On December 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and killed 2,500 American servicemen. Japan’s ally, Germany, followed up the attack by declaring war on the United States. Just after noon on the following day President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the shocked members of Congress and told them that the sneak attack was a “date which will live in infamy.” The Congress declared war on Japan by an 82-0 vote in the Senate and nearly unanimous vote of 388-1 in the House. When Japan’s allies, Germany and Italy, declared war on the United States, Congress responded in kind on December 10. World War II became the last war in which the United States declared war against a foe.
Roosevelt and Congress correctly followed the procedure as outlined in Article I, section 8 of the Constitution. The Founders gave the people’s representatives the power to deliberate as a body as to whether the country should go to war and put its young men (and later its young women) in harm’s way. The lines of authority were delineated clearly. The Congress would declare war, the president would act as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and the Congress would authorize and appropriate money to fight the war. With the principles of separation of powers, checks and balances, and limited government, the idea that one person would have the authority to declare and then conduct the war was anathema to the constitutional order the Founders created.
More than 100,000 Americans have lost their lives and hundreds of thousands have been wounded in battle since World War II, but Congress has not declared war. Various euphemisms have been used to describe the wars such as “police action,” but the brave young men who braved the lethal cold in Korea, fought in the jungles of Vietnam, or invaded of Afghanistan and Iraq were armed with M-16s and flew in fighter jets rather than carrying badges. In these cases and others, there was indeed a congressional authorization for the president to use force – thereby preserving at least a modicum of the principles of the Constitution – but several of these such as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution or WMDs in Iraq were passed under questionable circumstances. In launching the Korean War, President Harry Truman actually sought authorization from an international body, the United Nations (as did George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton).
Although the cases of the president sending troops into harm’s way expanded exponentially in the twentieth century, the precedents were admittedly set in the new republic. Within twenty years of the Constitution being ratified as the law of the land, armed American ships were battling Britain and France as well as the Barbary Pirates to defend American rights and sovereignty, and John Adams fought a naval war and started mobilizing an army in the Quasi-War with France. However, although there were eighteenth and nineteenth-century examples of Americans fighting without a declaration of war, they were relatively few compared to the twentieth century. It seems as if not a year goes by in the last fifty years without American troops being dispatched around the globe by presidents of both parties to fight in undeclared wars. Nor did the 1973 War Powers Resolution reverse the situation since it simply laid down more stringent guidelines in which Americans could fight abroad without a declaration of war. It barely reined in what was called the “imperial presidency” which amassed power at the expense of the other branches.
Most recently and shocking in the debate over congressional authorizations of war, President Barack Obama has repeatedly made the argument during interventions in Libya and Syria, and against ISIS, that he does not even need congressional authorization to engage American troops in war. Although he eventually sought that authorization in February, 2015, against ISIS, President Obama did it only after American forces were engaged and for seemingly political reasons rather than a respect for constitutionalism. He did not receive that authorization and is ironically using the 2001 and 2003 authorizations for the Bush Administration that he has so fiercely denounced. By making the argument that a president need not even seek congressional authorization for war let alone a formal declaration, President Obama has gone far beyond his predecessors and threatens constitutional principles.
The U.S. Congress has only declared war in five wars in the country’s history – the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, and World Wars I and II. Some of those votes were close and revealed divisions over whether the country should go to war. We should not fear deliberation among the people’s representatives over whether to send servicemen and women into harm’s way. Since 1945, the U.S. has fought some of its longest wars without following the constitutional principle that the Congress must declare war. Now, the current president is arguing he doesn’t need the Congress to act and that he can act unilaterally. This is a violation of the letter and spirit of the Constitution.
Tony Williams is the author of five books including the forthcoming Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America.
Click Here to Read More Essays From This Year’s 90 Day Study!