Typically, a president will leave office and soon after be historically defined as a leader in either foreign affairs or domestic issues. Despite governing in both contexts, one always seems to overshadow the other. Yet, their accomplishments and failures are more than just a benchmark used to judge their successors. They can also teach us how to govern wisely. Too often a leader will allow emotion to sway their own goals or utilize its effect on others to direct the course of the nation. Emotion has been both the catalyst as well as the justification for a multitude of decisions throughout history. This has occurred even when the true reasons behind the actions of our elected officials were much more calculated. Thus, our representatives and more specifically, the public, must be aware of this potential influence on our own judgment so that we may arrive at sound conclusions.
The Mexican-American War is the perfect illustration of a president utilizing emotion to win support for military conflict. With aim of westward expansion, President James K. Polk had originally hoped to buy the southwestern region acquired from Mexico. When that concept failed, the war lasting from 1846-1848, led to its acquisition with an agreement of $15,000,000 in payment, along with other considerations as mentioned in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. However, the military action to achieve that end was initiated through a dispute over a much smaller parcel of land, the border between the two countries. As Texas was recently annexed into the U.S., Mexico considered the border to be the Nueces River, the U.S. placed it at its present location, the Rio Grande. To significantly shorten a potentially long story, Polk placed troops on the Rio Grande and waited on a Mexican response. As tensions heightened, conflict finally broke out. Polk had created the only tools any president needs to ask for a declaration of war, a catalyst and a justification. However, both of those terms could be defined by one word that led to our support for that war, emotion.
This scenario has been played out in multiple eras. At times these conflicts were fruitless and perhaps unnecessary in their entirety. Other wars were for arguably just causes and desirable results even prior to any catalyst leading to our involvement. Who could suggest our role in WWII was a wrong decision? We should not attribute emotion as the sole issue leading to our entry into the Second World War. Yet, not discounting the bearing WWI had on society, the economic sanctions, and financial aid to our allies overseas that were indeed vital, why not a greater involvement prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941? One could suggest a declaration of war would have been the correct decision before the Japanese attack, thereby rendering the attack on the naval base irrelevant. However, in terms of its political effect, Pearl Harbor’s became a catalyst as well as a justification, outweighing factors that supported the status quo. Unlike the 19th century war with Mexico, where there were those such as Congressman Abraham Lincoln that did see the lack of legitimacy in Polk’s actions, every congressional member voted yea to war with Japan in WWII, excluding Jeannette Rankin who voted no. A vote for war that society should and does applaud today, while forgetting the disconcerting fact that emotion played a significant role.
What we as a society today and into the future have to question is whether our decisions as a nation would be correct if all emotional attributes were absent? We have a new administration who, at present, appears to be in the process of determining in what context their legacy will be defined. The electorate must offer its support to the correct decision, contrasting choices arrived at through an emotional lens. President Trump’s military action against the Syrian Regime for their atrocities against humanity is admirable. However, it does not negate the concern that this potential new agenda with a greater focus on foreign affairs may not only distract from progress at home, but may be the catalyst for conflicts America will regret in the future.
These are challenging decisions when presented with the ideologies held by others, which oppose our own. Essentially, they are a consistent invitation to the U.S. to expend its resources on global conflicts that will be ever-present. We should take note of our predecessors who did not succumb to that temptation. John F. Kennedy, a true leader in such an instance, deescalated our chances of war with the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, putting aside the advice of his advisors for military action in lieu of a peaceful solution. Of course, one cannot remove emotion as it is an innate aspect of us all. That being said, let us mind its presence and how it may contradict rational decisions as we live what will be the history of the 21st century.
Dale Schlundt holds a Master’s Degree in Adult Education with a concentration in American History from the University of Texas at San Antonio. Dale has taught at Northwest Vista College, Our Lady of the Lake University, and is currently a faculty member at Palo Alto College. He is co-founder of Palo Alto College’s new program for individuals with intellectual disabilities, Project Access, and a co-chair for the Texas Regional Alignment Network.