Why We Began a Petition to Congress

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Ms. Appleby is past president of both the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians. She is a member of the advisory board of HNN. Last month she and Ellen DuBois began circulating a petition to Congress requesting a vote on a war with Iraq.

Last week at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, President Bush expressed exasperation at reporters' questions about any discussion of attacking Iraq. Groping for words, the president said that the public seemed to be "kind of churning." Standing by, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld chimed in with the word, frenzy, to describe the situation. It's an odd response from the very leaders who have been talking on and off about military plans to effect a "regime change" in Iraq for the last six months.

Frustration is the word I would use to describe the public's mood. Frustration at the lack of solid information, frustration at the "we will, we might, we're determined to, we'll let you know later" statements that have come from the president, frustration at the absence of a sustained critique of all this from the alleged opposition party. My colleague, Ellen duBois, and I certainly felt that frustration two weeks ago.
We found relief when we decided to use an old-fashioned right -- to petition the government -- to recall Congress to its unique power to declare, or not declare, war. We sent our petition to some 70 of our colleagues around the country asking them to sign and forward it. Our appeal to American historians to urge members of Congress to debate the "risks, costs, and wisdom" of an attack on Iraq resonated with our colleagues and friends. Now 1,000 historians have added their signatures, representing historians in every state in the union. The great majority teach in colleges and universities, but there are high school teachers, graduate students, public historians and independent scholars in the mix. The rapidity with which signatures flowed in indicates that our frustration was not unique.
Americans, as President Bush's remarks suggest, feel agitated by the drumbeat of remarks about possible military action backed up by new stories of invasion preparations. For historians the feeling is more acute, for they teach America's foreign policy traditions, its constitutional provisions for war-making, and past presidential behavior.

The United States has fought proxy wars, sponsored covert operations, engaged in UN actions, and endured nearly a half century of something called a cold war, but the Bush administration's plans to invade Iraq, if acted upon, would be unique in our history. Never before have the leaders of our nation seriously entertained the idea of making an unprovoked attack on another country. As Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. recently wrote, "Unilateral preventive war is neither legitimate nor moral. It is illegitimate and immoral. For more than 200 years we have not been that kind of country."

The Cold War badly battered many precedents in our history. One of the greatest losses was the abrogation by Congress of its war-making powers. Article 1, Section 8 is quite explicit in giving Congress, not the President, the power to declare war. The practical effect of this constitutional provision is that deliberations must precede the awful choice of going to war. While the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the debate before the Gulf War did involve Congress, it has not formally declared war since the day after Pearl Harbor when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt requested such a declaration in December 1941.

Mindful of the way those powers had been eroded, Congress passed the War Powers Act of 1973 which enabled the president to respond to an attack, but required Congressional approval within 60 days. Hardly a practical measure, this fig leaf honoring the Constitution kept alive the principle, though President Bill Clinton ignored the suit brought by then California Representative Tom Campbell against him for violating the act with the bombing of Kosovo.

What are we to make of our present situation when the President openly declares his determination to oust Saddam Hussein without involving Congress or the people in his decision-making?, of his telling the public repeatedly that he will make up his mind one of these days, as though he were a king instead of man who swore to uphold the Constitution! This is not what the Founding Fathers intended in charging Congress, representing the voters, to make such a decision.
Nearly as disturbing during this long summer of saber-rattling has been the lack of an effective opposition to the campaign to ready Americans for a violent "regime change" in Iraq. A few voices have recently been raised -- most notably those of Brent Scowcroft, John Kerry, James Baker, and Dick Armey but there has been no sustained debate on the president's intentions from representatives and senators in Congress? Congressional support of the president's avowed intentions has been equally scattered.

Historians are not so foolish as to think they can stop a juggernaut or put starch into the 535 wilted congressmen, congresswomen, and senators who represent them. We do think that by petitioning Congress we might set an example for others to follow in a collective effort to rejuvenate civic culture in this the oldest of the worlds democracies.

Our plan is to present the petition with its signatures to the leaders of both the House and Senate soon. We urge all of your to join us and will take advantage of the History News Network to keep you apprised of the exact time and place of delivery, as the time draws near. Please read the petition below and add your voice.

(Click here to read the names of the signers of the petition.)


We, the undersigned American historians, from all fifty states, urge our members of Congress to assume their aConstitutional responsibility to debate and vote on whether or not to declare war on Iraq.

We do so because Americans deserve to hear their representatives deliberate about a possible war, lest such a momentous course of action be undertaken by the President alone after a public airing filled with rumors, leaks, and speculations.

We ask our senators and representatives to do this because Congress has not asserted its authority to declare war for over half a century, leaving the president solely in control of war powers to the detriment of our democracy and in clear violation of the Constitution.

We believe it is particularly urgent that Congress reassert its authority at this time since an attack on Iraq, if made, would be an American initiative. Since there was no discussion of Iraq during the 2000 presidential campaign, the election of George Bush cannot be claimed as a mandate for an attack. Only a debate by Americans' elected representatives can engage the public in a serious consideration of the costs, risks, and wisdom of such a war.


Illustration by Sabrina Krewin

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More Comments:

Jerry - 2/5/2003

You are a fool woman! Do some research and inform yourself over the Iraq situation. Instead, you should be thanking our president for protecting not only your worthless life, but also your worthless efforts and words. Try to read or listen to some opposing views for a change. Then, sit down and noodle this one through. I suppose you supported Clinton and his bombs dropped on Irac in the late 90's. I bet you love Clinton and wish he was your bed-mate. He is a worthless, sorry excuse for a man and you support and love him. THINK A LITTLE WOMAN! You sound like a little busy-body who cannot shut-up and listen.

Joerg Hamacher - 10/1/2002

Kommentar gefunden, und er ist in Deutsch geschrieben.

Axel Elson - 9/20/2002

Es ist erfreulich zu sehen, dass eine große Gruppe der amerika-
nischen Historiker auf die Verletzung fundamentaler Grundsätze
unserer Demokratien hinweist. In der Bundesrepublik erscheinen
die USA durch die Übermacht von CNN oft als eine Art Präsidial-
diktatur. Die Haltung der deutschen Regierung Schröder/Fischer
in dieser Frage wird höchstwahrscheinlich dazu beitragen, dass
sie an der Macht bleibt. Solidarität bedeutet nicht, ungefragt
Angriffskriege zu unterstützen.
A. Elson, Lehrer und Historiker

John Pellowski, Black River Falls High School - 9/11/2002

Please add my name to the Petition.

Robert Harbison - 9/7/2002

Could someone with more knowledge please enlighten this Medieval Historian......Just what the Hell has Saddam done to tick off so many people lately??? I know he is a bad, bad man.... but does that mean that we have to ruin our country going to war against him? If America attacks without provocation He will use any WMD that he has. He has not actively tried to do anything against our interests in almost 10 years.......Why are we rushing into this? Is it because daddy couldn't whip him so junior has to try? Somehow I think so...


Richard Cook - 9/6/2002

I couldn't disagree more strongly. In the first place, if Mutually Assured Destruction were the saftest way to play in the world today, why wouldn't we just give every nation nukes? Then war itself would end, correct? Secondly, the danger of Saddam - not a rational man, by the way, despite your pleas to the contrary - possessing WMD's is that he will simply farm out his destructive work to groups that have no fear of being destroyed, or, more accurately, hope to be for martyrdom purposes. Further, it should be remembered that Stalin himself was preparing to go toe-to-toe with the West in a nuclear war before he died. He had already ringed Moscow with a missle shield, and surely - like Saddam - was unconcerned about losing a few million Soviet citizens to acheive his victory. Why should Saddam fear his own country being nuked? Do you not think that the first thing Saddam built upon his acheiving power was a massive and deep shelter for himself?

joyce appleby - 9/5/2002

Please send requests to have your name added to the American Historians' Petition to me with your affiliation. Many thanks for your support. Joyce

joyce appleby - 9/5/2002

Please send requests to have your name added to the American Historians' Petition to me with your affiliation. Many thanks for your support. Joyce

William Guthrie Sayen - 9/5/2002

Please add my name to your petition. I am a lecturer in the history department at the University of Connecticut.

Dr. Patricia Norred Derr - 9/5/2002

Thank you for giving us a way to speak with such a unified voice.

Harry L. Watson, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill - 9/5/2002

Why do I have to add a comment to be able to submit my name?

Guenter Bischof, Univ. of New Orleans - 9/5/2002

The War Powers Act of 1973 is not a "figleaf" -- it's an honest attempt by a frustrated Congress to reclaim the constitutional right to make war after the Cold War Presidency subverted that right!

Dr. James R. Anderson - 9/5/2002

Professor of History
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824-1036

H. Russell Cort - 9/4/2002

I am totally opposed to unilateral war action by Mr. Bush. The Constitution is clear: only Congress declares war. The Pressident's actiion in Kosovo is arguably unconstitutional, but there was at least a hostile military action going on that we were trying to stop. Iraq is not engaged in active military aggression. Invasion by Bush would be an action unprecedented in American history. Congress must take charge of the process.

Professor Jack Brigham - 9/4/2002

Please add my name to your petition. I am a professor of US History and Political Science at Bakersfield College, a community college in Bakersfield, California.

Thank you for creating the petition.

Raymond Grew - 9/4/2002

Please add my name

Alec Lloyd - 9/4/2002

And if Saddam refuses to allow inspectors, what then? Oh wait, he already has. Maybe if we ask him again, pretty please? Spare me.

When Iraq is nuclear-armed, what will you do? Will you threaten to nuke them if they share their technology with Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and, perhaps, al-Qaeda?

Explain to me how deterrence works in that situation. If Saddam has atomic weapons, the deterrence is entirely one-sided. He can (and in fact has no reason not to) supply rogue nationas and terrorist groups with them, all the while brandishing his own radioactive club to keep us at arm’s length.

It is perfectly rational for him to do this because at that point, he can hold the West hostage. His armies could go anywhere (and why wouldn’t they? He’s invaded two neighbors already and at great cost) under his protective umbrella. The Soviet Union was a unique case and, its leaders showed far more rationality than Saddam.

In any event, it is not a bipolar world and non-state actors are increasingly calling the shots. Who is stuck in Cold War mentality here? Not the right.

Iran, North Korea and Syria are all pursuing ballistic missile programs. Iraq can easily trade its nuclear secrets for missile technology, at which point the West can be held to nuclear ransom.

Remember, the Soviets didn’t use suicide bombers. The Soviets were not motivated to die for paradise. These terror groups were willing hijack civilian airliners and crash them to make a point. If you think Saddam can’t find some “martyrs” willing to immolate themselves while providing plausible deniability, you are hopelesly naiive.

Finally, how do you come by your estimates of American casualties from invading Iraq? How can you know with such certainty that a thrice-defeated regime will fight with dogged determination once it is clear that its days are numbered? Should the US commit, I think you will find Saddam’s loyalists few and far between. There is a reason he need so many bodyguards and shuffles his generals constantly.

Same with the mythical “Arab street,” which has been noticeably silent since American troops sent the Taliban packing. Should Old Glory fly over Baghdad, I think the sounds you will most likely hear in Arabia (besides the cheering, weeping Iraqis celebrating) will be the hasty and sycophantic congratulations of the various despotic regimes, hoping that sucking up to us will delay their own ouster. Just as in 1991.

Terrorists need state sponsors to be effective. By eliminating first Afghanistan and then Iraq, we will have set powerful precedents. What power-mad despot will be willing to paint a target on himself by sheltering terrorists after such a display? You see, under your MAD model, there is a positive incentive to acquire nuclear weapons and support terror. Under the Bush Doctrine, there is a powerful deterrent.

If, as you say, Iraq is rational, the course of action we must take is obvious. Saddam must go, the sooner the better.

mark safranski - 9/4/2002

Actually American declarations of war can and historically take many forms. The 9/11 joint resolution was an authorization of force and Congress seconded that action with the appropriations required to wage war. The idea that Congress must use the words " declare war " to make a war a war is not required either by the Constitution or international law.

Given the amazing breadth of the 9/11 resolution wording plus the original Gulf War resolution the Bush team does not technically need to go to Congress once again in a legal sense. That however being said, does not mean that going before Congress would not be politically smarter for Bush, particularly since some alleged supporters of the war in Congress are simply waiting for a politically opportune moment to revert to their usual anti-war/anti-America/pro-Third world dictator stance.( Castro's cheering section in the Black Caucus comes to mind as do such Senate luminaries as Pat Leahy )

Opponents of war on Iraq will have much greater credibility when they argue openly for why letting Saddam have nukes is a better outcome than going to war instead of dilatory debating about having a debate.

Alec Lloyd - 9/4/2002

Could you please show me in the part in the Constitution where it outlines exactly what form a Declaration of War is to take? Arguably, SJR 23 is just such a declaration.

Furthermore, it doesn’t matter what mood Congress was in when it acted. They could have been grimly resolute and have since gotten cold feet for all you know. The resolution says what it says and leaves to the President and the President alone all discretion for determing who is attacked and when.

If you don’t like it, speak with Senator Daschle or whichever other legislator you feel has erred in supporting such a sweeping document.

Your latter point is utterly meaningless since, as a private citizen, I am hardly privy to top-secret security briefs. I don’t have to show you anything because I have nothing to show. If I did, one would have severe reservations about American intelligence gathering, to say nothing of operational security. Furthermore, your standard of proof is absurdly high. Given that Iraq has an interest in concealing its involvement with al-Qaeda, there will always be some fig leaf excuse for someone determined to prevent an invasion to seize upon.

There are credible accounts in the press that Iraq aided or has since aided al-Qaeda. If you want metaphysical certitude before any action can be taken, you may well have to wait until a mushroom cloud hangs over Chicago—at which point Iraq can again say “we didn’t do it” and will still won’t act.

In any event, Congress will be consulted and will most likely get to vote AGAIN, which is what you want. And if they vote to approve the invasion, what complaint will 1,000 historians then raise?

It is amusing that 1,000 historians can be so ignorant of history. The 1991 Gulf War resolution is still in effect. Iraq has not yet complied with the UN resolutions authorizing punitive military action (something like 24 of the 27 provisions have been violated) and Iraq has committed numerous violations of the cease-fire, the most recent being within a week.

Perhaps these 1,000 historians might study up on that as well.

Pete M. - 9/4/2002

Iraq MAY have WMDs and the MAY intend to attack us. So we pre-emptively attack them. Consider what would have happened had we used that logic with the USSR that DID have WMDs. I suppose we attack China next. How about "post-revolution" Pakistan. Libya? Where does the list end?

Despite this Administration propaganda, Hussein is no more irrational than GW. Cruel, vicious, etc., but not the cartoon madman the "liberal media" and the chickenhawks portray (which explains the poll numbers). He is fully aware that he and his country would be instantly and justifiably obliterated if he were to use WMDs on us or, for that matter, anyone else.

MAD has worked in the past and, coupled with stringent inspections, are sufficient to deter any serious hostile action from Iraq for at least the near future. Also,(assuming the lack of a CIA engineered "event" that, in light of history, would come back to bite us in the butt), inspections would furnish the needed justification for military action, maybe even the pre-emptive variety. A credible inspeciton system would also have the side benefit of helping to mitigate worldwide Muslim unrest in the event we undertake this "regime change".

To answer your question. Yes, we would better to "await patiently a nuclear attack on our own cities". Again, Hussein is not suicidal. The odds are heavily against Iraq pulling off a nuke attack on us. And as implausible as that Bush generated scenario is, the number of American lives lost in a nuclear attack by Iraq would pale in comparison to the military AND civilian casualties, American and otherwise that would result from a war, a long and necessary occupation, the resultant increase in terrorist activity that would follow such a reckless attack, and other unforseen consequences.

The casualties that will result from a first strike on Iraq are guaranteed. An attack by Iraq is not and is likely preventable should this administration care to offend their defense industry and right wing chickenhawk patrons and try.

Hussein is many things. His ego precludes suicidal as being on the list. MAD works. Just ask any Soviet.

Tom Spencer - 9/3/2002

Actually, unlike the Bushies and those who are already on the war wagon, 1,000 historians actually know that evidence and convincing the congress is required before the government moves forward with a war. The constitution is not ambiguous on these matters. I would suggest you actually read the constitution instead of quoting Joint Resolutions passed during the height of post 9/11 hysteria. Congress passes joint resolutions declaring all sorts of ridiculous things, including, I'm sure, the color and pet of the day.

Finally, since you are quoting this resolution that was passed in the wake of the September 11th attacks, I now want you to show me the evidence that Saddam supported Al-Qaeda. I don't mean suggest it or tell me that you BELIEVE he's behind it, I mean show it to me. I have seen none so far and suspect I won't. I'm not a Saddam fan but you don't fight wars and put thousands of Americans in harm's way based on the flimsiest of evidence. If you can show me he's behind 9/11 and you can show me that he has nukes, I'll support it. So far, I have seen no evidence that either of these things is true. I've seen lots of suggestion, but not one shred of evidence.

Tom Spencer (if you want to read a great deal more about these topics, read my blog on the HNN main page.)

Richard Cook - 9/3/2002

The reason debate seems to be lacking on this issue is clear from the recent LA Times poll showing that 60% of Americans support a regime change in Iraq. In political science terms, 60% is a landslide. The supposed 'unstarched' members of Congress are, by and large, reticent for that reason.
As to the morality or propriety of a preemptive regime change in Iraq, I ask only whether it would be more moral to await patiently a nuclear attack on our own cities so as to have full clearance to respond? Even then there would be opposition to a war, as shown by such luminaries as Barbara Lee and Jeanette Rankin.

Alec Lloyd - 9/3/2002

I refer the petitioners to SJR 23, approved 9/14/01, became law 9/18/01, which reads in part [Sec. 2]:

"(a)IN GENERAL-That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.
(1) SPECIFIC STATUTORY AUTHORIZATION.-Consistent with section 8(a)(1) of the War Powers Resolution, the Congress declares that this section is intended to constitutes specific statutory authorization within the meaning of section 5(b) of the War Powers Resolution."

Apparently 1,000 historians don't know how to use the Congressional web page.