Last summer I asked my younger brother a question. I do not remember the question; however, I will never forget his answer–“Ask for pardon, not permission.” I had never heard this before, and the way it just rolled off his tongue blew me away. While this sounds like something a narcissistic or egocentric person would say–or in this case a punk teenager–there is a gentler version of this quote where I believe this particular mantra originated. United States Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, a computer guru and the inventor of “debugging,” is famous for saying, “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.”
While an interesting theory, is it one that our presidents have taken to heart?
I was reading A March of Liberty: A Constitutional History of the United States, Volume 2, From 1898 to the Present, by Melvin Urofsky, and in a section entitled “The Bricker Amendment,” it mentioned how “no declaration of war has accompanied any of the military incursions ordered by American presidents in the last five decades.” (Urofsky, 844) Starting with President Harry S Truman, going all the way to President George W. Bush, A March of Liberty gave examples of how each president had overstepped the powers granted to them by the United States Constitution; specifically, in regards to assigning troops to assist or attack in foreign countries, without a declaration of war from Congress.
- President Harry Truman committed American troops to help United Nation’s efforts after the invasion of South Korea.
- President Dwight Eisenhower sent American troops to Lebanon in 1958.
- President John F. Kennedy established a naval quarantine around Cuba in 1962.
- President Lyndon B. Johnson greatly expanded America’s involvement in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic.
- President Richard Nixon bombed Cambodia without Congress’ approval.
- President Gerald Ford sent American troops to the Mayaguez incident.
- President Jimmy Carter sent troops to attempt a rescue during the Iran hostage situation.
- President Ronald Reagan sent troops to Lebanon and Grenada, and bombed Libya.
- President George H.W. Bush got America involved in the Gulf War.
- President Bill Clinton sent troops to Somalia and Kosovo.
- President George W. Bush deployed troops to Afghanistan and Iraq.
All of the aforementioned were commanded by the acting President of the United States, without constitutional authority or permission from Congress. Since President Harry Truman and the “Korean Police Action,” Congress has turned a blind-eye to the continued abuses by our presidents. When it came to Congress’ involvement with Truman, it was a weak attempt to save face. Congress backed President Truman, but told him that “in the interest of sound constitutional process, and of national unity and understanding, Congressional approval should be obtained on any policy requiring the assignment of American troops abroad.” (Losing the lives of thousands of American soldiers upset many.)
As soon as I finished reading this portion of the chapter, I immediately flashed-back to my brother’s response–“Ask for pardon, not permission.” Every single one of these presidents knew that it was unconstitutional to send troops out without a declaration of war, yet they did it any way.
Could it be that our presidents do not fear the wrath of the Legislative or Judicial branch? That it is simpler to ask for forgiveness than it is for permission?
Throughout history, the American people have seen evil monarchical kings and queens, diabolical dictators, and terrible totalitarian rulers abuse their country’s executive powers. In creating the country’s government, the Federalists and Anti-Federalists heavily debated the need of an Executive Branch and the importance of separation of powers. Reflecting on how President James K. Polk led American into the Mexican War, Abraham Lincoln stated that “no one man should hold the power of bringing the nation into war.” During World War I, Congress was uneasy to give President Wilson the powers he requested. The Lever Act and Overman Act, both of which would have given the president extraordinary powers, were both looked at with hesitancy and contempt. During World War II, the nation saw the leadership styles of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini and feared to give President Franklin D. Roosevelt any additional power. In fact, after his death (into his fourth term), Congress passed the Twenty-second Amendment. By passing the Twenty-second Amendment, Congress had alleviated Thomas Jefferson’s fear of “the chief Magistrate…[serving] for life.”
With the pattern of abuses mentioned above, is the power of the President of the United States limited? With Executive Orders and the apparent mentality of “ask for pardon, not permission,” is there a balance between the three branches of government?