Commander in Chief, President as

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Commander in Chief, President as. The Constitution (Article II, section 2) specifies that “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several states, when called into the actual Service of the United States.” This language provides the president with constitutional powers over the armed forces, powers shared with Congress; but the constitutional framework leaves several unsettling questions unanswered. May the president use force if he believed an attack were imminent; use force without a declaration of war; defend American lives and property abroad; execute treaty obligations involving the armed forces; or engage in “coercive diplomacy” to get leaders of other nations to accede to his wishes?

The president's most important duty as commander in chief is to defend the United States, its territories and possessions and its armed forces, from attack. Domestically, this may mean using or threatening to use force to make sure that laws are faithfully executed, as George Washington did when he rode out at the head of a column of troops to put down the Whiskey Rebellion, as Andrew Jackson did in 1832 when he threatened to use force against South Carolina if it did not permit collection of the tariff, and as Abraham Lincoln did to end the secession of Southern states. Presidents may also use the armed forces to maintain “the peace of the United States,” as several presidents in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did in enforcing district court injunctions against striking miners and railway workers.

Presidents are not expected to march at the heads of their armed forces. Some, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, and George Bush, maintained close control over military operations, not only reviewing strategy but controlling the details of specific missions. They communicated directly with key theater commanders. Others, such as Woodrow Wilson and Harry S. Truman, set overall parameters, but tended to rely more on going through channels and trusting the judgment of their top commanders. As Lincoln discovered during the Civil War, the most important war power the president possesses is the power to hire and fire those commanders.

The most controversial constitutional issue involves presidential warmaking without a declaration from Congress, when presidents depend solely on their constitutional prerogative as commander in chief. Outside the United States, presidents have used the armed forces without congressional declarations of war in more than 230 instances, relying on that constitutional prerogative. Fewer than half of these instances involved prior legislative authorization. Almost all use of force by presidents in the nineteenth century without a declaration of war involved minor incidents—mostly against pirates and bandits. Uses of force in hostilities without congressional sanction in the twentieth century, however, have involved much wider operations against organized governments. With large numbers of American soldiers killed or wounded in pursuit of foreign policy goals, such actions raised serious questions of constitutionality.

Uses of force based on the commander in chief's power include gaining additional territory for the United States, such as Florida (actions of James Monroe and John Quincy Adams), the American Southwest (during the Mexican War), and Hawaii. Presidents may order actions against politically unorganized pirates and bandits, drug smugglers, and terrorists that may involve limited incursion into another state or its airspace or territorial waters. Presidents may order the evacuation of U.S. citizens and interventions to protect American lives and property during disorders in foreign nations. In some situations, the United States may be involved unilaterally or multilaterally in efforts to restore law and order in other nations. During the last half of the nineteenth century, the U.S. Army fought frontier wars against Indian tribes. In the early twentieth century, presidents ordered U.S. forces to intervene in Caribbean nations to administer their assets on behalf of their creditors; these included Haiti, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba. Presidents have used force to topple regimes unfriendly to the United States, such as the Dominican Republic (1965), Grenada (1982), Panama (1989), and Haiti (1994).

Presidents have enforced blockades and quarantines, for example, the quarantine of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962–63); the blockade of Iraq in 1990 to attempt to pressure that nation to withdraw from Kuwait; the subsequent blockade designed to ensure acquiescence in United Nations resolutions; and the blockade of Haiti in 1993 in an effort to force a change in government. Since the early 1950s, presidents have had the capacity to launch preemptive or retaliatory nuclear strikes in the event of all‐out nuclear war, or to order a nuclear “first use” against an enemy in the process of defeating U.S. conventional forces. The exigencies of the use of nuclear weapons make it highly unlikely that Congress could be part of such a decision. More recently, presidents have used U.S. forces for United Nations' or other multilateral peacekeeping, humanitarian, or monitoring operations, such as the protection of foreign aid workers in Somalia in 1992–93, the relief of famine in Rwanda in 1994, and the NATO peacekeeping mission in Bosnia beginning in 1995.

The most controversial use of presidential power has involved deployment of U.S. forces in major hostilities without a declaration of war. Three major instances come to mind: North Korea (1950–53), North Vietnam (1964–73), and Iraq (1991). In the Korean and Iraq hostilities, Presidents Truman and Bush cited UN authorization. However, Truman used force prior to obtaining UN authorization, and neither president followed the procedures set down by Congress in the UN Participation Act (1945), which required congressional approval for commitments of force in UN operations. In the Vietnam War, President Johnson claimed he was executing provisions of SEATO, yet the relevant provisions required consultation with other signatory nations and did not specify the use of military force to deal with a civil war between two “military regroupment zones” (i.e., North and South Vietnam). In all three cases, presidents acted according to their prerogative power, and in Korea and Vietnam, no hostilities were authorized by Congress (though the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution did authorize Johnson to use necessary measures to protect U.S. forces). Indeed, the War Powers Resolution of 1973 sought to impose Congressional approval for committing U.S. troops to combat. In 1991, Bush lobbied Congress for authorization to use force to implement UN resolutions; but in his signing statement once a resolution had been passed, the president refused to concede that he had needed such authorization, claiming instead that he had “constitutional authority to use the Armed Forces to defend vital U.S. interests.” Congress passed a second resolution reiterating its understanding that the president had been required to obtain prior authorization from Congress before using force against Iraq, leaving the two institutions at loggerheads about the authority of the president to engage in military actions to implement UN resolutions.

Use of the armed forces exposes the incumbent to significant political risk. Presidents Truman and Johnson became so unpopular because of mounting casualties during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, both decided not to run for second elected terms. Studies have shown that there is a direct correlation between increased casualties in congressional districts and a drop in approval for the war—and for the commander in chief who authorized it. To minimize this political risk, presidents in the post–Vietnam era have authorized operations that involve overwhelming force against weak opponents—the operations in Grenada, Panama, and Haiti—and have tightly controlled the media so that reportage emphasizes military successes rather than any operational failures. Such quick operations have been highly successful politically, resulting in a “rally ’round the flag” effect and an upward surge in popularity for the commander in chief. Presidents have also been reluctant to remain involved in operations with significant American casualties. President Reagan withdrew American forces from Lebanon after 240 Marines were killed in a bombing of the American barracks; President Clinton withdrew forces from Somalia after eighteen army Rangers were killed in military operations.

With the end of the Cold War, the commander in chief's power focuses on the use of armed forces for humanitarian, policing, and peacekeeping operations. Does the president have the power to assign U.S. forces to foreign command? Can Congress prohibit or regulate such assignments? Republicans in their 1994 “Contract with America” proposed a National Security Restoration Act to prohibit such assignments, in a replay of the partisan controversy over a Democratic president's power to do so during the Korean War (when U.S. troops were nominally under UN command). Although such a prohibition did not pass, the constitutional questions involving presidential use of force remain open in the post–Cold War era.
[See also Civil‐Military Relations: Civilian Control of the Military; Congress, War, and the Military; Constitutional and Political Basis of War and the Military; National Defense Acts; Peacekeeping.]


Clinton Rossiter and and Richard Longaker , The Supreme Court and the Commander in Chief, 1976.
Richard Pious , The American Presidency, 1979.
Francis Wormuth and and Arthur Firmage , To Chain the Dog of War, 1986; 2nd ed. 1989.
Joseph Dawson, ed., Commanders in Chief, 1993.
Gary M. Stern and Morton H. Halperin, eds., The U.S. Constitution and the Power to Go to War, 1993.
Louis Fisher , The Presidential War Powers, 1995.

Richard M. Pious