How War is Initiated



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Thank you to the following reviewers of the curriculum: Andrew Demko, Rainier Junior/Senior High School; George Herring, University of Kentucky; Mark Lawrence, University of Texas at Austin; Susan Tomlinson, Franklin Central High  School. 


When was the last time the US made a declaration of war? You may answer with Afghanistan, Iraq, etc., but in fact the last time that the US formally declared war was in 1941, with the onset of World War II. Our founders intended for war to be initiated through a specific procedure, but that hasn’t always been the case, particularly in the last 50+ years.

View slides 1-2 in the presentation. The Constitution addresses how war should be initiated—in Article I, Section 8, the text states that “Congress shall have the Power to declare War.” This indicates that the authority to initiate war lies with Congress—how has this legislative authority played out in the 20th century?

In slide 3, you see an image from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. Before this attack, American citizens largely supported a policy of non-intervention in foreign conflicts. Over 2000 Americans lost their lives in the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the tragic and seemingly unanticipated event galvanized the American public.

Watch the video included on slide 4, which is President Roosevelt’s now famous address to Congress concerning the attack and the prospect of war against Japan. What language does the President use 1.) to justify the need for armed intervention as a response to the attack and 2.) to bolster confidence in and support for an armed intervention? How does this address seem to maintain the founders’ intentions regarding the initiation of war? On December 8, Congress passed a resolution formally declaring war against Japan (slide 5).

In 1964, a series of events with some familiar elements unfolded and ultimately resulted in US armed intervention in a foreign conflict. On August  2 and 4, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson received reports of attacks by North Vietnamese forces on the USS Maddox in the Vietnamese Gulf of Tonkin. Many have suggested that the incident, the details of which have come under dispute, merely served as an excuse to advance President Johnson’s policy toward Vietnam, an inclination toward proactive military action that used the lessons of the Munich Conference as an analogy (“Nor would surrender in Viet-Nam bring peace, because we learned from Hitler at Munich that success only feeds the appetite of aggression.”)

On August 7, 1964, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. Read the excerpt from the resolution included on slide 7. What words stand out to you? Do you see the word “war” anywhere? Through this resolution, President Johnson was able to commit large numbers of additional troops to Vietnam without receiving a formal declaration of war from Congress, and some have interpreted this as being an unconstitutional way to initiate war at a full scale, or an overexpansion of executive authority as commander-in-chief.

As the war progressed, from 1964 onward, Americans became increasingly disillusioned with the war in Vietnam. Only an average of 40% of Americans approved Johnson’s handling of the war in Vietnam in 1968 (Gallup), and the approval rating increased to only 54% when Nixon announced a withdrawal of some troops in 1969 (Gallup).

(Slides 8 and 9) In mid-1970, Nixon authorized an invasion of Cambodia, purportedly to secure the border with Vietnam as a preemptive measure in the move toward Vietnamization (to expand South Vietnam’s role in the war while reducing the US’s role). This action was authorized without the approval of Congress and the American public learned about it after the fact through a speech by President Nixon on April 30, 1970. Unrest grew among the public (protests at Kent State against the invasion of Cambodia led to killing of 4 students by National Guard) and Congress responded by passing the Cooper-Church amendment, which immediately ended US operations outside the Vietnam borders.

As a measure to check executive power in committing forces and, arguably, as a way to reconcile the mistake that was made in passing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, on November 7, 1973, the War Powers Resolution passed by Congress became law. The War Powers Resolution requires the President to notify Congress within 48 hours upon sending troops into military action, and it forbids military personnel from remaining in a state of conflict for more than 60 days without authorization from Congress for a formal declaration of war.

Read the excerpt from the War Powers Resolution included on slide 10. Do you think this new resolution is constitutional or unconstitutional? The Constitution names the President as the Commander-in-Chief of all armed forces, and yet it also gives the power to declare war to Congress. The War Powers Resolution is still in effect today and is intended to guide decisions on the initiation of war.

(Slides 11 and 12) On September 11, 2001, a series of coordinated attacks by Al Qa’ida, a global militant group, killed nearly 3000 Americans at the World Trade Center in New York, in Pennsylvania, and at the Pentagon in the Washington, DC area. The September 11 attacks marked the single largest loss of life on American soil by foreign attack. The event stunned the nation and on September 18, 2001, Congress passed Public Law 107-40. Read the excerpt from PL 107-40 included on slide 13. How does this statement compare with the statement read earlier from the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution? Would you interpret this law as being in keeping with the War Powers Resolution?

In September of 2014, President Obama authorized limited airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (also known as Da’esh) as part of a “counterterrorism strategy,” using the language of PL 107-40 as justification for military action. A CBS news poll has indicated that six in ten Americans believe that US military intervention in Syria requires congressional approval.

View the video on slide 15 of President Obama’s speech at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 2012, beginning at the 15:17 minute mark and ending at the 16:20 minute mark.  What does President Obama state should be the prerequisites to entering into war? How do his words reflect a reference to the Vietnam War? Do you think the US has learned its lessons from Vietnam? Is executive authority being expanded once again, or is the presidency simply continuing on the path set by Lyndon Johnson? Because it is always a significant decision to commit forces to conflict, it is important to understand and evaluate political decisions associated with past conflicts.