James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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TWE Remembers: A War “Unnecessarily and Unconstitutionally” Begun

by James M. Lindsay
January 3, 2011

The motion before the House of Representatives was blunt: It denounced “a war unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the President of the United States,” and it created a congressional commission to advise the president on how to bring the war to an end. The president’s supporters took to the well of the House to defend his actions and decry Congress’s meddling in foreign policy. Their pleas failed to change minds in the majority party, however. The censure motion passed by four votes.

A summary of Congress’s steps to force George W. Bush to halt the Iraq War? To compel Richard Nixon to withdraw U.S. forces from Vietnam?

Actually, neither. It is what happened to James Polk on this day in 1848 as opponents of the Mexican-American War vented their spleen.

I don’t flag the anniversary of the vote because the House motion became law. The Senate never acted on the censure, so it ended up as nothing more than a historical curiosity.

I flag the vote because it illustrates an abiding theme of this blog—divisions over the nature and direction of American foreign policy are not the exceptions in American history but rather the rule. Americans have been arguing about what the government does overseas since the earliest days of the Republic and even when U.S. troops have been on the battlefield.

Indeed, the course of the Mexican-American War does not sound all that unusual to a twenty-first century ear. Polk claimed that the war was provoked by a foe that refused to abide by international law and decency. Congress moved in a glow of patriotic fervor to authorize fighting. Predictions of a quick and decisive victory proved wrong, opposition to the war grew, control of the House changed political parties, anti-war activists challenged (with good reason) the president’s explanation for why the war started, and war supporters urged the White House to do more rather than less. The president attacked his critics for aiding and abetting the enemy—the Constitution’s definition of treason—even as he worried that his two leading generals were more interested in taking a run at the White House than at the Mexican defenses. State Department officials squabbled with their uniformed counterparts over who spoke for the United States. And the lead U.S. diplomat negotiated a peace settlement that the president detested but could not oppose.

I’ll come back to these and other events in the Mexican-American war in future posts. (The course of the war and the people who figured prominently in it sometimes seem to come from a historical novel rather than from real life.) A point to conclude with here is that the Mexican-American War highlighted a lesson about congressional politics that a new crop of legislators learned again in Vietnam and then Iraq: It is easier for Congress to get into wars than to get out. Not only did the censure motion die in the Senate, legislators who wanted to end the war quickly discovered that it was politically dangerous to vote against supplying U.S. troops in battle. So the power of the purse, which James Madison had argued would be Congress’s great advantage, proved too unworkable in practice. As one critic of the Mexican-American War put it: “We support the war, though we condemn those who have brought us into it.” More than a few current members of Congress would understand the sentiment.

(Photo: Courtesy The Library of Congress)

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