Since 1812, U.S. presidents asked for and received congressional declarations of war against England, Mexico, Spain, Japan, and European powers. President Harry Truman sent troops to Korea as part of a UN force without a congressional declaration of war. President John F. Kennedy sent troops to defend South Vietnam. Congress never declared war, but years later passed the Tonkin Resolution authorizing President Lyndon Johnson to use force against North Vietnam. In reaction to U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Congress passed the War Powers Act, which limited the president’s authority to commit American troops abroad without Congress’s approval. The law was passed over the veto of President Richard Nixon, who argued the law was an abridgement of the president’s authority as Commander in Chief. The Act raises the questions: How far does the president’s power as Commander in Chief extend? And, how much of that power can be limited by Congress?
After President Richard Nixon was inaugurated in 1969, he began bombings in Cambodia. These missions were kept secret from Congress and the American people for more than a year. News of the My Lai massacre (where US troops killed unarmed civilians and children) broke in 1969. The release of the Pentagon Papers (stolen secret documents revealing the government had misled the people about the Vietnam War) in 1971 intensified public distrust of the government.
In 1973, Congress drew up the War Powers Resolution. The Resolution required the President to consult Congress before the start of hostilities and to report regularly on the deployment of US troops. Further, the President must withdraw forces within sixty days if Congress has not declared war or authorized the use of force. Nixon vetoed the War Powers Resolution. He noted that Congress already had a constitutional check on the President’s power with its funding power. Congress overturned President Nixon’s veto of the resolution.
Though Presidents have provided Congress with reports consistent with the War Powers Resolution since its passage, one former US Senator noted that no President had ever submitted the kinds of reports required by the Act. A bipartisan Congressional panel recommended the repeal of the War Powers Resolution in 2008, but debate over what kind of law should replace it, if any, continues.
Source: Nixon and the War Powers Resolution
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