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Declarations of War and Authorizations for the Use of Military Force: Historical Background and Legal Implications

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CRS Rept. for Congress

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From the Washington Administration to the present, Congress and the President have enacted 11 separate formal declarations of war against foreign nations in five different wars. Each declaration has been preceded by a presidential request either in writing or in person before a joint session of Congress. The reasons cited in justification for the requests have included armed attacks on United States territory or its citizens and threats to United States rights or interests as a sovereign nation. Congress and the President have also on a number of occasions enacted authorizations for the use of force instead of declarations of war. Most commonly, such measures have authorized the use of force against either a named country or unnamed hostile nations in a given region. In most cases, the President has requested the authority, but Congress has sometimes given the President less than what he asked for. In contrast to the declarations of war, not all authorizations for the use of force have resulted in actual combat. Both declarations and authorizations require the signature of the President in order to become law. In contrast to an authorization, a declaration of war in itself creates a state of wonder international law and legitimates the killing of enemy combatants, the seizure of its property, and the apprehension of enemy aliens. At one time, a declaration was deemed a necessary legal prerequisite to a war and was also thought to terminate diplomatic and commercial relations and most treaties between the combatants. In the modern era, the international legal consequences of declarations have become less determined in fact, declarations have rarely been issued since World War II. Perhaps most important, neither a declaration nor an authorization is necessary to trigger application of the laws of war, such as the Hague and Geneva Conventions for that, the fact of armed conflict is the controlling circumstance.

Subject Categories:

  • Government and Political Science
  • Military Operations, Strategy and Tactics

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