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.

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6 replies
  1. Ron
    Ron says:

    In a politically correct world, where neither the administration nor half the Congress will not even name its enemy, it becomes impossible to declare war, since there is no identifiable enemy against which to make a declaration. Oh, the webs we weave!

  2. Barb Zack
    Barb Zack says:

    Only 5 times in our history was there an actual declaration of war? Unbelievable. Yet is seems America is constantly in some conflict or other. Plenty of precedence set for Obama and future presidents to think they can act alone in committing resources, money and lives to whatever cause they deem worthy!

    • Janine Turner and Cathy Gillespie
      Janine Turner and Cathy Gillespie says:

      Hi Barb – We have refined our title to clarify: Congress has declared war in only five wars in U.S. History – there have been 11 formal declarations of war, but these include multiple times in World War I and two against individual countries. We are so appreciative of your continued contributions to our essay project! Thank you for your comments and sharing!

  3. Ralph Howarth
    Ralph Howarth says:

    At issue is that the purpose of the Command in Chief is to act as a field marshal of sorts to coordinate all the armies and militia’s of the several states in time of war. But in time of peace, or what is supposed to be peace, the President has become a tactical officer of sorts with a direct line to strike forces. This was not contemplated in the origination of the constitution.

    If we take the perspective of the country, we have had the First and Second Continental Congresses of which was the American Revolutionary War (not a declared war per se other than the British Crown declaring the colonies in a state of “rebellion”). Art 2, Sec 1, Clause 5 indirectly puts the birth of the country not at 1776 for sake of citizenship; but closer to 1774 when the 1st Continental Congress issued the first bill of rights to the British Crown in the Declaration and Resolves. In the perspective of the Canadians in Ontario-Quebec, the American Revolution was sometimes called the “5th intercolonial war” as all the British American colonies suffered much war in common with each other. Of the Intercolonial Wars, most of those wars affected Quebec itself and had battles within its own vicinity, towns, and forts. And Quebec was invited twice to join the U.S. during the 2nd Continental Congress directly in the Articles of Confederation and again during the adoption and ratification of the current federal constitution. In the interim period of the possibility of Quebec becoming the 14th State, Vermont became an independent buffer republic to Canada until it became the 14th State.

    But when the American War of 1812 came around, of which a segment of the United States called it James Madison’s War, Quebec was invaded once again being central to the disputes with Britain that led to war. This became the sixth intercontinental war where American History never labels war in Quebec as a foreign war like with the Mexican-American War. Quebec was just another American colonial state.

  4. Sandra Keller
    Sandra Keller says:

    I trust our President. I feel if anyone is against going to war it is President Obama. Our US Congress is in a war amongst themselves. Why people keep putting the President down is beyond me. He has been President in some of the worst of times and in handling it with level headness. Our Congress seems more involved in dissecting everything he does instead of trying to work with him. The letter and the spirit of the Constitution. What does that mean. 239 years ago the men then just wanted to do what they wanted to do. They had a good idea and they went with it. They even went one step further and decided they wanted no part of Britain and wanted to form their own government. Since then we have had many amendments and there will be even more before this world no longer exists. I believe certain kinds of people are available to us in certain kinds of times. In the time from 2008 until now we could not have had a better President to be in charge of this country. Don’t people ever get tired of running back to our Constitution’s beginning. Get over what our forefathers did and figure out what is best for the people today. Change is a fact of life. I have seen much change in my 69 years and in the next 69 years there will even be more change. Use our Constitution as a base not as a bat hitting people over the head with it every time you get a chance.

    • Ralph Howarth
      Ralph Howarth says:

      There really is no excuse for not following the constitution. There is an amendment process that is designed to actually change the constitution rather than whatever ruling fiat regime is in power from one time to the next. One particular amendment on voting rights was passed in a mere 5 months. If an amendment cannot attain ratification of a supermajority then it smacks of being partison and of special interest rather than the interest of the whole country. Democrats also beg to differ in that Obama is too much of a war hawk and had invaded more countries than Bush did including Libya and Syria without constitutional authorization. Obama also has stepped up drone strikes 500% compared to Bush. So to say that Obama is less about war comparatively to other recent presidents is off base. Obama also has submitted a number of budgets and policies to Congress that have been rejected on both sides of the isle with his grandstanding, unreasonable demands, yet the media does not report it. Some folks in the media also quit their job or where just outright threatened for not spinning cover stories to make Obama look good. Some have described Obama as hot headed, childish, and a bully to those who will not tow the line of “My way, or the highway.” Then there is the unprecedented Inspector General complaints in a letter to Congress against the Obama administration on the obstruction of accountability and the unconstitutional executive orders going on.


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