Translate page with Google

Story Publication logo July 18, 2013

Marvin Kalb: Whatever Happened to Declarations of War?

Media file: kalb-washington-post_up_wla_2013-5881_450x300.jpg

Marvin Kalb, resident senior adviser at the Pulitzer Center, has covered U.S. foreign policy for...

Media file: marvin.jpg
Marvin Kalb. Image from Politico.

The media associated with this story is no longer available online.

This article was written by Patrick Gavin for Politico.

Marvin Kalb has spent decades reporting on U.S. politics and foreign policy and his new book, "The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed," outlines his frustration with one key element of how the American system works: declarations of war.

"This is a book that I've wanted to write and talk about for the last 40 years," said Kalb, who spent 30 years reporting with CBS News and NBC News, including as host of "Meet the Press" from 1984 to 1987 on the latter network. "It goes back to the time that I covered the Vietnam War and the question in my mind then was, how can a president of the United States commit 548,000 men to fight in a war in South Vietnam without a declaration of war? That was clearly a big war. Why no declaration? And, then, when you begin to look into this, what you find is that there has not been a declaration of war since Dec. 8, 1941, after the Japanese attacked at Pearl Harbor. Why, then, is the big question."

It's a reality of the past seven decades that troubles Kalb.

"Congress has essentially abrogated its responsibilities to do anything, as written down in the Constitution, about going to war," he said. "Congress is supposed to declare war. Congress has the power of the purse. But only once since World War II has Congress chosen to use the power of the purse to limit the war. … The idea of going to war now is the sole responsibility of one man, the president of the United States. Now, if you vest in him total confidence, total authority, fine. But I don't think it's a terribly good idea."

Kalb says the message of "The Road to War" is "to encourage the Congress to get back into the act."

"It is something terribly important that they express their views, that they participate in the forming of a war or peace decision of this country."

Although it's clear that the legacy of Vietnam is central to much of Kalb's thinking (he also co-authored, with his daughter Deborah, the 2011 book "Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama"), he says that he's just as concerned today about the U.S. approach to war.

"When you think about a war like Iraq, think about the war in Afghanistan, think about a possible war against Iran, think about what's now happening in Syria, the president has said he will now give arms to the good guys in Syria. What is to stop the president tomorrow from saying, 'You know, we've tried this business of giving them arms. It didn't work. So let's put troops in or let's begin to bomb.' In other words, let's go in big time. Just think of it: Who is going to say, 'Hey wait, a minute. Not a terribly good idea, Mr. President?'"

In addition, Kalb said, drone warfare is likely to exacerbate the problems.

"With the use of the drone, you have the impression that things are going to go easy and quick, but they may not. … When it doesn't happen, you're left with the tragedy of the mistake, and the tragedy is measured not in politicians' fortunes — that he doesn't win the next time — but the tragedy is in the human lives that are lost and the devastation that it does to a society."

Support our work

Your support ensures great journalism and education on underreported and systemic global issues