A Public Service Message from the American Income Life Insurance CompanyExecutive offices, Waco, TexasBernard Rapoport, Pres. The Constitution, The War, and American Society By Sen. George McGovern A part of every American child’s education is a course in civics in which he is taught about the checks and balances that the Founding Fathers wrote into our Constitution. These rules were intended to ensure that no single man could exercise sole political authority, for the Americans who formed our nation had bitter experience with the arbitrary rule of the British monarch. The Constitution they wrote had proven to be a living document, responding to the changing needs of a nation that developed from 13 small states into the greatest world power. But certain of its basic principles remain as valid today as they were almost 200 years ago. Such is the case for the idea of checks and balances among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Many members of Congress now want to restore to constitutional practice the concept of shared responsibility by the president and Congress over matters of war and peace. Under the Constitution, Congress can exercise “the power of the purse” when it comes to the military establishment. It has the power “to raise and support armies,” and must review its decision to provide military appropriations at least once every two years. In support of this provision, Congress is empowered “to lay and collect taxes … to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States.” Congress alone is given the power “To declare war.” Some may say that if Congress exercises these rights given to it under the Constitution, it will be poaching on the president’s preserve as commander-in-chief. They imply that either the president must have a fully free hand in launching and maintaining military action or he cannot act at all. But this view completely ignores the idea of checks and balances that decisions on defense actions are to be shared by the president and Congress. In simple terms, Congress can decide whether American forces should be deployed, and the president can decide how they are to be deployed. If the president decides not to deploy forces, no Congress can force him to do so even if they appropriate money for such a deployment. On the other hand, if Congress decides against a proposed military program, the president cannot undertake it himself. In Vietnam, Congress has in effect given the president a green light by continually voting the funds requested for the continuation of the war. This does not mean that the president has usurped the powers of the Congress. Instead, Congress has, throughout this century, reduced its own role under the Constitution. This state of affairs began well before the Johnson and Nixon administrations, well before the Vietnam war. The war in Vietnam, which has been extended into Cambodia and Laos, is the longest military conflict in which the United States has been involved in our national history. Simply because the war is under way does not free Congress of its constitutional responsibility to share with the president in making the key decisions whether or not to continue it. Naturally, in the context of whatever decision is jointly made, the president is free to employ the armed forces as he wishes. I believe that the Congress should now reassure its constitutional responsibility. Not only do I favor a return to proper constitutional practice in ending our military involvement in Vietnam, but I believe that we must act to eliminate one of the chief causes of division in our nation. Whether an American’s concept of his patriotic duty leads him to support fully the president’s policy in Southeast Asia or to oppose it and support an early withdrawal of American forces, he will undoubtedly recognize that the prolonged debate over the war is having harmful effects on the cohesion of his country. The United States was conceived by its founding fathers as a nation in which divergent views could exist in an atmosphere of freedom made possible by common acceptance of a democratic form of government. Now this common will is in danger of being torn asunder. Violence as a form of political expression either in favor of or against the war is increasing. Tolerance of unorthodox forms of dress and speech, of the right to hold a different opinion, of the right to speak out for or against government policies, is fading fast. Invective and name calling have become the order of the day. The political system seems to many to have become unresponsive to their viewpoint. Successive administrations have made a point of demonstrating that they will not be affected by opposing opinions and that they would prefer it if these opinions were not even expressed. This attitude has led to a growing sense of frustration. Frustration has in turn led to growing dissatisfaction with the political system itself. The strength of the American political system is that it has continually evolved since the Articles of Confederation and then the Constitution were adopted. The unyielding policy on Vietnam, which has clearly become the national issue of paramount importance, marks a step back from this tradition. Those who have sensed this change have reacted vigorously, occasionally violently, to it. Their acts have provoked counter-violence and sometimes repression. The major question before the American people is whether the pursuit of the Indochina War, a war which will not be won on the battlefield in any case, is worth the real chance of permanent damage to the American political system. Not only does the debate over the war endanger society through its menace to the underlying consensus that has enabled America to become a great nation, but it prevents energies from being devoted to the great issue of American history the construction of a society in which men of all races, religions and national origins can live together.
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