Congressional War Declarations

by Abigail Pfeiffer on March 5, 2015

Well, America, here we go again. As many of you probably know, President Obama recently asked Congress for an “Authorization for the Use of Military Force.” In this authorization draft, the President is asking for a three year time frame in which to conduct limited military operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The document states the military limitations as “The authority granted in subsection (a) does not authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground combat operations.” An analysis of this and its effects will be another post for another day. Let’s be clear that President Obama is not asking for an official declaration of war.

However, this made me start thinking about the powers Congress holds in regards to war declarations and the use of military force. Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitution grants Congress specific powers when it comes to declarations of war and other military powers. There are really three categories to examine in which Congress can authorize the use of military force and the appropriation of funds for military operations. These three categories are:

  • Declaration of war
  • Military engagements authorized by Congress
  • United Nations military engagements funded by Congress

When it comes to official declarations of war, Congress has only used their Constitutional power eleven times in American history.

  1. The War of 1812 was the first time Congress declared war. This war declaration was on June 17, 1812 against Great Britain.
  2. Congress declared war against Mexico on May 12, 1846 which commenced the Mexican American War and expanded US territory to include the American Southwest.
  3. War was declared against Spain on April 25, 1898, a few short months after the explosion on the USS Maine. This is often referred to as

    Wreckage of the USS ''Maine'' in Havana Harbor, 1898

    an Imperial or Colonial war since the US received Guam and Puerto Rice, and purchased the Philippines for $20 million.

  4. Nineteen years later, Congress declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917 which began direct American involvement in WWI.
  5. In addition to declaring war on Germany in 1917, Congress declared war against Austria-Hungary on December 7, 1917.
  6. On December 8, 1941, Congress declared war on Japan in response to the attack on Pearl Harbor.
  7. Congress declared war against Germany on December 11, 1941 in response to Germany’s declaration of war on the US earlier that day.
  8. The same day, Congress declared war against Italy on December 11, 1941.
  9. Then came a lull in WWII war declarations, but they quickly resumed again. Congress declared war against Bulgaria on June 4, 1942.
  10. June 4, 1942 proved to be a very busy day in Congress, as they also declared war on Hungary.
  11. Finally, Congress declared against Rumania on June 4, 1942.

There you have it. So while it seems America has been perpetually at war since our birth as a nation, (which we pretty much have) Congress has only used their war declaration powers eleven times. You might be thinking, well what about the Korean War? That would fall under the category of a UN military engagement funded by Congress. What about the Vietnam War and the Gulf Wars? Those would fall under “military engagements” authorized by Congress.

But whichever language you choose to spin it, war is war – if people are fighting and dying, then in my opinion that is a war, regardless of how Congress or historians define it.

Do you think there will be any war declarations in the near future, or will we keep going with these limited military engagements?

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