War Powers

1798Force Authorized To Protect Shipping Vessels

President John Adams, on May 28, 1798, instructs commanders of U.S. military vessels to capture French armed vessels suspected of attacking American merchant vessels or of planning such attacks. On July 9, 1798, Congress authorizes the president to command U.S. military ships to take “any armed French vessel, which shall be found within the jurisdictional limits of the United States, or elsewhere, on the high seas.” The actions are part of what become known as an undeclared war with France, the Quasi-War. The maritime conflict expedites creation of the Department of Navy on April 30, 1798.

1801U.S. Takes Military Action Without A Declaration of War

When the United States refuses to pay tribute to the North African Barbary pirates, who have been raiding its ships in the Mediterranean, the pasha of Tripoli declares war on the United States. President Thomas Jefferson exerts his powers as commander in chief to set a naval blockade of Tripoli that results in a peace treaty in 1805.

1812Congress Enacts First Declaration of War

Britain’s interference with American shipping and a blockade of U.S. ports leads President James Madison to ask Congress for a declaration of war against Great Britain. The House votes 79 to 49 for war on June 4. The Senate votes more narrowly for war, 19 to 13, on June 18. In August 1814, British troops invade Washington, D.C., and burn the White House and Capitol, but are eventually turned back at Baltimore. The inconclusive war is ended by the Treaty of Ghent, but, before word of the treaty reached the United States, Americans score a morale-building victory at the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815.

1815Congress Authorizes Military Force Against Algeria

President James Madison seeks authority from Congress to use the Navy to protect shipping vessels from the ruler and regency of Algeria, which has been seizing U.S. commercial vessels in the Mediterranean. Congress does not declare war, but on March 3, 1815, authorizes military force. The two sides agree to a treaty on June 30, 1815.

1846War With Mexico Adds Vast Territories

A border clash between the United States and Mexico over disputed territory between the Rio Grande and Nueces Rivers, leaves eleven Americans dead. President James K. Polk asks Congress for a declaration of war. The House votes 174 to 14 for war on May 11, and the Senate adopts a war resolution the next day by a vote of 40 to 2. American troops capture the Mexican capital of Mexico City. By the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico, cedes its northernmost territory to the United States, lands that today include the states of California, Arizona, Utah,Nevada,New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming.

1861North Views Secession as an Insurrection

Soon after the election of President Abraham Lincoln, eleven southern states secede from the Union and form the Confederacy. When Lincoln declines to surrender Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, Confederate forces fire upon and capture the fort. Lincoln then declares that an insurrection exists and calls on Northerners to volunteer for military service. Lincoln calls Congress into emergency session on July 4 but does not seek a formal declaration of war. After four brutal years of fighting, the South surrenders in April 1865.

1898Spanish-American War Ends Swiftly

The American public is outraged over reports of Spanish atrocities in Cuba, and the explosion and sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor. President William McKinley responds to sentiments in Congress with a war message on April 11. On April 25, the House and Senate declare war by voice votes. The brief conflict sees American victories against the Spanish in Cuba and the Philippines.

1917United States Drawn Into European War

In 1914 the Triple Entente of Great Britain, France, and Russia goes to war against the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. The United States stays neutral until German attacks on American shipping convince President Woodrow Wilson to ask Congress, in 1917, for a declaration of war. The Senate passes the war resolution by a vote of 82 to 6 on April 4, and the House by a vote of 373 to 50 on April 6. Entry of U.S. forces into the conflict tips the balance against Germany, which accepts an armistice in November 1918. The Senate twice defeats the Treaty of Versailles. But, the Senate finally approves a treaty with Germany that formally ends the war in 1921.

1941Congress Enacts Last Official Declaration of War

On December 7, 1941, a Japanese surprise attack destroys the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, which is a U.S. territory. President Franklin Roosevelt calls for a declaration of war against Japan, which Congress adopts with only one dissenting vote in the House. Japan’s allies, Germany and Italy, also declare war on the United States, and Congress unanimously declares war against them. In June 1942, Congress again unanimously declares war on three of Germany’s allies, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania. Italy is defeated in 1943, and Germany surrenders in May 1945. Following the use of atomic weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan announces its surrender in August 1945, signing the Japanese Instrument of Surrender on September 2. World War II marks the last time that the U.S. Congress officially declares war against another nation.

1950United States Engages In A Police Action In Korea, Bypassing Congress

North Korean troops invade South Korea in 1950. President Harry S.Truman does not ask Congress for a declaration of war in support of South Korea but instead dispatches U.S. troops to support the United Nations’ effort in Korea, which he calls a police action. An armistice reached in 1953 leaves Korea divided.

1952Presidential Wartime Powers Curtailed

Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer is brought to the U.S. Supreme Court after President Harry Truman orders the seizure of steel mills to avert the effects that a steel strike would have on the war effort in Korea. The Court holds that the right to decide issues of commerce lay fundamentally with Congress. Under the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, Congress made it unlawful to seize property to settle labor disputes. Further, the Court rules, the president’s status as commander in chief does not extend to labor disputes.

1955Eisenhower Empowered To Protect Formosa

President Dwight Eisenhower asks Congress on Jan. 24, 1955, for emergency authorization to use force to avert Chinese Communist capture of Formosa, now Taiwan, and the Pescadores Islands. Citing “provocative political and military actions,” Eisenhower requests a “suitable Congressional resolution that would clearly and publicly establish the authority of the president as commander-in-chief.” On Jan. 29, 1955, Congress authorizes military action through a resolution, which the president signs the next morning.

1957Eisenhower Seeks Support In Mideast

On Jan. 5, 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower expresses fear that the Mideast may fall under Soviet control. He asks Congress to back a military and an economic program. He wants authority to use military force if any Mideast nation seeks help defending against aggression. Two months later, Congress passes a resolution. It says the country is “prepared” to use force in the region if the president deems it necessary. Senate Democrats, however, reject the notion of giving the president “authorization” to use force, arguing that the Constitution vests such power in him. Eisenhower signs the resolution into law March 9, 1957.

1964Gulf of Tonkin Resolution Used as War Declaration

After President Lyndon Johnson reports that North Vietnamese patrol boats have fired on American naval vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin, Congress passes the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. It authorizes the President to take all necessary measures to repel another armed attack and to prevent further aggression. President Johnson later uses the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution as a declaration of war enabling him to commit several hundred thousand American troops to South Vietnam. The United States withdraws its troops from South Vietnam in 1973, after signing a peace treaty. Hostilities between the North and South continue until Congress finally cuts off all military aid to the South in 1975. North Vietnam prevails and unites Vietnam under its rule.

1973Congress Reasserts Its Authority With War Powers Resolution

Congressional frustration with the prolonged war in Vietnam leads to passage of the War Powers Resolution on Nov. 7, 1973, over President Richard Nixon’s veto. The resolution requires presidents to notify Congress within 48 hours of committing U.S. combat troops abroad, and establishes a 60-day limit on the deployment of troops in combat overseas without congressional approval. The resolution remains controversial, with varying arguments over its effect on the power of Congress, as well as that of the president.

1983Congress Acts On Lebanon Deployment

President Ronald Reagan sends 1,200 Marines to Lebanon in September 1982. In June 1983, he signs the Lebanon Emergency Assistance Act, requiring that expansion in the number or role of U.S. forces in Lebanon be authorized by Congress. As the crisis deepens and Marines are killed, Reagan is urged to invoke the War Powers Act. Finally, in October 1983, he signs the Multinational Force in Lebanon Resolution, stating that troops may be deployed only an additional 18 months. Congress must approve any extension of that period. Reagan attaches a signing statement to each piece of legislation, asserting his power as commander in chief.

1983Reagan Launches Grenada Invasion

U.S. troops invade Grenada on Oct. 25, 1983, after anti-U.S. Marxists execute the nation’s more moderate Marxist leader, Maurice Bishop. Up to 1,000 Americans are on the Caribbean island, most of them medical students. President Ronald Reagan labels the invasion a rescue operation. However, the United States has been worried for several years that Grenada is moving closer to Cuba and the Soviet Union. Reagan notifies Congress late on the day the invasion occurs; legislators dispute whether that meets War Powers Act rules. On Nov. 1, Congress imposes a 60-day limit on troop involvement. The military operation ends Nov. 2. Interim leadership is installed. Free elections are held in a year.

1989Bush Orders Invasion of Panama

President George H.W. Bush orders the invasion of Panama on Dec. 20, 1989. He notifies congressional leaders several hours prior, but does not invoke the War Powers Act. He cites as goals: to topple leader Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, to protect Americans, to restore democracy and to protect the Panama Canal. The United States installs a government of leaders whose election earlier in the year had been nullified by Noriega. The misson ends Jan. 3, 1990, with Noriega’s surrender and extradition to Miami for trial on U.S. drug-trafficking charges.

1991United States Goes To War In The Persian Gulf By UN Resolution

After Iraq invades Kuwait and threatens Saudi Arabia, President George H.W. Bush organizes a multinational coalition and persuades the United Nations to impose sanctions on Iraq and set a deadline for Iraq’s withdrawal. Congress passes a resolution authorizing the use of force in support of the United Nations. On January 16, 1991, American-led coalition forces attack Iraqi positions. The war ends in one hundred hours, with Kuwait freed from Iraqi occupation.

2001Bush Lays Groundwork For War On Terrorism

President George W. Bush signs a joint resolution on Sept. 18, 2001, that authorizes the use of force against those who attacked the United States on Sept. 11. His administration will later cite the resolution as its legal rationale for invading Afghanistan, setting up Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for detainees, and taking steps for extensive surveillance of U.S. citizens suspected of terrorist activity.

2001United States Responds to Terrorism

The United States responds to terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, by attacking Afghanistan, which had hosted the terrorist organization responsible for the attacks. President George W. Bush then asserts the nation’s right to fight preemptive wars. He identifies Iraq as having links to terrorists and warns that it possesses weapons of mass destruction.

2002Congress Authorizes Use Of Force In Iraq

President George W. Bush pushes for an invasion of Iraq, arguing that the country has terrorist links and possesses weapons of mass destruction. On Oct. 11, the Senate joins the House in granting him authority to commit U.S. forces. Bush is unable to gain U.N. support, however. The United States attacks on March 19, 2003, but no weapons of mass destruction are found.