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This Day in History: Wilson Asks Congress to Declare War on Germany

President Woodrow Wilson asking Congress to declare war on Germany, causing the United States to enter World War I.

President Woodrow Wilson asking Congress to declare war on Germany, causing the United States to enter World War I. Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress, PD.

Today’s guest post comes from Rebecca Lim, a Miller Center Student Ambassador and a second year student at the University of Virginia double majoring in East Asian Studies and Political and Social Thought.

On this day 96 years ago, President Woodrow Wilson delivered an address to Congress requesting a declaration of war against Germany. The request was approved, and four days later, on April 6, 1917, the United States officially entered World War I. The U.S. had remained neutral since the outbreak of the war in 1914, and American public opinion highly opposed entering the war. Just three years later, however, a series of events infuriated the American people and galvanized public opinion in the opposite direction: the revelation of the German empire’s decision to recommence unrestricted submarine warfare on February 1, under which German submarines, called U-boats, could attack both military and non-military vessels without warning; and the interception of the infamous Zimmermann Telegram.

The Zimmermann Telegram, sent by German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to the German ambassador in Mexico, Heinrich von Eckhardt, in January 1917, was intercepted and decrypted by British intelligence and shared with President Wilson. In it, Zimmermann notified Eckhardt of the plans to resume submarine warfare, and the prediction that this action would pull the United States into the war on the side of the allies. Upon U.S. entry into the war, he instructed Eckhardt to propose a military alliance with Mexico in exchange for the return of formerly Mexican territories of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Finally, they were to broker an alliance with the Japanese Empire.

Wilson understood that war could no longer be evaded. Still, he recognized the gravity of his decision and the effects the war would have on the nation and the world. In his appeal to Congress, Wilson mentioned not only Germany’s offenses, but also the implications of the country’s actions as “warfare against mankind” and “a war against all nations.” Wilson recognized a cause worth fighting for beyond national security—he saw it as America’s duty to not only protect its own borders, but to be the “single champion” of human rights, to which Germany posed a grave threat. Wilson pleaded to Congress:  

The present German submarine warfare against commerce is a warfare against mankind. It is a war against all nations. American ships have been sunk, American lives taken in ways which it has stirred us very deeply to learn of; but the ships and people of other neutral and friendly nations have been sunk and overwhelmed in the waters in the same way. There has been no discrimination. The challenge is to all mankind…Our motive will not be revenge or the victorious assertion of the physical might of the nation, but only the vindication of right, of human right, of which we are only a single champion.

Our object now, as then, is to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power and to set up among the really free and self-governed peoples of the world such a concert of purpose and of action as will henceforth ensure the observance of those principles. Neutrality is no longer feasible or desirable where the peace of the world is involved and the freedom of its peoples, and the menace to that peace and freedom lies in the existence of autocratic governments backed by organized force which is controlled wholly by their will, not by the will of their people. We have seen the last of neutrality in such circumstances. We are at the beginning of an age in which it will be insisted that the same standards of conduct and of responsibility for wrong done shall be observed among nations and their governments that are observed among the individual citizens of civilized states.

Congress overwhelmingly voted in support of the war, adopting the declaration by a vote of 82 to 6 in the Senate and 373 to 50 in the House of Representatives.

The anniversary of Wilson’s request to Congress to declare war is an important reminder of the imbalance between the executive and Congress in war powers that has pervaded modern times. The Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war (Article I, Section 8), but also grants the president the role of commander-in-chief during times of war (Article II, Section 2). Yet, the last time the United States formally declared war under this framework was during World War II.

While Congress has attempted to rein in the war powers of the executive, it hasn’t always been successful. In 1973, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution (WPR) over President Richard Nixon’s veto to ensure the participation of Congress in decisions to commit military forces to conflict. Under the resolution, the president may only send armed forces in the case of “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces,” or by authorization of Congress. Furthermore, the President must inform Congress within 48 hours of his decision, and the forces cannot remain for more than 60 days without Congressional authorization or a formal declaration of war.

Presidents have, in many cases, ignored the resolution or have found loopholes to avoid triggering the 60-day time limit for troops to remain. For example, President Ronald Reagan sent Marines to Lebanon in 1982-83 without citing Section 4(a)(1). Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton also sent troops abroad using this same tactic to avoid the restrictions put in place by the WPR. However, Congress has also granted statutory authority for military action consistent with the WPR, as was the case in a joint resolution granting broad authority to President George W. Bush  “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

Still, war powers remains a controversial issue, as evidenced by Congressional opposition to President Barack Obama’s decision to intervene in Libya. Furthermore, ongoing tensions between the executive and legislative branches over war powers should not go unresolved. In 2007, the Miller Center convened a bipartisan panel on the National War Powers Commission, headed by former Secretaries of State James A. Baker and Warren Christopher. The commission was comprised of several leading experts, scholars and officials who evaluated the 1973 resolution in several different capacities over a period of 14 months. The commission concluded with a unanimous recommendation to replace the War Powers Resolution with a new War Powers Consultation Act with the following provisions:

  • Provides that the president shall consult with Congress before deploying U.S. troops into “significant armed conflict”—i.e., combat operations lasting, or expected to last, more than a week.
  • Defines the types of hostilities that would or would not be considered “significant armed conflicts.”
  • Creates a new Joint Congressional Consultation Committee, which includes leaders of both Houses as well as the chair and ranking members of key committees.
  • Establishes a permanent bipartisan staff with access to the national security and intelligence information necessary to conduct its work.
  • Calls on Congress to vote up or down on significant armed conflicts within 30 days.

Read the full commission report here.

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