Congress declares war, right? Constitutionally, yes—but, as intelligence analysts Hancock and Wexler (The Awful Grace of God: Religious Terrorism, White Supremacy, and the Unsolved Murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., 2012) write, there’s a reason it doesn’t.
“It is significant to note,” write the authors, “that the United States Congress has not officially declared war since 1941.” That hasn’t kept America from waging dozens of wars large and small, but the point is deniability: If a war goes pear-shaped, then Congress allows the president to take the blame. It’s a convenient arrangement, save that it has left presidents free to do things like land divisions in Vietnam and Iraq. Yet, as Hancock and Wexler demonstrate, Asia is almost an outlier: It’s really been Latin America that has born the weight of America’s military operations, especially covert ones, for years. They document, for instance, the U.S. military’s involvement in hunting down Che Guevara, supposedly the work of the Bolivian army, and the role of the U.S. government in destabilizing and overthrowing other governments. The first president to do so vigorously was Dwight Eisenhower, who had no problem utilizing “surrogate troops, ‘mercenary’ air support, intense psychological warfare, and threat of political assassinations.” Since then, other presidents have made ample use of the formula. The handy thing about all this, for a president, is that the constitutional system of checks and balances gets put on the shelf. Cynics will find nothing new in the authors’ overall argument, though even the best-schooled of them will find surprises: We all know that the U.S. mined the harbors of North Vietnam, but who knew that Ronald Reagan did so in Nicaragua? Who knew that the CIA has worked hand in hand with the world’s major drug dealers, and that, for all its bloated budget, the Pentagon’s major emphasis is now on cost-effective, good-bang-for-the-buck “gray warfare”?
Readers who care about the intentions of the Founders and the niceties of human rights will come away depressed by this grim yet trenchant portrait of American imperial reach—and overreach.