The War Drums of America

July 7, 2017 Earle Jacobs

How the US Congress Declares a War: A Monumental Undertaking


If there’s one thing the rest of the world can agree on about the good ol’ US of A, it is the fact that it loves its wars. War on drugs, war on terror, and even a war on poverty are just some of the things the United States has declared war on, but it is also involved in many armed conflicts outside the country across the globe. From the current involvement in the war in Afghanistan; the embroilment in the Syrian civil war and the Iraqi civil war, which both stem from the war against ISIS and the war on terror; and taking part in the Libyan civil war, the United States has its hands full internationally involved in conflicts.

However, the last time the United States officially declared a war outright through a congressional declaration was on the Empire of Japan in World War II, following the attacks on Pearl Harbor. A few days after, that declaration was followed with another declaration of war against Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy and then was followed by three more declarations of war on Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania.

There has not been any kind of congressional authorization for the rest of the conflicts the United States has been involved in from that time till the present.

So how does the US Congress declare war, and is its participation really necessary to formalize such actions?

A formal declaration issued by a national government indicating that a state of war exists between that nation and another, a declaration of war is a power held the Congress under Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitution. Each declaration must pass a joint resolution in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

In past times, each war declared by Congress was formally made after a prior request from the president and occurred after hostilities had been engaged as a form of self-defense or to protect the interest of the United States. There are officially declared wars by Congress, and then there are undeclared wars that are military engagements authorized by Congress and military engagements authorized by United Nations Security Council Resolutions and funded by Congress. The Constitution was written to make sure that the power to declare a war did not concentrate on just one or few people. But because of the fact that the president is also the “commander in chief, the president can give war powers to the legislative and executive branch. So these days, the president can take action without a formal declaration, and instead, the Congress can authorize through authorizations of use of military force (AUMF).

This is why, despite the lack of formal declarations from Congress, the United States has been involved in so many wars since World War II.

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Krayewski, Ed. 2012. “The Last Time America Declared War.” Last modified December 8, 2012. Accessed on July 6, 2017.

United States Senate. 2017. “Official Declarations of War by Congress.” Accessed on July 6, 2017.

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