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A declaration of war is a formal declaration issued by a national government indicating that a state of war exists between that nation and another. For the United Statesmarker, Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution says "Congress shall have power to ... declare War;" however, that passage provides no specific format for what form legislation text must have in order to be considered a "Declaration of War" nor does the Constitution itself use this term. Many have postulated "Declaration(s) of War" must contain that phrase as or within the title. Others oppose that reasoning. The postulate has not been tested in court; however, this article will use the term "formal Declaration of War" to mean Congressional legislation that uses the phrase "Declaration of War" in the title.

The United States of America has formally declared war against foreign nations five separate times, each upon prior request by the president. James Madison reported that in the Federal Convention of 1787, the phrase "make war" was changed to "declare war" in order to leave to the Executive the power to repel sudden attacks but not to commence war without the explicit approval of Congress. Debate continues as to the legal extent of the President's authority in this regard.

After Congress repealed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in January of 1971 and President Richard Nixon continued to wage war in Vietnam, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution of 1973 ( ) over the veto of Nixon in an attempt to reign in some of the president's claimed powers. Today, Congress recognizes no claimed power of the president to wage war outside of the War Powers Resolution.

Declarations of war


In the United States, only the U.S. Congress may declare war.

The table below lists the only five wars in which the United States has formally declared war against foreign nations. The only country against which the United States has declared war more than once is Germanymarker, against which the United States has declared war twice (though a case could be made for Hungarymarker as a successor state to Austria-Hungary).

In World War II, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbormarker on the previous day, Germany and Italy, led by Hitler and Mussolini, declared war on America, and the U.S. Congress responded in kind.

War or conflict Opponent(s) Initial authorization Votes President Conclusion
Senate House
War of 1812 United Kingdommarker June 18, 1812 19-13 79-49 Madison Treaty of Ghent (December 24, 1814)
Mexican-American War May 13, 1846 40-2 173-14 Polk Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (February 2, 1848)
Spanish-American War April 25, 1898 42-35 310-6 McKinley Treaty of Paris (December 10, 1898)
World War I April 6, 1917 82-6 373-50 Wilson Treaty of Berlin (August 25, 1921)
December 7, 1917 74-0 365-1 Treaty of Trianon (in part)
World War II December 8, 1941 82-0 388-1 Roosevelt,
Treaty of San Francisco (September 8, 1951)
December 11, 1941 88-0 393-0 V-E Day, Unconditional German Surrender, (May 8, 1945), Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany (September 12, 1990), Treaty of Vienna with Austria (May 15, 1955)
90-0 399-0 Paris Peace Treaty (February 10, 1947)
June 5, 1942 73-0 357-0

Military engagements authorized by Congress

In twelve instances, the United States has engaged in extended military engagements that were explicitly authorized by Congress, short of a formal declaration of war.

War or conflict Opponent(s) Initial authorization Votes President Conclusion
Senate House
Quasi-War Act Further to Protect the Commerce of the United States
July 9, 1798
J. Adams Convention of 1800
First Barbary War Barbary States 1801 Jefferson
Second Barbary War Barbary States 1815 Madison
Raid of slave traffic Africa 1820
Redress for attack on U.S. Navy vessel 1859 Buchanan
Intervention during the Russian Civil War 1918 Wilson
Lebanon crisis of 1958 1958 Eisenhower
Vietnam War Viet Cong

Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, August 7, 1964 88-2 416-0 Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon American Force withdrew in 1975.
Multinational Force in Lebanon Shia and Druze miltias; Syriamarker S.J.R. 159
September 29, 1983
54-46 253-156 Reagan Force withdrew in 1984
Persian Gulf War, also known as Operation Desert Storm H.R.J. Res. 77
January 12, 1991
52-47 250-183 G. H. W. Bush The United Nations Security Council drew up terms for the cease-fire, April 3, 1991
2001 war in Afghanistan, also known as Operation Enduring Freedom
S.J. Res. 23
September 14, 2001
98-0 420-1 G. W. Bush, Obama Ongoing
Iraq War, also known as Operation Iraqi Freedom H.J. Res. 114,
October 16, 2002
77-23 296-133 Ongoing

Military engagements authorized by United Nations Security Council Resolutions

In many instances, the United States has engaged in extended military engagements that were authorized by United Nations Security Council Resolutions.

Military Engagement Opponent(s) Initial Authorization President Conclusion
Korean War UNSCR 84, 1950 Harry S. Truman Armistice, 1953
Multinational Force in Lebanon Shia militia,Druze miltia,Syriamarker UNSCR 425, 1978UNSCR 426, 1978 Ronald Reagan(US participation) US forces withdrew in 1984
Gulf War,also known as Operation Desert Storm UNSCR 600, 1990UNSCR 678, 1990 George H. W. Bush UNSCR 689, 1991
Bosnian Waralso known as UNPROFOR

UNSCR 770, 1992UNSCR 776, 1992UNSCR 836, 1993 Bill Clinton Reflagged as IFOR in 1995,Reflagged as SFOR in 1996,Completed in 2004
2001 war in Afghanistan,also known as Operation Enduring Freedom
UNSCR 1368, 2001UNSCR 1378, 2001 George W. BushBarack Obama Ongoing
Second Liberian Civil War Peacekeeping UNSCR 1497, 2003 George W. Bush US Forces withdraw in 2003 after UNMIL is established
Haiti,also known as MINUSTAH Peacekeeping UNSCR 1529, 2004UNSCR 1542, 2004 George W. Bush 2004

Other undeclared wars

On at least 125 occasions, the President has acted without prior express military authorization from Congress. These include instances in which the United States fought in Korea in 1950, the Philippine-American War from 1898-1903, and in Nicaraguamarker in 1927.

The United States' longest war was fought between approximately 1840 and 1886 against the Apache Nation. During that entire 46-year period, there were never more than 90 days of "peace."

The Indian Wars comprise at least 28 conflicts and engagements. These began with Europeans immigration to North America, long before the establishment of the United Statesmarker. For the purpose of this discussion, the Indian Wars are defined as conflicts with the United States of America. They begin as one front in the American Revolutionary War in 1775 and are generally agreed upon as concluding with the surrender of the Apache chief Geronimo in 1886.

The American Civil War was not a true war in the sense that the Union Government held the position that secession from the Union was illegal and military force was used to restore the union by defeating in battle the military forces of the illegally rebelling states. No Southern ambassador or diplomat was accorded any status by the Union so an armistice or peace treaty was never an option because that would legitimize the Confederacy as an actual Nation. The legal right for armed force lay with the Constitution of the United States, which the Union interpreted as unbreakable. The actions of the Southern states were therefore illegal (according to the Union) because they were attempting to drop the Union as their form of Government, which is considered rebellion or insurrection.

The War Powers Resolution

In 1973, following the withdrawal of most American troops from the Vietnam War, a debate emerged about the extent of presidential power in deploying troops without a declaration of war. A compromise in the debate 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, it is usually followed, most notably during the Grenada Conflict, the Panamanian Conflict, the Somalia Conflict, the Gulf War, and the Iraq War. The only exception was President Clinton's use of U.S. troops in the 78-day NATO air campaign against Serbiamarker during the Kosovo War. In all other cases, 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.

Current status of the U.S. debate

Extremely heated debate developed in the United States beginning after the September 11 attacks in 2001. Opponents of the uses of military force since began to argue, chiefly, that the Iraq 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 greatly increased American participation in the Vietnam War, and the "Authorization of the Use of Military Force" (AUMF) resolution that started the War in Iraq. Some question the legality of these authorizations of force . Many who support declarations of war argue that they 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 requiring formal declarations of war argue that AUMFs satisfy constitutional requirements and have an established historical precedent (see Quasi-War). Furthermore, some have argued that the constitutional powers of the president as commander-in-chief invest him with broad powers specific to "waging" and "commencing" war.

The February 6, 2006, testimony of Alberto Gonzales to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on Wartime Executive Power and the National Security Agency's Surveillance Authority, however indicates otherwise:

GONZALES: There was not a war declaration, either in connection with Al Qaida or in Iraq.
It was an authorization to use military force.
I only want to clarify that, because there are implications.
Obviously, when you talk about a war declaration, you're possibly talking about affecting treaties, diplomatic relations.
And so there is a distinction in law and in practice.
And we're not talking about a war declaration.
This is an authorization only to use military force.

The courts have consistently refused to intervene in this matter—examples being Holmes v. United States and United States v. O'Brien -- and in practice presidents have the power to commit forces with congressional approval but without a declaration of war.

See also


  1. The Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 reported by James Madison : August 17,The Avalon Project, Yale Law School, retrieved 13 Feb 2008
  2. BBC News, On This Day
  3. Whereas the Government of Germany has formally declared war against the government and the people of the United States of America... the state of war between the United States and the Government of Germany which has thus been thrust upon the United States is hereby formally declared. The War Resolution

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