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Why the US Doesn’t Declare War

Earlier this season, we talked with Stephen Wertheim of The Quincy Institute. During our interview we spent some time discussing the ways in which the US wages war, and how we seem to get ourselves into an awful lot of conflicts without having Congress declare war. So, we thought we’d give a brief overview of how this happens

Check out our interview with Stephen here!

One of the most shocking facts we found was the United States has engaged in military force around the world 243 times since we last officially declared “war” in 1942. Even more surprising, we’ve only officially declared war 11 times in our history, and we’ve certainly had more than 11 wars. How does this happen?

Congressional Declaration of War

When the Founding Fathers sat down to write the Constitution, they wanted to make very sure the President didn’t become a king. To that end, they gave Congress the sole ability to declare war in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution. They then gave the supreme power of the armies and navies of the United States to the President (aka The Commander-in-Chief) in Article 2, Section 2. So now, if the United States wants to go to war, Congress and the President must work together, creating a checks-and-balances system for warfare.

This system worked until after World War II, when atomic power and the era of the Cold War began. In the years after WWII, the federal government created the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Council, and the CIA, all of which the President oversees, and who have a great amount of power in the realm of National Security. Slowly, the groundwork for the Presidential ability to declare war was laid. When Truman wanted to intervene in Korea in 1950, but was unsure that he’d get Congressional sign-off, he went to the United Nations, which passed a resolution advising its member states to support South Korea. Truman committed troops to the U.N. and went to war without Congressional approval.

This action set a precedent, as other Presidents realized they could use force without Congressional approval.

The War Powers Act

Instead of calling war “war” we’ve become very good at naming it other things, like “police action,” “limited military engagement,” or “kinetic military action.” As the US was bogged down in the Vietnam War, which was another long-term conflict but not technically a war, Congress sought to regain its power to declare war while also acknowledging that the President still had the ability to use and command his forces. The result was the War Powers Resolution, which gave the President 60 days to seek Congressional approval after beginning military hostilities with a foreign country.

Things unfortunately didn’t change much. The Legislative Branch is famously unwilling to deal with lawsuits alleging abuse of the War Powers Resolution, and lawmakers mostly invoke it to express displeasure about a President of the opposite party. While both sides argue about who is right, the use of military force continues.

Congress Doesn’t Really Want to Declare War

Perhaps the most powerful reason that Congress hasn’t done more to reign in the Executive Branch’s war-making ability is that it perhaps doesn’t really want to. Simply put, if you declare war, you own the consequences. For a body that seeks re-election every two years, having to face angry voters over a war you declared, potentially multiple times, is not especially appetizing. Stephen Wertheim mentioned this in our interview, and said that for responsible statecraft to work effectively, Congress must accept its responsibility to declare war, and proactively stop the Executive Branch from using military use without permission.

Our current and recent military engagements in the Middle East and North Africa are somehow still justified under the Authorization for Use of Military Force Congress approved in 2002. If Congress wanted to, they could demand that a new AUMF be issued, but then they’d own another war. Based on the long-term popularity of the Iraq war, it’s no surprise why they don’t want to do so.


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