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When is a war not a war? The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to "declare war," but modern Presidents have dispensed with the formalities. (time past).

As American casualties mounted into the tens of thousands in Vietnam, many members of the U.S. Congress--and much of the public--were feeling betrayed and fed up. Over the course of more than a decade, Presidents from John F. Kennedy to Richard M. Nixon had escalated U.S. involvement in the war, often without fully informing lawmakers and the public.

By 1973, Congress had had enough. It passed the War Powers Resolution (widely known as the War Powers Act), designed to limit presidential authority in war-making matters.

Nixon vetoed the bill, arguing it compromised U.S. security, and was an "attempt to take away ... authorities which the President has properly exercised under the Constitution for almost 200 years." Congress overrode the veto and the War Powers Act stood. Efforts to check presidential power had triumphed.

Or had they? When it comes to war, the President and Congress have engaged in a long-running turf battle. President George W. Bush's proposed invasion of Iraq has raised these issues again. In practice, what has emerged in the last 60 years is an uneasy sharing of authority over U.S. military activity. Despite what the Constitution might say, however, modern Presidents have consistently set the agenda for war.


The Framers of the Constitution outlined "checks and balances" on the use of military power. Too much control in the hands of the executive branch, the argument went, set the stage for tyranny. When necessary, though, leaders needed the ability to act quickly to defend the country. So the Constitution split these responsibilities:

The President shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States ...

The Congress shall have power ... To declare war ... To raise and support armies ... To provide and maintain a navy ...

In short, the Constitution gave Congress control of the money for financing the military. The President, as Commander in Chief of the armed forces, holds the job of leading it, and possesses the independent power to call out troops in military emergencies.

The right "to declare war" is where history and practice have muddied the rules. Although Congress specifically holds the power to declare war, it has been the President who has sent soldiers, sailors, and pilots into combat. In fact, Congress has declared war only five times: the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II. But since then, the U.S. has been in numerous other conflicts that were wars in everything but official declaration.


Since World War II, Presidents have launched military actions with varying degrees of congressional support. Congressional leaders in August 1950, for example, told President Harry S. Truman to do what he thought best to help South Korea defend itself against a surprise invasion by North Korea--and not to bother seeking congressional approval. The result was the undeclared Korean War, lasting three years.

The relationship between the executive and legislative branches grew less amicable during the Vietnam War. By 1964, about 118,000 U.S. military "advisers" were on the ground, aiding South Vietnam in battling Communist rebels backed by North Vietnam.

An incident in the Tonkin Gulf, off the coast of Vietnam, gave pro-war members of Congress and the Johnson administration an excuse to escalate: North Vietnamese gunboats attacked and badly damaged a U.S. destroyer on surveillance. Days later, a second, unconfirmed attack was claimed. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara told Senators that the attacks were "part and parcel of a continuing Communist drive to conquer South Vietnam."

What McNamara didn't tell senators was that the U.S. ship was attacked while secretly and illegally assisting South Vietnamese raids on Communist targets. Based on the information they had, plus strong anti-Communist attitudes, Congress overwhelmingly passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.

This resolution, authorizing the President to take military action, was not a declaration of war--but it might as well have been. Under Johnson's orders, combat efforts were quickly ramped up, further embroiling the U.S. in its most controversial war.


Nearly a decade later, Congress passed the War Powers Act, to "insure that the collective judgment of both Congress and the President will apply to the introduction of the United States Armed Forces into hostilities ..."

The core of the law says that if the President introduces troops into "hostilities" or "imminent hostilities," he has 60 days to obtain congressional authorization, The law also requires the President to notify Congress of the commitment of military forces within 48 hours, and to supply regular reports while forces are engaged.

Critics, though, have described the War Powers Act as toothless. A New York Times editorial said in 1973:

"The war powers bill itself is not the revolutionary measure that Mr. Nixon and other critics have attempted to make it out to be.... If anything, it gives the Chief Executive more discretionary authority than the framers of the Constitution intended ..."

What the act did, in fact, was hand the President the legal means to engage in military action for 60 days without congressional supervision.

Still, the law has generated more communication between the Commander in Chief and Congress when U.S. forces have been sent into action in places like Grenada (expelling a rebel regime) and Panama (ousting a drug-running dictator) in the 1980s; the Persian Gulf (liberating Kuwait), Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo (all peace-keeping) in the 1990s; and Afghanistan (fighting terrorists and their protectors) in 2001. And though Nixon and subsequent Presidents hardly embraced the law, not one has sent troops into combat without some form of congressional involvement.

Most of the time, Congress has gone along with a President's war aims, as lawmakers don't want to appear unpatriotic during times of national crisis. On other occasions, though, genuine disagreement has arisen over an administration's military designs. In the lead-up to the Persian Gulf war in 1991, a resolution authorizing force to drive Iraq's army out of Kuwait passed the Senate by only five votes.

By the time of the vote, President George H.W. Bush had already ordered 400,000 troops to the region and convinced the United Nations to set a deadline for Iraqi withdrawal. Asked by a reporter whether he could order a military strike if Congress had not approved, Bush replied: "I still feel I have the constitutional authority, many attorneys having so advised me."

The administration of George W. Bush holds similar principles as it navigates the standoff with Iraq. As The New York Times reported:

Vice President Dick Cheney ... has long held that there is an "inherent presidential power to act" in defense of "vital national interests" that "comes directly from the Constitution and not from Congress."

Which invites the question--who defines these "vital national interests" in relation to war? For more than half a century, it's been the President.

Soldiering On

Since 1945, U.S. forces have fought in these countries without a declaration of war.

* Korea (1950-53)

* Vietnam (1965-73)

* Grenada (1983)

* Panama (1989-90)

* Persian Gulf (1990-Present)

* Somalia (1992-95)

* Bosnia & Herzegovina (1995-Present)

* Kosovo (1999)

* Afghanistan (2001-Present)


* Why do you think the Founding Fathers made the President Commander in Chief of the military but gave Congress the power to declare war?

* Why might a President seek congressional support for a war only after fighting has begun?

* What are the pros and cons of a unilateral attack against Iraq?

* Do you believe President Bush has made a convincing argument for going to war against Iraq?


To help students understand the ongoing conflict between Congress and Presidents over war-making powers.


BEFORE READING: Refer to a copy of the U.S. Constitution. See Art. I Sec. 8, which gives Congress the power to "declare War," as noted on page 35.

CRITICAL THINKING/DEBATE: Note one of the arguments for making the President Commander in Chief--the need to act quickly in time of emergency to defend the country. Does this fact guarantee confrontation between the President and Congress over war-making responsibilities? Could the Framers have anticipated this confrontation when, in 1787, they split authority over military affairs between the President and Congress?

Note that members of Congress are usually consulted during a crisis, but that few have challenged the President for fear of appearing unpatriotic. Have students discuss this phenomenon. Once a President commits troops to a military conflict, is it the duty of all Americans to line up in support of that military action? How might Presidents paint their political adversaries as unpatriotic? What is the difference--or is there a difference--between supporting troops engaged in hostilities and supporting the President's policy?

Ask students to focus for a moment on the process leading up to the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. What powers did the President have that were not available to Congress? (Access to information and the ability to conceal vital facts about the case gave Johnson more power than Congress.) Should the law require Presidents to provide absolute proof of a military threat to the country before the U.S. takes military action?

WEB WATCH: See the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which limits a President's war-making authority, at www.cs.
Upfront QUIZ 3


DIRECTIONS: Circle the letter next to the correct answer.

1. The term that best describes the ability of one branch
 of government to restrain the actions of another is

 a advance and retreat.
 b checks and balances.
 c allocate and distribute.
 d formulate and evaluate.

2. In 1973, Congress passed the War Powers Act over
 the veto of President

 a Lyndon B. Johnson.
 b Gerald R. Ford.
 c John F. Kennedy.
 d Richard M. Nixon.

3. The core of the War Powers Act requires Presidents
 to seek congressional authorization

 a 60 days after sending troops to hostilities.
 b before sending troops to hostilities.
 c to reduce military spending.
 d before launching hostilities against U.S. allies.

4. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution dramatically expanded

 a World War II.
 b the Korean War.
 c the Vietnam War.
 d U.S. military involvement in Somalia.

5. The only military conflict of the choices below in which
 Congress issued a formal declaration of war was

 a the Mexican War.
 b the war in Afghanistan.
 c the Persian Gulf War.
 d the invasion of Panama.

6. "When Is a War Not a War?" reports that some
 members of Congress are unwilling to challenge a
 President's war-making powers because they

 a know the President is wiser than members of Congress.
 b know the President is better informed about foreign
 policy and military threats.
 c fear appearing unpatriotic.
 d respect the President as Commander in Chief.


1. (b) checks and balances. 2. (d)Richard M. Nixon. 3. (a) 60 clays after sending troops to hostilities. 4. (c) Vietnam War. 5. (a) Mexican War. 6. (c) fear appearing unpatriotic.
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Author:McCollum, Sean
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Date:Oct 18, 2002
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