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 Congress approve?
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. He recounted 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 further away.
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 umbrella.
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 third point.
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 U.S.
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 jurisdictions.
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.
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