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The Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, yet the president is made commander in chief. For early Americans this meant that Congress alone held the power to authorize war, that is, to bring the nation from a state of peace to a state of war. For example, during the debate over the Neutrality Proclamation (Document 4), Alexander Hamilton defended George Washington’s power to declare that the nation was at peace, but he also went out of his way to say that only Congress could take the nation to war.
Since Harry Truman, however, presidents of both parties have assumed that it is the president who decides whether the nation will be at war. There are competing explanations for the emergence of this new understanding of the war power. One is that the United Nations provides a new and competing source of authority for military action. Another is that Cold War and the reality of atomic weapons rendered Congress’s role less important. A third explanation is that wielding the war power is politically costly, so risk-adverse members of Congress are happy to let the president have it.
In the selection below, Truman announces his actions in Korea. Notice the role he assumes for the United Nations and the limited role he assumes for Congress.
Source: Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States. Harry S. Truman. Containing the Public Messages, Speeches, and Statements of the President, 1950 (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1965), 527-37.
To the Congress of the United States:
I am reporting to the Congress on the situation which has been created in Korea, and on the actions which this Nation has taken, as a member of the United Nations, to meet this situation. I am also laying before the Congress my views concerning the significance of these events for this Nation and the world, and certain recommendations for legislative action which I believe should be taken at this time.
At four o’clock in the morning, Sunday, June 25th, Korean time, armed forces from north of the thirty-eighth parallel invaded the Republic of Korea. . . .
This outright breach of the peace, in violation of the United Nations Charter, created a real and present danger to the security of every nation. This attack was, in addition, a demonstration of contempt for the United Nations, since it was an attempt to settle, by military aggression, a question which the United Nations had been working to settle by peaceful means.
The attack on the Republic of Korea, therefore, was a clear challenge to the basic principles of the United Nations Charter and to the specific actions taken by the United Nations in Korea. If this challenge had not been met squarely, the effectiveness of the United Nations would have been all but ended, and the hope of mankind that the United Nations would develop into an i