In a brief passage in his 1978 book on the United States Constitution, historian Page Smith (1917-1995) analyzed the danger to constitutional government posed by the war power as partly due to the nature of the war power itself, and partly due to developments in modern technology -- in particular, the demagogic potential of television.[1]  --  Thanks to Karen Havnaer for sending this quotation....


Pages 506-07

During the Vietnam War the other branches of government kept a low profile. Congress and the Supreme Court were willing to let the succession of presidents assume full responsibility for the second greatest disaster in American history (if we count the Civil War as number one.) By the time the Vietnam "intervention" was over, it was harder than ever to discover a line at which presidential power could be clearly and incontestably drawn.

A leading authority on the Constitution, Bernard Schwartz, after having described in detail the extraordinarily broad powers that the president has assumed in the name of emergency or, more recently, "national security," asks, quite pointedly, "If this be true and the President does possess such broad inherent power, are we not back to the Stuart concept (of English monarchy) of absolute prerogative, under which the king might take whatever action he considered necessary for the good of the country?" Schwartz then reminds us that the presidential prerogative is limited in four ways: by being subordinate to statute-law legislation passed by Congress; by being constrained against acts against private property or individual rights and being subject to judicial review. The framers intended Congress to act as the controlling factor in regard to misuse of presidential authority in the area of foreign affairs, and yet, as Schwartz notes, "in the world of the twentieth century, it is power in the field of foreign affairs that has waxed and control that has waned. The most important factor in American foreign policy in our day has been Presidential leadership; the Congress check has at times seemed a mere shadow of that intended by the framers . . . The Constitution may appear to leave open the question of who is to have the decisive voice in foreign affairs. In practice, it is the President and those appointed by him who are the architects of American foreign policy." It is thus no accident that by far the greater part of Schwartz's discussion of presidential power is given over to foreign affairs and to "war power," a section twice as long as any other in the book. At the end the author writes: "The effects of war under modern conditions may be felt in the economy for years and years and, if the war power can be used in days of peace to treat all the wounds which war inflicts on our society, the power is one which may abide with us forever. It is the indeterminate aspect of its duration that helps to make the war power the most dangerous one to constitutional government in the whole catalogue of powers." Schwartz wrote this in 1962, before the Vietnam War mushroomed.

To the accumulation of vast powers in the hands of the president must be added the technological innovation of television. The presidential powers, and the possibilities of abuse of them, are essentially personal in nature. The most powerful presidents have, with the possible exception of Richard Nixon, been figures of considerable personal charm or persuasiveness. While such persuasiveness may be necessry to strong leadership in a society such as ours it is also the stuff of which demagogues, dictators, and tyrants are made. Its most dangerous aspect is that of immediacy. Such a leader, by employing radio and subsequently television, can appear in the living rooms of most citizens and in the most reasonable tones, or the most vivid and inflammatory ones, explain a decision already taken and appeal to the patriotism and loyalty of his countrymen to support him in the crisis declared, or created, by him. It is hard to imagine, under such circumstances, any strong oppsition to his actions however inimical to the best interests of the country.