“In no part of the constitution is more wisdom to be found,” wrote James Madison, “than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department.” Madison, the chief architect of our Constitution, would know. He understood that the executive branch is “most interested in war, & most prone to it.”
Looking over the last century of US foreign policy, however, that wisdom would be hard to detect. A hundred years ago, in 1918, President Woodrow Wilson unilaterally sent a US expeditionary force to intervene in the Russian Civil War. Decades later, President Truman sent US forces to a far more significant intervention in the Korea War without Congressional authorization. Yet too many scholars have falsely concluded from this that enough flagrant violations of our highest law — deliberately established to constrain the executive — somehow all add up to give the president a pass.
Lawmakers sought to clarify these authorities through the historic War Powers Resolution of 1973, which they enacted over President Nixon’s veto. Yet the struggle over war powers remains as fraught and consequential as ever in the 21st century.
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