In the last 60 years there have been repeated questions and controversies over the issue of the US engaging in war with another nation or group without an express declaration of war by Congress. Depending upon the war and the political envoirnmennt of the moment the challenges have been muted or vociferous. Those who oppose all military engagements as a matter of principle will vehemently declare that every such engagement is illegal and against the laws of nations. The most recent clamor has been over the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. The arguments about the legitimacy of these wars is nothing new. Such undeclared wars have been part of our history since the earliest days of our nation. We do have some checks and balances to prevent the Executive from throwing the traces and going off on a mission that is not supported by the majority or consensus of the people.
Our first undeclared war was with the French. The French had been our vital ally during the Revolutionary War and were critical to the victory at Yorktown that finally brought the turning point in that War. Their defeat was overwhelming and the British realized that the fight was not going to go their way and peace was finally made with the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The French fleet had blockaded the Cheasapeake near Yorktown that prevented any British evacuation and some French troops were even in the land army that assaulted and routed the British positions. Fast forward a few years and we had adopted the Constitution and become the US and not a weak confederation. There were many who adored the French and many who were appalled by the excesses of the French Revolution. Jefferson was considered pro French and Washington and Adams were generally believed to be more cautious and even pro British in their outlook. By the term of Adams the French and British were at loggerheads and even outright war on an off and on basis from then until the ultimate defeat of Napoleon. Most of you are familar with the British harassing our ships and even impressing our seamen into their navy during this period. But the same thing occurred with the French. The French were so bad that we created the first navy in the late 1790’s. Prior to that we had no navy. That navy was created specifically to figtht the French and to protect American shipping from the French. It was called the Quasi
War by some. There was never a declaration of war by Congress. It was a real war and was fought entirely on the seas. Guns were fired, men died and battles took place between American and French vessels. Indeed one Mr. Bainbridge was a captain of one of our ships that was captured by the French during this war. (The USS Bainbridge of recent pirate fighting fame is named after him for his later exploits against the Barbary Pirates). This war was never declared and petered out as matters temporarily calmed for a bit between the British and French. This all took place on the watch of Adams. Then came Jefferson who revived the navy because of the attacks by the Barbary Pirates in North Africa. Again that was a real war with many US ships involved. We sent more than one expedition to that area. It was not a single engagement but a war that extended over a period of a couple of years. That war was not declared. It was a real war. To some extent that was the first war on terror. The Barbary Pirates were a loose confederation of city states that owed nominal fealty to the Ottoman empire in Turkey but mostly operated independently of any governmental authority much like Al Queda today.
There was never a formal declaration of war against the seceding states during the War Between the States. Likewise our various expeditions to Latin American during the first half of the 20th century were never declared wars. Some of these actions occurred under both Democrat and Republican administrations.
When we sent troops to fight against the North Koireans in 1950 under a Democratic President there was no formal declaration of war. It was called a “police action” by the administration. That was sure a real war with about 40,000 killed. There was some strong outrage by the left about that war at the time. Check the old news headlines and articles. The left was still very much enamored with the Soviets and Mao and believed our government was opposing the proletariat of the world. They liked the socialists. There were demonstrations here and in Europe against that war.
Viet Nam was kicked off under another Democratic President and then accelerated under his Democratic successor. Ike had a few hundred advisers there when he left office. Kennedy ramped it up to 16,000 by the time he died. Johnson took it up over 500,000 troops. I don’t need to remind you that again the left protested and demonstrated against that war. It was never a declared war. The Gulf of Tonkin resolution was not a declaration of war. The arguments were repeated that it was illegal and even a war crime to be there fighting.
Now we have Iraq and Afghanistan and the same cries are made by some. Although they are much more muted with the new guy in the white house. There was the resolution for Iraq but that was not a declaration of war. The war on terror has no declaration because you would have to declare war on a fringe culture which makes no sense.
Our commander in chief does have limits. If there is indeed strong support to stop any military engagement that can be done quite effectively by Congress. Read the Constitution. The appropriations for the military (army) can be no longer than for a period of two years under Article One, section 8. We do have a political remedy to prevent a rogue executive from engaging in wars that are not supported by the people. This technique was used symbolically at the end of the Viet Nam war when Congress cut off the funding for the war. Of course it was only a political ploy at that time because the war was mostly wound down by Nixon already. During his first term in office the troop level had dropped to 25,000 from over 500,000.
Let’s have some perspective on Iraq and Afghanistan now. There is nothing wrong at all with a healthy debate about the strategy and conduct of those conflicts and then we can take action accordingly. It is true that no war can long endure that does not have popular support. The people have to believe it is in their interest and for their protection or the enthusiasm will wane. Congress can always cut off the money if that is their collective wisdom. Merely passing such a measure would bring everything to a halt. I don’t support that option. I think that would be dangerous. But I don’t like hearing some act like they have no remedy when they do.
The Spartans when faced with a formidable invader declared to them “If thou art a god, thou wilt not hurt those who have never injured thee; if that art a man, advance: and thou wilt find men equal to thyself”.
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