Harry Truman was said to have been in a philosophical mood -- he often was -- on leaving the White House as the most unpopular president since Herbert Hoover. It was January of 1953, the country was still at war in Korea, the Cold War could turn hot any minute, the shadow of The Bomb loomed over the planet, the state of the economy was as uncertain as ever, Joe McCarthy remained on the prowl for non-existent Communists in government, which meant the real ones might be overlooked ... and Mr. Truman had just turned over the reigns to a retired general named Dwight D. Eisenhower. (The impression that the 1950s were just one long episode of "Happy Days" was always more a product of nostalgia than fact.)
According to one story, HST looked back and, surveying all he was leaving behind for his successor to deal with, said something like: "Poor Ike. He's been in the Army all his life, where you can give an order and it's obeyed. He'll find it's different in the White House. He can give all the orders he wants, and nobody'll pay the slightest attention."
On his first day in the Oval Office last January, our still new president issued an executive order closing down the military prison at Guantanamo, where hundreds of the enemy in this never-ending war on terror (if we're still allowed to call it that) are being held.
With a stroke of his pen, Barack Obama had wiped out years -- indeed, centuries -- of military law that had once provided the country with a way of dealing with enemy combatants (we may not be allowed to use that term any more, either) through the well-established precedents of military law.
Suddenly gone were the old distinctions between legal and illegal combatants, and the military commissions that had traditionally dealt with both. The new president and commander-in-chief made it clear what he thought should be done with that whole, elaborately constructed legal structure:
The military commissions were canceled, or at least suspended. Guantanamo was to be shut down by presidential order. How simple it had all turned out to be.
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