In the United States, the separation of powers is such that although the President is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Congress is the branch that issues declarations of war. Typically, this is seen as a check on the President's power, the assumption being that when the President desires a war, he must request the approval of Congress.

But suppose Congress took the prerogative and issued a declaration of war the President hadn't requested and didn't want. Would the President be obliged under the Constitution to wage a war he didn't want? Or would he have the power as leader of the military to refuse to deploy any troops?

  • 4
    The war on drugs, perhaps? Aug 5, 2014 at 11:31
  • It's the other way around. The US President cannot wage a war which has not been approved by Congress. Feb 12, 2018 at 9:33

1 Answer 1


Yes and the constitution was written this way to ensure this was the case.

US Constitution: Article I Section 8:

The Congress shall have power [...]
To declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water;

Article II Section 2:

The President shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States

These powers were intentionally separated with the intent of preventing any one branch of government from being able to wage war. The intent was that the president needed the permission of congress to enact military action, and that congress would need the president to act and actually wage war.

However after WWII and the formation of NATO the president has utilized the vote ratifying NATO as express consent to fulfill our military obligations of the treaty to project our military presence beyond our borders. And its approval of our joining the UN as permission to use military force at its bequest.

As a result Truman used UN resolution 83 to deploy ground forces in Korea with out congressional support, and by calling it a police action. A similar reasoning was used in Vietnam also calling it a police action. All of this was allowed because of the advent of the Nuclear war:

Nuclear war was seen as the most realistic war-fighting scenario, with all other forms of war trivial in comparison. Just as nuclear weapons came to be called “strategic weapons” with other weapons of war occupying a lesser space, nuclear war became identical with war in general. If that was so, then constitutional procedures that could not be applied to nuclear war were simply no longer relevant.

Paradoxically, if nuclear warfare represented the highest level of warfare, there developed at the lowest level covert operations. Apart from the nuclear confrontation with the Soviets, there was an intense covert war, from back alleys in Europe to the Congo, Indochina to Latin America. Indeed, it was waged everywhere precisely because the threat of nuclear war was so terrible: Covert warfare became a prudent alternative. All of these operations had to be deniable. An attempt to assassinate a Soviet agent or raise a secret army to face a Soviet secret army could not be validated with a declaration of war. The Cold War was a series of interconnected but discrete operations, fought with secret forces whose very principle was deniability. How could declarations of war be expected in operations so small in size that had to be kept secret from Congress anyway? SOURCE

The result was The War Powers Act after the enormously unpopular Vietnam war that would limit the amount of time a president could deploy troops with out congressional approval.

Many believe this act has had the effect of increasing the powers of the president potentially making this unconstitutional. But there is no law that permits Congress to deploy troops on their own. That responsibility lies solely in the Commander in Chief.

There is recourse for Congress should a president decide not to wage a war that Congress declared. But these recourse's also exist for any action Congress deems inappropriate. The most severe being Impeachment, with probably the most effectively meaningless being censure.

  • This is very accurate, but doesn't seem at all to answer the question of "Can the president NOT wage the war that Congress declared?". All of the above is about the reverse situation.
    – user4012
    Aug 5, 2014 at 2:16
  • sorry, I fully disagree that the bolded parts answer anything. They answer "Can Congress go it alone without the President". Not whether President can legally refuse. BIG BIG difference.
    – user4012
    Aug 5, 2014 at 2:40
  • OK I have explained more fully how the constitution was written. I hope this answers your question. There is no law providing for it or prohibiting it because it was the intent of the framers to be that way. Aug 5, 2014 at 2:49
  • that's much better but frankly doesn't convince me too much without more demonstration that this WAS indeed the intent (via Federalist papers, or other communication from Founding Fathers, or Supreme Court ruling specifically stating that "be commander in chief" means explicitly that the Congress can not compel the President to wage war (e.g. if they can impeach for failure to prosecute it, or to sue in Supreme court for failing to do so).
    – user4012
    Aug 5, 2014 at 2:55
  • 2
    Though if the president did decide not to the Congress could decide to impeach that president. Of course the Congress could decide to do that because the President tied his shoes wrong in the morning if it wanted to. That is always an option also guaranteed by the Constitution. Aug 5, 2014 at 11:33

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