Before Biden, Presidents Have Found it Hard to Keep Promises to Avoid WarBreaking News
tags: foreign policy, Russia, Ukraine
The year was 1983, and some saw conflict in what President Ronald Reagan was saying about the possibility of going to war in Central America. He said he had “no desire” and no plans to send troops, but he also called the region crucially important to U.S. interests. So a reporter pressed him on the supposed contradiction.
Reagan quickly sought to correct the record. He assured that he had made no such open-ended promise. “Well, presidents never say ‘never,’ ” he said, later repeating: “It’s an old saying that presidents should never say never. You know, they blew up the Maine. But, no, I see no need for it.”
In fact, presidents do and have said something amounting to “never” about going to war. And despite the decidedly checkered history of such promises — and very valid questions about the wisdom of such a posture — it’s happening again. President Biden has repeatedly assured in recent weeks that the United States will not send troops to Ukraine. Biden and the White House have reiterated the promise even as evidence of Russian war crimes increases and the possibility of Russia suddenly being on NATO’s doorstep looms.
The promises have carried varying degrees of firmness. But they have marked some of the biggest wars in U.S. history.
In 1916, Woodrow Wilson ran for reelection on a slogan of “He Kept Us Out of War.” He called World War I “a war with which we have nothing to do, whose causes cannot touch us.” Less than five months after winning another term, Wilson cited Germany’s repeated sinking of U.S. merchant ships near the United Kingdom and asked Congress for a declaration of war, saying “armed neutrality, it now appears, is impracticable.”
In 1940, the Democratic Party platform declared, amid the rise of another world war across the Atlantic: “We will not participate in foreign wars, and we will not send our army, naval or air forces to fight in foreign lands outside of the Americas, except in case of attack.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt added, “I have said this before, but I shall say it again, and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” The following year, the bombing of Pearl Harbor again pushed the United States into a war it had studiously sought to avoid.