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As we commemorate the start of the Korean War seventy years ago, we should also take note of the precedent set by Congress’s inaction in that conflict, and the weakening of its claim to war powers that followed. Before 1950, Congress had authorized major military operations more than a dozen times, including five declared wars. Since 1950, Congress has ducked its responsibilities to approve—or block—major combat at least half a dozen times.
Congress probably did not realize it was setting a precedent—although it was certainly departing from one. Besides declaring wars, earlier Congresses had approved conditional authorizations of force against France in 1798, Algiers in 1815 and in Florida in 1811 and 1819. Lawmakers also retrospectively approved operations against Tripoli in 1802 and Mexico in 1914. Dozens of military deployments to Central America and the Caribbean before the 1930s were tolerated possibly because they were limited in size and usually duration and thus not thought of as wars requiring congressional action. The Korean War was a different story.
In 1950, President Harry Truman’s first reaction to North Korea’s invasion of the South was to send supplies to South Korean forces. He respected Congress, having served as a senator for more than 10 years before becoming chief executive, so he insisted on consulting with the leadership. But he was also decisive and believed in the authority and responsibilities of the president. He didn’t want necessary action in Korea to be hindered by a contentious Congress.
When he decided to give U.S. air and naval support, lawmakers voiced no criticism. Only five days later did Truman decide to send American ground troops. By then, Congress was busy finishing legislative business at the end of the fiscal year, and the leadership didn’t want to interrupt the Fourth of July recess by calling members back to Washington. Then and in the months that followed, Congress missed the chance to assert its power to authorize a major war, and that same dynamic has played out over and over again in the seventy years since.
Here’s how it happened. Truman learned of the North Korean attacks Sunday, June 25, 1950, while at home in Missouri. He promptly returned to Washington, met with his executive branch advisers and ordered supplies to be sent to the South Koreans. Meanwhile the U.N. Security Council approved a resolution calling on North Korea to cease hostilities and withdraw from the South and calling on all members to assist the United Nations.
On June 26, Truman approved full U.S. air and naval support to South Korean forces and called a meeting with congressional leaders the next morning. At that meeting, he announced that U.S. forces would give “cover and support” to the South Koreans. No one questioned the president’s plans.
On June 28, Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio, who had not been at the White House meeting, said he did not oppose Truman’s decisions and would vote for a measure approving force, but he protested the president’s “usurpation” of the war power authority.
At a news conference on June 29, Truman said “we are not at war,” and agreed with a reporter’s suggestion that the U.S. was not participating in a war but “a police action under the United Nations,” a phrase he would come to regret as the conflict grew larger and prolonged, thus becoming what most people would call a “war.” In fact, the conflict would last three years and see more than 2.5 million people killed, including more than 36,000 U.S. military personnel.
It wasn’t until Friday, June 30 that the president formally ordered the commitment of U.S. ground troops to Korea. A few hours later he met with another bipartisan congressional group to inform them of his decision. Only Sen. Kenneth Wherry, a Republican from Nebraska, argued that Congress ought to be consulted. Truman said there was no time for lots of talk. “I just had to act as commander-in-chief,” he said, “and I did.” Truman felt he had already obtained adequate expressions of support from the Hill.
On the Hill, Wherry repeated his call for congressional debate and action. But even leaders of his own party backed the Democratic president. Senate Republican leader William Knowland of California echoed the administration’s position that no declaration of war was needed, that the action was obligatory under the U.N. Charter.
On July 3, Truman met again with his advisers to discuss whether he should speak to a joint session of Congress on Korea, after which the body could vote on a joint resolution of approval for military action. He welcomed such a resolution as a congressional initiative, but the Democratic Senate majority leader, Scott Lucas, questioned the desirability of the administration proposing such a resolution. He feared a lengthy debate and the possibility of fights on other contentious issues. The Senate majority leader also wanted to avoid what would look like a declaration of war; he said something along the lines of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats would be better. Truman agreed to avoid a formal appearance of requesting a joint resolution.
Instead of calling Congress back after it departed for the July 4 recess, Truman sent a message to the Hill on July 19. He called the North Korean attack “naked, deliberate, unprovoked aggression” and said his actions were based on “the unanimous advice of our civilian and military authorities” and were to support the U.N. Security Council resolutions. Congress was never asked to vote for or against the Korean War.
Meanwhile, Congress was already taking action to support and fund the war both directly and indirectly. It passed an extension of the draft on June 28, a temporary appropriations bill on June 29 and a Mutual Defense Cooperation bill that included small sums for operations on the Korean Peninsula. It approved the defense appropriations bill on August 28 and a large supplemental appropriation for defense on September 22. This was business as usual for the Congress, but these actions were later cited by administration lawyers as evidence of Congress’s authorization for the conflict.
To many legal analysts, such as Secretary of State Dean Acheson, the Korea precedent bolstered the State Department claim made at the start of the war that the president had authority under the U.N. Charter to carry out the U.N. Security Council resolutions. No one dredged up the history of assurances to Congress in 1945, including by Acheson himself, that congressional approval would be sought on U.N. operations.
To many lawmakers, the Korea deployments would have been more acceptable if they were part of a package including the presidential order to the Seventh Fleet to prevent any attack on Formosa—now Taiwan—where the defeated Republic of China government had relocated. Republicans like Knowland had blamed Truman for the Communist Party takeover of China in 1949 and strongly favored support for the government on Formosa. Any debates on authorizing troops to Korea might have become snarled over Formosa; this was another reason Senate Democratic leadership sought to avoid an official vote.
The Korea precedent also revealed Congress’s implicit definition of war as requiring ground troops in large numbers. That explained Congress’s acceptance of later interventions in the Caribbean and Central America as well as the lack of strong expression of concern regarding the Korean War until Truman decided on ground troops. It also explains Congress’s subsequent acceptance of punitive air and drone strikes in counterterrorism operations.
After Korea, several presidents sought and received congressional approval for possible combat operations—Eisenhower in Lebanon, Kennedy in Cuba, Johnson in Vietnam and Reagan in Lebanon. Congress also authorized major combat in Iraq in 1991 and 2002 and in Afghanistan in 2001. But in the cases of military intervention in Somalia, Haiti, Panama, Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya and Syria, Congress failed to muster majorities for any decisive action for or against those conflicts. Over decades, the legislative branch has repeatedly abdicated its constitutional responsibilities, preferring to applaud short, successful wars and criticize any that were prolonged or unsuccessful while still providing funds for those wars regardless of the outcome. That history might have been different if Congress had insisted on acting in June 1950 and maintained the precedent that major combat operations require congressional approval.