Skip to main content

Where The Buck Stops

July 2024
4min read

When Harry Truman was President of the United States, he kept on his desk a little sign which announced: “The Buck Stops Here.” This was his salty way of acknowledging the constitutional provision which makes the President the commander in chief of the country’s armed forces and hence vests in him the terrible responsibility for making the life-or-death decisions that have to be made in time of crisis. Elaborate machinery has been set up to inform and guide the President, but the final answers still have to come from him. He can never pass the buck. It comes to the end of the line on his own blotter.

The founding fathers gave the President this power with some misgivings, sensing that this grant of authority was one of the key sections of the Constitution. The simple fact was that the responsibility had to be lodged somewhere. To divide it between Congress and President seemed clearly impractical, and to vest it in the legislature seemed, in the light of past experience, to risk putting too much power in the hands of a soldier. To give the power to the President seemed safest.

Things have changed since those days. The first “war President,” James Madison, had an Army of a few thousand men, a Navy composed of a handful of cruisers and patrol craft, and a War Department whose entire personnel could have convened in one room. Today, by contrast, there are the immense Pentagon apparatus, the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency, and all the rest—an almost incomprehensibly complex array of planners and doers. But the authority remains undiluted. The President still has to say Yes or No. He can neither ignore nor delegate his power; he can only use it.

To see what American Presidents have done with this authority in times of war, Professor Ernest R. May of Harvard has assembled and edited a most enlightening book, The Ultimate Decision , in which a number of writers trace the growth and explore the significance of this charter of authority from 1812 to the present day, and in which Mr. May examines the profound underlying question: Has the job of commander in chief become too great, too complex, and too terrible a job for any one man?

Different war Presidents made their own contributions to the steady expansion of the scope of the Executive’s war powers. Some, like McKinley, were reluctant to use these powers and proceeded with great caution; others, like Lincoln, reached out unhesitatingly to use all of the authority they could get, setting precedents of far-reaching importance. But in the main all of them simply followed the rule the Constitution itself had laid down. As Marcus Cunliffe remarks in his perceptive chapter on Madison’s experience: “In war, the President’s powers grow almost despite himself.” The game was set up that way, and that was the only way to play it.

The Ultimate Decision: the President as Commander in Chief, edited, with an introduction, by Ernest R. May. George Braziller Inc. 290 pp. $6.00.

Madison made this discovery about presidential powers: James K. Polk carried the discovery a step farther. Leonard D. White shows that in the Mexican War the President was given neither the information nor the legislative equipment to make full use of his authority, but he concludes that in spite of handicaps Polk did achieve a genuine unity of command. He proved, as Mr. White puts it, that “a President could also be a commander in chief. A President could run a war.”

Lincoln is often accused of interfering too much in matters of strategy and tactics. T. Harry Williams points out that in doing this he was merely following the established American tradition which came out of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War: “Lincoln was acting only as the civil authority had acted in every previous war. He was doing what he and most people thought the commander in chief ought to do in war.”

In World War I, Wilson largely supported the decisions of his military men. Earlier, however, he had clearly shown the services who was boss. In 1913, when a quarrel with Japan produced a brief war scare, the Joint Board of the Army and Navy made certain recommendations about fleet movements in the Philippine area. Wilson rejected these recommendations, and the Joint Board protested and asked him to reconsider. Icily, Wilson told the Secretary of the Navy that when the President had finally adopted a policy, the admirals and generals could make no protests, “and I wish you would say to them that if this should occur again, there will be no General or Joint Boards. They will be abolished.”

Perhaps we are still too close to Franklin Roosevelt and to Truman to reach even moderately objective appraisals of the way they exercised their war powers. Roosevelt is often accused of letting the military men run the show with too little direction by the civil power; Truman, whose climactic break with General Douglas MacArthur is a matter of very recent memory, is accused of interfering too much. Whatever the final verdict on these points may be, both men were aware of the extent of their powers and used them. Indeed, tracing the course of events in the Korean War, Wilber W. Hoare, Jr., concludes that “in more respects than most, Truman was the commander in chief envisioned by the writers of the Constitution.”

Which brings us down to the present day—in which things are vastly different. Such Presidents as Lincoln, Wilson, and even Roosevelt could do without a great mass of technical and scientific knowledge; today’s President cannot. He must distinguish, for instance, between kiloton and megaton weapons—the difference between which, as Mr. May remarks, “is roughly that between Bronx Park and Bronx County.” He must know a good deal about rocketry. He must have broad knowledge about the intricate military organizations that have been built up around these awesome weapons. He must know so much, indeed, that the question is often raised: Is the joint burden of the Presidency and the command-in-chief so great that it must be divided? If so, just how can the division be made? Do we go back to the system of the Roman republic and have, in effect, two consuls, a President and an almost equal deputy? Must our President, in future, be commander in chief in name only?

Mr. May thinks not. The basic decisions still have to be made by someone, and strategy must continue to remain the servant of policy. Whether they were right or wrong, wise or stupid, all of our Presidents who have waged war have done so as politicians, with a final sense of responsibility to public opinion. To Mr. May, it finally comes down to this: “The issue is not only whether one man can stand the double strain of the Presidency and the command-in-chief, but also whether the nation can stand to have any man except one, the President and commander in chief, determine what its fate shall be.”

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.