Republicans in the late 1940s were concerned about government spending and excess overseas commitments, it was Truman who was pushing global interventionism.

And then there was Vietnam. Who really pushed the country into Vietnam? Truman had a minimal initial involvement. The same was true of Eisenhower — very minimal involvement. It was really Kennedy and Johnson who moved things along. Then it became unpopular and establishment Democrats turned on it.

Support for war on the Left continued even into the 1990s. People remember Howard Dean from 2004, but in the 1990s, Dean was all for war, so long as Bill Clinton was running it.

In Bosnia?

Yes, in Bosnia. And I’m reasonably certain in the bombing of Serbia in 1999, as well. So if Clinton’s involved, then fine. But if it’s the Republicans, liberals don’t like it.

It was similar with the Iraq War. Again, there’s a hard Left out there that’s anti-war. But John Kerry voted for it. Hillary was hugely in support of the war, which is why a lot of neo-conservatives now are praising her statesmanship, just in case they need to jump ship. {mospagebreak}

In fairness, the Left isn’t alone in shifting its position on war-making.

Right, and that’s another thing. The idea that to be a member of the right-wing means that you’re reflexively pro-war would have been laughable to traditional conservatives. Robert Nisbet was one of the great traditional conservative thinkers of the post-war movement, and he said that one of the funniest aspects of the new conservatism was the idea that to be conservative means you’re nationalistic and pro-war. In fact, there’s nothing more anti-conservative than war.

Look at people like Russell Kirk, arguably the founder of the modern conservative movement. He was dead-set against the military draft and, even in the 1950s, thought military spending was too high. He was a quiet opponent of the Vietnam War and a very vocal opponent of the first Persian Gulf War. He said George H. W. Bush should be strung up on the White House lawn for war crimes.

I don’t remember that.

Yes, that was in a private letter, but I have permission from the recipient to publicize it. And that’s the kind of thing that Sean Hannity would hear and then say, “Oh, the Left is at it again.” Well, you know what, Sean? This isn’t the Left.

We’ve gone to war in Iraq without a declaration, which is explicitly required by the Constitution. Now this certainly isn’t the first time, and it was carried out with the support of both Democrats and Republicans in congress. But nevertheless, there was never a declaration.

I believe the last declaration was at the start of the Second World War?

That’s right.

So what’s going on here?

The Congress will sometimes delegate to the president — unconstitutionally — its decision-making power to go to war. They say, in effect, “We authorize the president to make the decision. If and when he wants to go to war, he’ll have our approval.”

Well, you can’t know what the circumstances are going to be six months down the line. So it’s an easy way for Congress to absolve itself of blame if the thing goes haywire. What they need to do is have the old-fashioned declaration of war, because the Constitution is very clear on this. There are some areas where you might be able to make the case that it’s hard to know what the Framers meant. Not when it comes to war powers. You have an unbroken tradition going through the years prior to the Constitutional Convention: the Convention itself, the ratification debates, the Federalist Papers, and early national practice — all give the same testimony. It’s not even as if there’s a minority tradition that you can dig up arguing that the president could take the country to war. There’s nothing.

All the sources say, “We don’t want to live under a monarch anymore — someone who can take the country into unnecessary wars that harm the people’s interests. We want this to be a deliberative process by the branch of government closest to the people, namely, the Congress.”

That means that Congress alone can declare war.

Is this true in every case?

There is the possibility that the president can make war, which was a phrase that meant that if the United States were attacked and you were dealing with an emergency situation such that you could not assemble the Congress fast enough, the president has a retaliatory power. But that would have to be in an extreme case, given that Franklin Roosevelt didn’t even invoke that with the Pearl Harbor attack. Even he went to Congress to get a declaration of war.

The president’s Commander in Chief powers follow that. Once the war is under way, he then directs it. But those powers do not allow him to introduce troops into combat.

Why is this not more widely acknowledged?

There’s a bipartisan interest in keeping silent about this matter, because both parties have been guilty on this. Bill Clinton was terrible on this issue. In fact, when it came to bombing Serbia over the Kosovo question, there was actually a resolution in which Congress actually voted not to authorize the bombing. And in the face of that, Clinton went ahead and bombed anyway. That was an impeachable offense.

Conservatives claim they don’t believe in the living, breathing Constitution that the Left so often talks about, but apparently they do. In this case, they think the president should be able to do things not authorized by the Constitution, and yet they have not amended it to give him this power.

It doesn’t look like Republicans are learning the lesson. In one of their primary debates a month or so ago, the questioner asked them if they’d entertain going to war without a declaration. Every one of them but Ron Paul said they’d be open to it. And Mitt Romney said the first thing he’d do is check with his lawyers!

Yes, that was my favorite line. Romney is going to consult his lawyers. Anyone running for president who doesn’t have this basic knowledge is unsuited to serve as president. That you could be ignorant enough even to think that this was a debatable issue immediately renders you unfit for the office.


  • Brian Saint-Paul

    Brian Saint-Paul was the editor and publisher of Crisis Magazine. He has a BA in Philosophy and an MA in Religious Studies from the Catholic University of America, in Washington. D.C. In addition to various positions in journalism and publishing, he has served as the associate director of a health research institute, a missionary, and a private school teacher. He lives with his wife in a historic Baltimore neighborhood, where he obsesses over Late Antiquity.

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