President Bush’s nomination of Air Force General Michael V. Hayden to direct the Central Intelligence Agency has opened a debate over whether the most fundamental principles of the American Republic remain will remain in place.
The founders who proposed to “chain the dogs of war” established civilian control over the military as an essential underpinning of the American experiment. Along with their determination to put in place a system of checks and balances, which they constructed to prevent presidents from leading the country into war without properly consulting Congress, Jefferson, Madison and their compatriots believed that giving civilians the means to manage the military was necessary if the nation they imagined was to be free.
Agonizingly aware of the abuses that had been imposed upon the former colonies by a British military accountable only to a distant and dictatorial king, the founders worried about the degeneration of the American experiment into a state of affairs similar to that of the Empire against which they had rebelled.
Sam Adams warned that, “Even when there is a necessity of military power, within the land… a wise and prudent people will always have a watchful & jealous eye over it.” Elbridge Gerry, a delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention and the fifth vice president of the United States, argued that, “Standing armies in time of peace are inconsistent with the principles of republican Governments, dangerous to the liberties of a free people, and generally converted into destructive engines for establishing despotism.”
Gerry was no radical. He expressed a common concern about the scope and power of the new nation’s military, according to the essential review of thinking of the founders with regard to civilian control of the military compiled by Dr. Michael F. Cairo, a specialist in American foreign policy and the foreign policy process.
“At the beginnings of the Republic,” recalls Dr. Cairo, in an explanation of the principle distributed by no less an authority than the U.S. State Department, “four basic premises conditioned how most Americans saw civilian control of the military. First, large military forces were viewed as a threat to liberty, a legacy of British history and the army’s occupation in the colonial period. Second, large military forces threatened American democracy. This notion was linked to the ideal of the citizen-soldier and fears of establishing an aristocratic or autocratic military class. Third, large military forces threatened economic prosperity. Maintaining large standing armies represented an enormous burden on the fledgling economy of a new nation. Finally, large military forces threatened peace. The founders accepted the liberal proposition that arms races led to war. Thus, civilian control of the military arose from a set of historical circumstances and became embedded over time in American political thought through tradition, custom, and belief.”