Declaration of war by the United States

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A declaration of war by the United States is the statement of purpose traditionally requested by the President of the United States and granted by Congress to engage military force against another nation. Since World War II, the decision-making power of Congress to declare war has been unofficially downgraded to issuing authorizations of force. (See below.)

The United States has formally declared war against foreign nations eleven separate times. Each time the declaration was requested by the president either in writing or in person before a joint session of Congress.

War Foreign nation Declaration date Senate vote House vote President Peace Treaty
War of 1812 United Kingdom June 18, 1812 19-13 79-49 Madison Treaty of Ghent
Mexican-American War Mexico May 11, 1846 40-2 174-14 Polk Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo
Spanish-American War Spain April 24, 1898 42-35 310-6 McKinley Treaty of Paris
World War I Germany April 4 & 6, 1917 82-6 373-50 Wilson Treaty of Berlin
World War I Austria-Hungary December 7, 1917 74-0 365-1 Wilson
World War II Japan December 8, 1941 82-0 388-1 F. Roosevelt San Francisco Peace Treaty
World War II Germany December 11, 1941 88-0 393-0 F. Roosevelt Treaty on the Final Settlement With Respect to Germany, Treaty of Vienna with Austria
World War II Italy December 11, 1941 90-0 399-0 F. Roosevelt Paris Peace Treaty
World War II Bulgaria June 5, 1942 73-0 357-0 F. Roosevelt Paris Peace Treaty
World War II Hungary June 5, 1942 73-0 360-0 F. Roosevelt Paris Peace Treaty
World War II Romania June 5, 1942 73-0 361-0 F. Roosevelt Paris Peace Treaty

Military engagements authorized by Congress

Many times, the United States has engaged in extended military engagements that, while not formally declared wars, were explicitly authorized by Congress, short of a formal declaration of war.

War or conflict Enemy or enemies Initial authorization Senate vote House vote Conclusion
Quasi-War France 1798
First Barbary War Barbary States 1801
Second Barbary War Barbary States 1815
Raid of slave traffic Africa 1820
Redress for attack on U.S. Navy vessel Paraguay 1859
Intervention during the Russian Civil War Bolshevist Russia 1918
Protection of Lebanon Rebels 1958
Vietnam War National Liberation Front, later Democratic Republic of Vietnam Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, August 7, 1964 88-2 416-0 Peace agreement signed in Paris, January 1973
Restoration of Lebanese government 1982
Operation Just Cause Panama Defense Force December 20, 1989 Manuel Noriega deposed
Persian Gulf War Iraq January 12, 1991 52-47 250-183 The United Nations Security Council drew up terms for the cease-fire, April 3, 1991
War on Terrorism Taliban government of Afghanistan,
al-Qaida and other alleged terrorist groups
September 18, 2001 98-0 420-1 ongoing
2003 invasion of Iraq Iraq H.J. Res. 114,
October 16, 2002
77-23 296-133 ongoing

United Nations resolutions

The Korean War was not a war authorized by the U.S. Congress. President Harry S. Truman cited authority under United Nations resolutions.

The War Powers Resolution

In 1973, following the withdrawal of most American troops from the Vietnam War, debate raged in the United States between those who supported declarations of war, and those who opposed them. A compromise was reached with the War Powers Resolution. This act clearly defined how many soldiers could be deployed by the president of the United States and for how long. It also required formal reports by the president to Congress regarding the status of such deployments, and limited the total amount of time that American forces could be employed without a formal declaration of war.

Although the constitutionality of the act has never been tested, for the most part it has been followed, most notably during the Grenada Conflict, the Panamanian Conflict, the Somalia Conflict, the First Gulf War, and the Second Gulf War. In each case, the President asserted the constitutional authority to commit troops without the necessity of Congressional approval, but in each case the President received Congressional authorization that satisfied the provisions of the War Powers Act.

Controversy regarding U.S. declarations of war

Those who oppose waging war without declaration point to Article I of the Constitution, which reads The Congress shall have the power to declare war.

In the case of smaller conflicts not requiring large commitments of manpower and money, many Americans believe that precedents have already been set for acting without the need for declarations of war. In the case of major conflicts, however, debate is centered around the aforesaid words of the United States Constitution.

Those who believe that formal declarations of war are not necessary say that an absence of a formal declaration does not necessary mean that a military conflict will be chaotic and unlawful; in many cases the rules of war are now well enough accepted to make formal declarations unnecessary. There are also diplomatic reasons for a dislike of "declaring war" on a country, as it can often be perceived as holding an entire nation responsible for the actions of a few of its citizens. In the case of the most recent public opposition, those who support such actions have noted that, in the case of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there was no 'target' for a legal declaration of war, rather political groups or individuals.

However, the historical record disagrees somewhat on this point. The Barbary Coast War was clearly waged against a political entity not regarded as the legitimate government of its nation of operation; the Border War, quietly declared as it was, was waged against a single person, Pancho Villa.

Current status of the U.S. debate

Extremely heated debate developed in the United States beginning on or around September 11, 2001. A significant percentage of Americans were found by polls to favor formal declarations of war against the Taliban regime of Afghanistan and the Al Qaeda terror network; their requests were largely pushed aside as "uninformed" by the White House. They since began to argue that the recent Second Gulf War was unconstitutional, because it lacked a clear declaration of war, and was waged over the objection of a significantly sized demographic in the United States.

Instead of formal war declarations, the United States Congress has begun issuing authorizations of force. Such authorizations have included the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that initated American participation in the Vietnam War, and the recent "Use-of-force" resolution that started the 2003 Gulf War. However, there is some question as to the legality of these authorization of force in some circles. Many who support declarations of war argue that such declarations keep administrations honest by forcing them to lay out their case to the American people, while at the same time honoring the constitutional role of the United States Congress.

Those who oppose this measure say that it only takes more time, and that more lives will be lost for the sake of a political formality. Americans should, they argue, support their presidents and question military actions only after the fact. Notably, those who oppose such activities without formal declaration include among them widows and veterans of most undeclared American wars. However, the courts have consistently refused to intervene in this matter, and in practice Presidents have the power to commit forces with Congressional approval but without a declaration of war.

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