Article 1, Section 8 grants to Congress the power to declare
war. A formal declaration, as such, has
not been made since the declaration that involved the United States in the
Second World War – first against Japan, then shortly thereafter against Germany
and Italy. Subsequent wars involving the
United States have been “authorized” in other manners, most notably relying on
United Nations resolutions or Congressional resolutions authorizing the
President to decide if and when the U.S. should enter a conflict.
Even regarding World War Two, the formal declaration came
after many months of Roosevelt pursuing military actions
against both the
Germans and Japanese – in other words, even though war was formally declared by
Congress, it was declared well after the United States was involved in
hostilities initiated by the President.
The Constitution sets out the minimum requirement for the
United States to enter into hostilities – the Congress, best representing the
people, will decide if entering the fight is worth the cost.
But just because Congress declares war does not make the
fight worth the cost – not to the people.
It is in this light that I would like to examine McKinley’s speech to
Congress where he asks Congress for a declaration of war against Spain.
McKinley made this request on April 11, 1898. A little over one week later, Congress
returned with an affirmative reply. On what
basis did McKinley justify this request, and therefore on what basis did
McKinley spent a good amount of time in his speech
recounting the events of the ongoing war in Cuba, between revolutionaries and
the Spanish government.
efforts by his predecessor to intercede by means of negotiations and truce.
After this, he summarized the grounds for
United States intervention
First. In the cause of humanity and to put an end to
the barbarities, bloodshed, starvation, and horrible miseries now existing
there, and which the parties to the conflict are either unable or unwilling to
stop or mitigate. It is no answer to say
this is all in another country, belonging to another nation, and is therefore none
of our business. It is specially our
duty, for it is right at our door.
Why is it “no answer to say this is all in another country”? McKinley suggests that because Cuba is “right
at our door,” that this is reason enough.
Fortunately, it seems, McKinley would not feel the same if the fight was
Second. We owe it to our citizens in Cuba to afford
them that protection and indemnity for life and property which no government
there can or will afford, and to that end to terminate the conditions that
deprive them of legal protection.
Is this security for U.S. citizens living overseas only to
extend to countries “right at our door”?
Third. The right to intervene may be justified by
the very serious injury to the commerce, trade, and business of our people, and
by the wanton destruction of property and devastation to the island.
Certainly if individuals living overseas have a right to be
protected by their government via military force, then commercial interests of
citizens living overseas (and domestically) also would fall under the same
Fourth, and which is of the utmost
importance. The present condition of
affairs in Cuba is a constant menace to our peace, and entails on this
government an enormous expense. With such
a conflict waged for years in an island so near us and with which our people
have such trade and business relations; when the lives and liberty of our
citizens are in constant danger and their property being destroyed and
themselves ruined; where our trading vessels are liable to seizure and are seized
at our very door by warships of a foreign nation….
This is more or less a restatement of McKinley’s second and
He then references the incident of the U.S.S. Maine, stating
that the naval court of inquiry determined it was caused by an external explosion,
without placing the responsibility.
Regarding this incident, McKinley reports that Spain has already agreed
to have an impartial board of inquiry investigate this matter, “whose decision
Spain accepts in advance.” It would seem
Spain was desirous to avoid this incident escalating into hostilities with the
To summarize, McKinley is asking for authorization to go to
war because the Cuban people are suffering, Americans in Cuba are suffering,
and American business interests in Cuba are suffering. If this is sufficient cause to go to war, it
would seem that there are every year a dozen places or more where the United
States would be justified to intervene.
Non-U.S. citizens living overseas do not fall under the
jurisdiction of the Constitution and the government empowered by it, as sad as
their plight might be. As to U.S.
citizens and businesses overseas, these made decisions to live under the risks of
a jurisdiction that is not the United States.
The United States government certainly could employ persuasion and other
non-military means to secure safe passage for such individuals – as Ron Paul
has said, we have thousands of diplomats – put them to work on diplomacy; it is
difficult to identify a Constitutional justification for using the military to
protect individuals living overseas, or business interests in foreign
What does all this have to do with today? The President quit going through this
formality seven decades ago, and even then he already began hostile action
before the declaration.
I have a couple of reasons to explore this: 1) I am
curious. As I am reviewing history, I find
even the declared wars were not properly declared, or were declared after
certain provocative actions were taken by the U.S. (even in the case of the
U.S.S. Maine, believing the official story at the time, leads me to ask: Why
was it there?), and 2) whether declared by Congress or the President, the
justifications should be examined.
Again, the reasons cited by McKinley can be used to justify
a dozen wars per year, if the President so chose and the Congress
declared. It would seem a very low
hurdle for these reasons to have persuaded Congress.
Some might look and this and suggest that the fact that the
United States has not entered a dozen conflicts per year demonstrates the
deliberation and discernment of those in power – they can split hairs too fine
for my judgment and not fall into the cause of my concern: that such criteria
is an open door to multiple wars.
I think history demonstrates the opposite to be true. The criteria McKinley used and Congress
accepted are so broad as to allow any intervention wherever those in power wish
to intervene. That they do not chase
every perceived demon is not proof of discernment – splitting hairs. That they left the door so wide open is proof
of a desire of carte blanche – maximum flexibility to become involved if
desired. McKinley and this Congress set
a solid precedent for future political leaders to intervene overseas whenever and
wherever they might choose.
War is the health of the state. Therefore it is also the health of
Congress. Just because Congress declares
war does not justify it. War is
certainly not justified based on the criteria used by McKinley in this case.