Answering The Isolationists: Why Has Congress Never Officially Declared War Since 1941?

 

This was the last time America officially declared war.

What is not conservative about saying, ‘Don’t go to war unless we go to war properly with a full declaration of war, and no other way?’ Unconstitutional wars cost a lot of money, they undermine our constitutional principles.” – Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), Address to the Conservative Political Action Conference, February 19, 2010

“Congress is about to circumvent the Constitution and avoid the tough decision of whether war should be declared by transferring this monumental decision-making power regarding war to the President. Once again, the process is being abused. . . A declaration of war limits the presidential powers, narrows the focus, and implies a precise end point to the conflict.  – Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), debate on the “Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists” in Afghanistan, October 3, 2002 

As usual, the truth is the exact opposite of what is being claimed by Ron Paul, Libertarians and the Constitution Party. The U.S. Constitution explicitly does grant Congress the power to declare war, and the last time this occurred was in December of 1941. America responded the day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and three days later the U.S. Congress reacted again when Nazi Germany declared war on the United States.

No other nation has adopted a war resolution specifically against America since that time. The Korean War (1950 – 1953) and 1991’s Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait were military actions pursued under a United Nations mandate. If President George H.W. Bush had insisted on a declaration of war, he would have received it. He did not feel it was necessary, and the fighting lasted for only 100 hours. Republicans wanted a formal declaration but the Democratic majority did not want to give Bush any additional power.

Why Doesn’t Congress Declare War?

A declaration of war only requires a 51% majority vote in Congress. The “Declare War” clause of the U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section 8) does not spell out any exact powers, and Presidents have taken a broad mandate after the passage of a war resolution. The presidents war powers have been recognized numerous times, and most recently by the Supreme Court in the Hamdi v. Rumsfeld decision of 2004.

Since World War II, the Congress has preferred to use an Authorization for the Use of Military Force [AUMF]. This serves a very different role from a formal declaration of war. By passing an AUMF instead of a declaration, Congress is limiting the scope of power given to a president.

Past legislative history under a declaration of war gives the president broad inherent constitutional powers to deploy U.S. armed forces into combat abroad without specific authorization from Congress. The AUMFs passed by Congress signal support for the military actions but they do not go so far as to cede lawmaking power to the president. A declaration of war has been viewed by the Supreme Court as ceding legislative power by Congress.

What Has Happened in the Past?

Only two Senators voted against the Vietnam Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, and it passed the House unanimously. Only one lawmaker in the entire Congress opposed George W. Bush’s 2002 “Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists” in Afghanistan.

Of the more than 220 situations in which the U.S. armed forces have been used (half of them involving fighting for less than 30 days), only five have involved declarations of war: the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, World War I and World War II.

Any of our post war presidents could have easily obtained a declaration of war. There was very little Congressional opposition at the outset of the post WW II conflicts. Instead, the Congress used a process called authorization of forces rather than war declarations.

The presidents would have preferred war declarations which once again significantly expand their power. Ron Paul’s claims that a war declaration limits the president is totally false. As I indicated, the Congress prefers AUMF’s because they increase the stature of the legislative branch.

Why Does Congress Insist on an AUMF Rather Than a War Declaration?

By using an AUMF, if Congress wishes to oppose military actions pursued by the Commander-in-Chief, it can do so in several ways. It can revoke any resolutions supporting the President. The Congress did that in 1970 when it revoked the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

Congress can also cut off appropriations for Presidential war making. During the Vietnam War, it barred troops from engaging in operations in Thailand and Laos (1969) and from using ground forces in Cambodia (1970) and bombing Cambodia (1973).

America Was Not Tricked Into The Vietnam War

Another false claim made by the isolationists concern the Vietnam War. They say America was tricked into this conflict. The 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was passed after the attack on the U.S. destroyers Maddox and C. Turner Joy. Everyone could see the visible damage on the USS Maddox. It was later discovered that a radar mistake was responsible for the USS C. Turner Joy’s response. Nevertheless, the attack on the Mattox took place.

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