Skip to main content


How We Go To War

May 2024
5min read

Here we are, then, as I write, immersed in the latest United States war—the fourth of my lifetime—now in progress in the Persian Gulf. Can history help us to retrieve usable meanings from this swift new crisis? It has been freely invoked from the start, especially the so-called Munich analogy; but with the final outcome not yet clear to us, now may be a good time to reflect on when and how this particular democracy decides to take up arms.

On January 12 Congress authorized President Bush to use force at his discretion, any time after the January 15 United Nations deadline, to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Bush did not get the clarion endorsement he sought. The “force” resolution drew the vote of slightly less than three-fifths of the House (250-185) and a bare majority in the Senate (52-47). But it was legally and practically sufficient: it passed on a Saturday and the war began the following Wednesday.

Politically speaking, it foreshadowed pitfalls if the war bogged down. And it did seem to suggest a decline in national bellicosity. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution had swept through the House with no dissenting votes and through the Senate with only two nays. Congress was never asked to support the use of U.S. troops in Korea—but not a voice was raised in public complaint at the outset. And on December 8, 1941, it took just forty-eight minutes for the Senate to vote unanimously for war on Japan, thirty-two for the House, with a single tearful dissent. That vote was cast by Jeannette Rankin, a sixty-one-year-old Montana Republican and lifelong pacifist.

But this was a special case. It was the response to an actual attack on U.S. territory, and the bombs that fell on Pearl Harbor ended a wrenching two-year debate between interventionists and isolationists. That was the last formal congressional declaration of war, and it took place almost fifty years ago. There had been only four such declarations in the preceding century and a half. Two of them reflected strenuous disagreement, and two reflected a merely temporary consensus.

Yet the United States had been engaged in hostilities by presidential fiat many times without creating very much dissension. Sometimes because they were on a minor scale or over very quickly, or—mostly—because they were aimed at universally unpopular targets like the Barbary pirates or various Indian tribes. By contrast congressional declarations of war were sought when arguments were likely to be hottest.

The Constitutional Convention was unambiguous about wanting to avoid one-person decisions on starting a fight. On August 17, 1787, it debated a clause that gave Congress power to “make” war. Charles Pinckney of South Carolina wanted it confined to the Senate and kept from the “too numerous” House. His colleague Pierce Butler wanted it given to the President, who, he optimistically believed, would “not make war but when the Nation [would] support it.” That outraged both Elbridge Gerry and George Mason. Mason was “against giving the power of war to the Executive,” and Gerry said he “never expected to hear in a republic a notion to empower the Executive alone to declare war.” But he agreed that the President needed “the power to repel sudden attacks,” and so did James Madison, Roger Sherman, and others. So Article I, Section 8 was changed to read that Congress could “declare” war, thereby inferentially leaving to the President the power to “make”—that is, conduct it in an emergency.

Emergency was even then a somewhat elastic term. By 1812 Presidents had already “made” undeclared naval wars on France and on the “pirate” kingdoms of North Africa. It was almost a full twenty-five years after that debate in Philadelphia—June 4, 1812—before a Congress was formally asked to “declare” war, and the President was no other than James Madison himself. The maritime states feared (correctly) that the war would do their economy more damage than the “usurptions,” and so the vote was a bare 19-13 in the Senate and 79-49 in the House, the yes tallies coming heavily from frontier expansionists and nationalists. The war was pretty much a disaster in the field, but the setbacks had less to do with divisiveness than with simple lack of preparation.

Congress next confronted a war resolution a generation later in 1846. President James K. Polk had sent troops to occupy an area between the Rio Grande and Nueces rivers, claimed both by Mexico and by the United States. In April they were attacked, and on May 11 Polk called for the Hill to declare war. The response was quick and positive: 174-14 in the House and 40-2 in the Senate, with 3 abstentions. But that was deceptive. The unity was in support of the American definition of the Texas boundary, but smoking and bubbling underneath was the justified suspicion of Folk’s political enemies, the Whigs, that he would escalate the border fight into a campaign to wrest New Mexico and California from Mexico. That would raise the question of whether or not to allow slavery into those regions and eventually split the Union—which was precisely what happened. The Whigs tried to amend the war resolution by limiting its objectives to “repelling the invasion,” and that modification lost by only six votes, a much truer measure of public sentiment.

The Civil War was never declared. From the official Northern point of view, it was simply a “rebellion.” Popular fury after the Maine sank forced President McKinley to ask for and get an April 19 resolution that recognized Cuban independence, demanded Spain’s withdrawal, and authorized him to use force if necessary. Spain then broke off diplomatic relations, and a more constitutionally correct recognition of a “state of war” between Madrid and Washington was enacted on April 25.

But once the Spanish-American War was concluded, in four months of brief, victorious battles, the consensus melted away like snow to uncover a gullied and harsh political landscape. The peace treaty provided for the annexation of Puerto Rico and the Philippines. It set off a clamorous debate between imperialists and anti-imperialists.

Then came April 2, 1917. President Wilson had narrowly won reelection the preceding fall, campaigning on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.” Yet at the same time he had enthusiastically supported a large program of military preparedness and been less than evenhanded in treating the belligerents. He forced Germany, under threat of war, to back away from U-boat attacks on American shipping. This combination of toughness and moralism reflected an ambivalent popular attitude: Americans wanted peace and innocence on the one hand, clout and respect on the other. Germany forced a choice by resuming unrestricted submarine warfare in February.

Wilson tried to elevate the grounds of dispute from neutral rights to global justice. His thirty-six-minute message, personally delivered, contained the famous statement: “The world must be made safe for democracy.” The noble appeal, combined with rage over drowned passengers, was almost irresistible. The Senate voted for war 82 to 6 on April 4; the House on April 6 by 373 to 50.

December 8, 1941, saw America’s last formal declaration of war. There had been only four such declarations in the preceding 150 years.

Yet it was the supporters of war who reacted as if they were endangered. To an unprecedented degree, “standing behind the President” became sacred doctrine. Those who offered anything short of 100 percent support were denounced as traitors, sedition and espionage acts muzzled critical publications, and the war spirit flamed under the blast of an enormous propaganda bellows pumped by government; it was as if Washington did not trust the people to stay committed.

And Washington was right. Within weeks of the armistice, people seemed abashed, hung over from the binge of hatred. Postwar disillusionment brought about the rejection of the League of Nations, the development of scholarship that shredded the official Allied mythology of how the war began as a German plot. A countermythology flourished. It held that bankers and arms makers had bamboozled the United States into the war to protect their profits.

And that had an inevitable result in the 1930s, dividing the country on foreign-policy issues far more than the 1941 war vote showed. Perhaps the memory of those pre-Pearl Harbor conflicts is one of the reasons no President has, ever since, asked for a formal declaration of a state of war.

To return to the starting point, what guiding summary can be made of all this? I believe that we have never gone to war with the sustained totalitarian zeal that is demanded of us in this apocalyptic, censoring century. The Founding Fathers—we always get back to them—saw war as a frequently political decision. It was to be undertaken neither by a despot nor at a mass meeting but in the assembly of the people’s representatives following due deliberation. That ideal hasn’t been matched, but congressional war declarations have come about by presidential request exactly when there is an awareness of political consequences that will flow—that is, when the war will not be quick, cheap, and popular.

By definition, then, division over a war is not a signal of decay but rather a reminder that there’s some life left in constitutional democracy yet. I take some small comfort from that. Small because I don’t believe that all the facts for truly informed debate were available this time, and because the resolution as passed gave the President more of a blank check than I would like. But I am glad that Congress forced itself into the situation. It may be awkward to take the dreadful decision of war and peace into the slow-winding labyrinths of Capitol Hill. But it should be. I stand with Oliver Ellsworth, whose contribution to the subject at the Constitutional Convention was to say: “It should be more easy to get out of a war than into it.”

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.