Thursday, March 02, 2023

Forever War Chronicles, pt. 1[i]: How, exactly, did Truman decide not to seek a war declaration for the Korean War?

Mary L. Dudziak

In my next book, which is on the culture and politics of ongoing U.S. war and the dissipation of democratic restraint, the Korean War is a major turning point. When I began working on the Korean War chapter, I wondered how, exactly, President Harry Truman decided to bypass Congress, making it the first big foreign war without a war declaration. What was he thinking? Was it just a matter of the urgency of the moment, which tends to be implied in many works? To answer that question, I dove into the archives, looking for a paper trail. In this blog post, I will tell you what I found.

There is, of course, a division in the literature about whether or not Truman erred, and whether or not he contributed to forever war. Mariah’s Zeisberg’s elegant and important War Powers argues that the President and Congress co-produced constitutional authority for war. Notwithstanding the importance of her contributions, I tend to agree with Stephen Griffin that war formal war authorizations matter, and that clear Congressional commitment to war before troops are under fire matters. This may now seem like an anachronistic argument, but the historical question remains: how did a fundamental constitutional function come to appear to be an anacronysm? In the context of the Korean War, just how did that come about? What were Truman’s reasons?

Discussions of Truman Administration decision making at the beginning of the war often turn to two important evening meetings at Blair House, the president’s temporary residence, shortly after North Korea invaded the South.[ii] During the second meeting Truman agreed to his Secretary of State’s recommendation for an “all-out order” for use of the Navy and Air Force, and to “waive restrictions on their operations in Korea and to offer the fullest possible support to the South Korean forces.” He followed up by issuing the order to General Douglas MacArthur, and U.S. bombing in Korea commenced.

At the Blair House meeting, participants discussed the U.N. Security Council, which had not yet authorized the use of force, but the idea of seeking a declaration of war was not discussed.

During this time period, the administration briefed two Senators, who both exclaimed: “of course you are not thinking of putting U.S. troops in Korea.” Congress debated the developing conflict, with some questioning whether it was civil war, and whether concrete U.S. interests were at stake. The contemporary historiography emphasizes the peninsular nature of the conflict stemming from the division of the Korean peninsula after World War II. Truman and his close aids wrongly assumed that the invasion was part of Stalin’s master plan, however, dismissing Korean agency and initiative.

The president did not address Congress or ask for congressional action. The ideal timing for seeking war authorization would have been not long after June 25, 1950, when news of the North Korean invasion reached Washington and before U.S. troops were ordered to Korea five days later. Why didn’t Truman ask for Congressional authorization at that time? It was not the lack of opportunity to reflect. Truman was in Independence, MO, on June 25 when he first learned of the invasion. Flying back to Washington on June 26, he thought about the conflict and its impact on his own historical legacy. If he thought about the role of Congress, he did not record this in his recollections of the day.

President Truman’s reasoning is captured in the papers of his close aid George Elsey. Elsey recalled: “[t]he real time for a resolution would have been on June 27 . . . but apparently nobody thought of it at that time” (emphasis added).[iii] The principal reason that timing would be best was actually political. It was in the immediate moment of excitement and danger when members of Congress rallied behind the idea of defending South Korea.

There was robust discussion about war authorization in early July 1950, as the first U.S. ground troops, ill-equipped and unprepared, were on their way to a disastrous initial encounter with North Korean troops. Truman remained reluctant, suggesting that it was up to Congress to request a war declaration – even though Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt had dramatically taken the initiative in World Wars I and II. By that time, Elsey noted, “it was undoubtedly too late to get a resolution through by anything like a unanimous vote” – something that did not happen for the two World Wars either.

Truman reduced Congress to a political adversary, not a co-equal branch and source of more enduring legal and political legitimacy. Elsey put it this way: “The President and his staff, and his other advisers, were too busy thinking of military action and United Nations action to try to cover up their tracks with Congressional resolutions. The President’s motivation was to stop the aggression, not to prepare for future political skirmishes.” He viewed Congress as a political problem, not as a partner in taking the country to war.

The concern about unanimity and political skirmishing reinforces the fact that Truman’s neglect of Congress was based on politics, not constitutional or military factors. Perhaps most notable was the lack of attention to Congress’s role. “[N]obody thought of it at that time” when the decision to use force was on the table.

In sum, Truman’s decision to bypass Congress was consequential (which I expand on in a forthcoming article), but it was not deeply considered. Like another crucial and devastating military action on Truman’s watch – the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki shortly after Hiroshima, as Martin Sherman’s work shows -- events for the President took on their own momentum, and the record does not reflect deep reflection on the consequences. Nevertheless, the Korean War lives on as precedent as part of the historical practice of the separation of powers. One of the problems of relying on history for constitutional authority, unfortunately, is that a president’s failure to respect Congress became baked in, justifying more of the same.

For more and for citations to sources, see my forthcoming Michigan Law Review article The Gloss of War.

[i] I will link together occasional book-in-progress-related posts as part of Forever War Chronicles.

[ii] I am using the contemporary terms North Korea and South Korea to avoid confusion. The proper country names at the time were Republic of Korea for the South and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea for the North.

[iii] Letter from George M. Elsey, Administrative Assistant to the President, to Sen. Alexander H. Smith (July 16, 1950), Subject: Congressional Resolution, Folder: Korea – July 1950, Box 71, Subject File, Harry S. Truman Administration, George M. Elsey Papers, Harry S. Truman Library (emphasis added).

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