April 18, 2024

Hankering for History

Hanker: To have a strong, often restless desire, in this case for–you guessed it–history!

Ask for Pardon, Not Permission

4 min read

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?


7 thoughts on “Ask for Pardon, Not Permission

  1. can you explain to me why a declaration of war is so important? what difference does it make when they have declared it by their actions rather than their words? a person is more of what they do then what they say, this is what Jehovah looks at your actions and your attitude about what your doing not what you say. so if congress did declare war what remafications would that incur?

    1. The fact that there wasn’t a declaration of war wasn’t the issue. The problem is that the Constitution gives Congress the power to decide whether we go to war. The fact that the president(s) acted outside the scope of their powers is the issue. If you haven’t before, you should check out the Nixon administration. The amount of power he took for himself was insane.

      But if you are interested in the declaration of war – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Declaration_of_war_by_the_United_States

  2. I first heard “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission” from Star Trek, believe it or not. And I liked it so much, that when I do something “not quite nice”, I’ll say that in my head. Funny, really. Great post, thank you! 🙂

  3. few things are as cut and dried as a surprise attack in Hawaii WWII, look at the problems in getting the country to aid England — Congress can remove presidents, if they have the stomach for it. The constitution and its protections are not for the weak hearted.

    This was a good thought provoking post.

  4. That attitude explains why our penal system is overloaded…folks wondering why breaking the law is wrong and are now seeking forgiveness. This silly expression is far too malleable to be useful in any real and substantive discussions. It is a joke to cover minor indiscretions with wan smiles.

    The Constitution is a great guideline with no teeth short of impeachment. In itself it has no power. Thus, when presidents direct others to act, and they get away with it, pundits and historians get to argue about it. If, however, others do block the act, as rarely they do, the only remedy is impeachment.

    Congress cannot recall troops; they have no power to do so. They can technically defund them, but that would be a PR nightmare in the age of YouTube. So, what function does a declaration of war have? It is not tied to troop action.

    Where was the declaration of war in 1861? Where was it in 1916, when the Army went into Mexico? Where was it in 1794 before Fallen Timbers, and before every other American Indian conflict? How about 1962, around Cuba? Was the Constitution in suspense in those “special cases” so the president could order troops around without a declaration of war?

    No. Declaration of war is in the exclusive power of Congress, but it is truly irrelevant except in international diplomatic traditions and maritime law. Cuba ’62 was called a “quarantine” for that very specific reason.

  5. My recollection is that the issue of Presidential war power goes back very far, to the Barbary pirates. The fig leaf for Presidents is that they have the authority to send troops into combat without a declaration of war because the President is Commander in Chief and so Congress cannot infringe on that.

    And of course there is the issue that the Constitution doesn’t actually say that *only* a declaration of war allows troops to be used. Kinda like, “All elephants have four legs but not all animals with four legs are elephants. IF there is a declaration of war, only Congress can do that.

    I am all for circumscribing Presidential power. But if you ask the average American, they expect the President to get things done rather than an often gridlocked Congress.

    Take the deficit. The President is supposed to submit a budget. e did. Congress didn’t like it. It is not the President’s job to keep submitting budgets until he satisfies Congress. Let Congress put together a budget it can live with. But these do nothings want to blame the President for not fixing the deficit. It is Congress’ job to fix the deficit.

    The real problem is that the Constitution was not developed for an America which would be a world power. it was developed for an agrarian society that would not be focused on world affairs. Let;s get back to that vision, which persisted as late as December 6, 1941. Public opinion had no interest in stopping Hitler; that was a European problem.

    I have no doubt FDR thanked the Lord that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. And I believe he manipulated Japan into attacking us, through an oil embargo and other actions, so the US would be forced into war.

    But Korea, VietNam, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan. None of our business and after initial support for all those (except Korea), most Americans now oppose all of that. Yet, we keep it up.

  6. Always find your posts so interesting! I love to keep learning ~Susan
    And thanks for following my blog –

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