The Press Doesn’t Cause Wars—Presidents Do

Trump’s claim that journalists can incite conflict isn’t borne out by the historical evidence.

The USS Maine Mast Memorial, at Arlington National Cemetery, seen in 1934 (Library of Congress)

President Donald Trump escalated his battle against the news media this weekend. “The Fake News hates me saying that they are the Enemy of the People only because they know it’s TRUE,” he wrote. “I am providing a great service by explaining this to the American People. They purposely cause great division & distrust. They can also cause War! They are very dangerous & sick!”

Some of these claims are no less alarming for Trump’s frequent repetitions. But the last of these claims is not only novel, but simply wrong. Political leaders cause wars, not the news media.

Although the press has routinely been blamed for some of the United States’s most controversial conflicts, the historical evidence demonstrates that the power to make wartime decisions rests in the Oval Office and on Capitol Hill—not in the newsroom. Yes, the news media has the power to influence public opinion and to focus attention on particular threats, but elected officials always have considerable leeway—outside of an immediate national-security crisis—to make decisions about how and when to use military force. Besides the fact that the “media” is rarely unified on any issue, the ultimate responsibility for war must be laid squarely on the shoulders of elected officials.

This was the case with the Spanish-American War in 1898, where the press is usually blamed for getting the nation into a conflict. According to the legend, the publisher William Randolph Hearst, whose newspapers loved to run sensational headlines and provocative stories, honed in on the Cuban revolt against Spain because the real-life drama attracted readers in an increasingly competitive newspaper market. When an accidental explosion blew up the USS Maine, the Hearst papers blamed Spain and drummed up patriotic sentiment. “Remember the Maine!” read the headline. Soon after, Congress declared war.

The myth vastly oversimplifies the reality. The U.S. fleet was already on its way toward Spanish territorial possessions when the explosion occurred. Joseph Campbell and other historians have effectively punctured most of the pillars of the conventional story. Numerous Republicans leaders had been moved by humanitarian concerns. Senator Redfield Proctor of Vermont delivered a speech describing the condition of Cubans who had been detained in camps: “One-half have died and one-quarter of the living are so diseased that they cannot be saved.” A major diplomatic impasse with Spain set up the conditions for the conflict, and the growing imperial ambitions of numerous advisers who were working with President William McKinley also played a role. As the historian George Herring wrote in his book From Colony to Superpower, the Republican platform in 1896 had “set forth a full-fledged expansionist agenda” and “the War of 1898 provided an opportunity to implement much of this agenda—and more.” The drive for imperialism meshed with powerful racial stereotypes among U.S. policy makers about the need for white Anglo-Saxon society to “civilize” and “modernize” neighboring populations. The Republican Party also had political interests on its mind, including the upcoming midterms and the 1900 presidential election. Republican Senator Thomas Platt warned McKinley that William Jennings Bryan could do well on a platform of “Free Silver and Free Cuba,” if McKinley did not take steps on his own. Even so, much of the local press in the rural hinterland did not support the war and even the “yellow press,” according to Campbell, offered less than lock-step support for military intervention in Cuba. There were many influential opponents of war, including powerful figures in the business and financial community. In the end, it was McKinley and the Republican Congress who chose war.

The role of choice among presidents and Congress in times of military conflict also explains much of what happened with Vietnam. For many years, the conventional wisdom about this devastating quagmire was that policy makers in the White House were blinded by a Cold War consensus that if one country, no matter how small, fell to communism, everything else around it would follow. Even the late Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, in his apologetic book about the war, In Retrospect, blamed the power of the “domino theory” for what he admitted was a bad decision. The national press had always been considered part of what drove this fear into the minds of policy makers and the public. Most reporters blindly accepted the logic of the Cold War and reiterated the warnings that the U.S. had to stand firm wherever communism tried to rear its head. As William Hammond argued in Reporting Vietnam, journalists listened to official military sources until well into the war.

Yet the media-centered account of Vietnam severely understates the role of contingency. In his path-breaking book Choosing War, the historian Fredrik Logevall plunged deep into the presidential archives to demonstrate that President Lyndon B. Johnson had much more leeway in 1964 and ’65 about what to do in Southeast Asia than most had assumed. Despite the news stories, a majority of Americans had almost no idea about the situation in Southeast Asia. There was very little serious public pressure to send troops or even bombs to combat the North Vietnamese Communists. During private conversations, numerous senior politicians, such as the hawk Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, warned the president about the dangers and futility of expanding American involvement. There were foreign leaders such as French President Charles de Gaulle who were offering plausible diplomatic alternatives to ending the civil war in the region through a comprehensive agreement.

But Johnson refused to listen. He, along with the Democratic Congress, chose war—just as McKinley and the GOP had done in 1898. Logevall and others have shown that Johnson was driven by fear that Democrats would look “soft” on defense—the Republican presidential candidate Senator Barry Goldwater spent much of the summer lambasting the president’s policies against communism—and that bungling the situation would hurt the domestic coalition behind the Great Society. Logevall added that Johnson’s concerns about what it meant for a man to be “tough” pushed him deeper and deeper toward conflict. Other recent histories have found more evidence to push back against the “blinded into war thesis,” including that leaders in Congress, such as Senator William Fulbright of Arkansas (who later turned against the war) implored colleagues in 1964 and ’65 to support Johnson so that their party would not suffer at the ballot box.

In 2002 and ’03, America’s political leaders made yet another disastrous decision when they authorized the use of force to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq—a hugely costly effort that did little to create stability in the region. Initially, when it became clear that Hussein did not have any weapons of mass destruction and that there was no secret game plan about what to do after he was toppled, the news media once again took a beating. Reporters, the critics said, had been too passive in the aftermath of the horrific 9/11 attacks and they had failed to question President George W. Bush when he beat the drums of war. Reporters were accused of following the administration’s talking points. In 2004, New York Times editors admitted that, “Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged—or failed to emerge.” Indeed, the war in Iraq spawned an entire internet-savvy generation of young Millennial journalists who questioned the basic pretense of “objectivity,” as they came to believe that those professional norms had been largely to blame for the war. As the managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, Brent Cunningham, wrote, the press had failed by “allowing the principle of objectivity to make us passive recipients of news, rather than aggressive analyzers and explainers of it.”

While the criticism of the news media was certainly fair, blaming the press for causing the war allows policy makers to get off the hook too easily. Bush and his administration will, and should, always shoulder primary responsibility for the devastating conflict. Led by officials who, from day one, wanted to take out Hussein, and who after 9/11 sought to broaden the war on terror beyond Afghanistan and al-Qaeda, the administration undertook a methodical campaign to argue that Iraq was partially responsible for 9/11 and possessed a huge cache of deadly weapons. There was a robust anti-war movement opposing military involvement. High-level officials warned of the faulty intelligence behind the accusations against Hussein. Even when President George H. W. Bush’s national-security adviser Brent Scowcroft wrote in The Wall Street Journal that there is “scant evidence to tie Saddam to terrorist organizations, and even less to the Sept. 11 attacks,” the administration had no interest in listening.

Working with Republican leaders in Congress, the administration built political support for a resolution allowing the use of force and challenged the legitimacy of skeptics. The Republican Party went so far as to directly inject national security into the 2002 midterm campaigns, portraying opponents of certain administration policies like Georgia Democrat Max Cleland, a Vietnam veteran who had lost his limbs in the war, as weak on defense. When Senate Democrats such as John Kerry and Hillary Clinton took to the floor and voted in favor of the resolution authorizing the use of force, they made a conscious choice to ignore the opponents of war within their own party. With the 2004 presidential campaign on their minds, these Democrats made a choice, too.

The media doesn’t have the capacity to “cause” a war nor is there actually a “media” that speaks with one voice on anything. (This is especially true today.) By tweeting his provocative statement this weekend, Trump is simply escalating his scare campaign against hardworking reporters—potentially putting them in harm’s way—and diverting attention from the only people who really have the capacity to lead Americans into a military quagmire: Trump himself, and the congressional majorities that support him.