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Declarations of War – Why Do So Many Countries Fight Without Them?

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Day of infamy -- F.D.R. announces a state of war exists between the United States and Japan. Image courtesy U.S. Congress.

Day of infamy — F.D.R. announces a state of war exists between the United States and Japan. Image courtesy U.S. Congress.

In its nearly 250 years of existence, the United States has only fought in five formally declared wars. These include both world wars, the Spanish American War, the war with Mexico and the War of 1812. Despite this, the number of actual armed conflicts involving the U.S. exceeds 20.

An article on the weekend by the American Press sets out to clarify why America more often than not fights without declaring war first.

The piece, entitled The Last US War Declaration Passed in 1942, explains how the Founding Fathers divided America’s war making authority between Congress and the White House. Simply put, Congress has the power to declare war; the president is responsible for prosecuting a conflict.

Sounds simple enough, right? Guess again. As the article points out, the exact demarcation line between executive power and legislative authority when it comes to war making is up for debate. In a number of cases, it’s been easier for the commander in chief to deploy the military without Congress.

“The ambiguity of the war power has caused problems from the beginning,” writes Andrew Perzo of AP. “And it has allowed several presidents since to sidestep the declaration clause altogether.”

The author cites two examples: President Jefferson presided over America’s war against the Barbary Corsairs in 1801 without Congress granting him a declaration. Sixty years later, President Lincoln waged an undeclared war against the Confederacy, while the legislature and the Supreme Court pondered the constitutionality of the move. By the time the discussion in Washington was settled in favour of war, the cannon balls were already flying.

What the article doesn’t point out is that the United States isn’t the only power to have waged war without formal declarations. The overwhelming majority of armed conflicts fought in the past 300 years have been undeclared. In fact, according to a 19th century study on the subject by historian and British general John Frederick Maurice, out of more than 100 recorded wars between 1700 and 1870, only 10 were formally declared. It’s a trend that has continued into the 21st Century.

Here are some other items of interest surrounding declarations of war.

Ancient Pronouncements
The oldest known war declaration comes to us from the Sumerian poem, The Epic of Gilgamesh, some 3700 years ago. The ancient work of literature describes the Mesopotamian empire of Uruk formally announcing hostilities against a neighbouring kingdom.

The Old Testament also makes references to declarations of war also, particularly in the book of Deuteronomy.

Formal war declarations were the norm during the Classical Greek Period, with many city states in the Aegean issuing them at the outset of their various disputes. For example, Sparta kicked off the Peloponnesian War in 431 BCE with a declaration against Athens after their own Theban allies  initiated an un-provoked (and unannounced war) against Plataea. Later, the Roman senate famously declared war on Carthage on three different occasions.

Strangest War Declarations
There is one case of a country declaring war and then literally forgetting about the whole thing. That’s what happened in 1651 when Holland inaugurated a conflict against English Royalists on the Scilly Isles in the English Channel. A Dutch fleet arrived off the islands to make good on their declaration, but unable to locate any enemy forces in the area, sailed for home. Within weeks, the war was all but forgotten. A British historian discovered the declaration in 1985 and informed Amsterdam at which point Holland sent delegates to the islands to sign a peace treaty… 355 years after the fact.

America on the other hand didn’t forget its first formal war declaration against Great Britain in 1812. Irritated by the Royal Navy’s continuing practice of stopping U.S. merchant ships on the high seas and pressing sailors into service on His Majesty’s warships, Washington issued a war declaration in June of that year. Yet, little did President Madison and Congress realize, Britain was desperate to avoid the nuisance of war with America amid its larger struggle against Napoleon. London announced it would end the offending policy even before President Madison and Congress’ declaration. Sadly, by the time word arrived from England, American and British forces were trading blows along the U.S. border with Upper Canada.

Speaking of bad timing, Japan’s notorious attack on Pearl Harbor was supposed to have been preceded by a formal announcement from Tokyo of impending hostilities. Unfortunately, the Japanese ambassador in Washington, Kichisaburo Nomura, was unable to prepare and deliver the document breaking off all relations to the American secretary of state Cordell Hull until after bombs were falling on the American Pacific Fleet. Since it was Sunday, most of the Japanese embassy staff were off that day so there was no one available to type up the declaration.

World Wars
There were no fewer than 40 separate declarations of war issued between 1939 and 1945. Hitler’s invasion of Poland sparked a flurry of them between the powers of Europe; Japan’s attacks across the Pacific in 1941 resulted in a torrent of declarations too. Consider these:

America’s response to the attack on Hawaii was swift. Interestingly enough, Canada’s was swifter. While Congress and President Roosevelt declared war on Japan on Dec. 8, 1941 – the day after the surprise attack – Canada’s Parlliament announced it was at war the day of the strike itself.

Four days after the Pearl Harbor attack, Germany announced it was at war with the United States. Although Berlin had signed the Tripartite Pact with Tokyo in 1940, Germany was only obligated to support Japan militarily if its Asian partner was attacked first. Since Japan precipitated the war, Hitler could have rightly opted out of widening the war to include America. Yet on Dec. 11, the German foreign minister handed the American ambassador in Berlin a note stating that a state of war existed between the two powers. The Nazi leader cited acts of American aggression in the Atlantic as the cause of Germany’s declaration of hostilities. In a speech later that day, Hitler even cited Roosevelt’s New Deal as one of the factors in Germany’s call to arms against the United States. Interestingly, it was Berlin’s only formal war declaration of the entire Second World War.

Unlike Germany, Great Britain issued a series of war declarations between 1939 and 1945. London declared war on Germany on Sept. 3, 1939 after giving Hitler 48 hours to withdraw his troops from Poland. The following year, Churchill announced hostilities against Italy. In December of 1941, the British would issue declarations against the likes of Finland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Japan. The following year, London also declared war against Thailand for its role in the war in Burma.

At least two countries declared war against the Allies only to later do so against the Axis. After announcing hostilities with France and Britain in 1940 and later America, Rome cast its lot in with its former enemies and declared war against Nazi Germany on Oct. 13, 1943. Former Axis member Romania followed a similar path in 1944 announcing war against Berlin.

A number of countries that would play little or no military role in the global conflict also issued declarations. After Pearl Harbor, Panama, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Honduras all proclaimed their hostility to Japan.

Throughout 1942 and 1943, Germany would be the focus of war declarations from the likes of Iran, Mexico, Brazil and Bolivia.

Strangely, Nicaragua declared war on Bulgaria in 1941 for no other reason that the European country was a German ally.

In the final months of the war, a number of countries who had largely stayed out of the war up to that point would leap into the fray, if only diplomatically. In 1945, Paraguay, Argentina, Peru, Venezuela and Uruguay would all announce their hostility to the Axis, as would Saudi Arabia, only weeks before VE Day.

The last declaration of the war would be by the Soviet Union against Japan… two days after the bombing of Hiroshima (better late than never).

Most Recent Declarations
Since World War Two, formal declarations of war have become the exception rather than the rule. This is the case, despite the 1907 Hague Convention that forbids states to attack one another without first issuing what the agreement calls “previous and explicit warnings” and then signaling their intentions to fight to the wider international community. Despite the participation of Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the United States in the treaty, most states have frequently ignored the convention’s war making protocols. According to some, at best, declarations are seen as a pointless formality, at worst they give advance warning to an enemy of an impending attack. Not surprisingly, the Korean and Vietnam wars were undeclared, as was Britain’s war against Argentina and the Soviet war in Afghanistan.(SEE MARTIN GIBSON’s COMMENTS BELOW) As the AP article points out, America hasn’t issued a formal war declaration since announcing a state of hostilities against Romania (a Nazi ally) in June of 1942.

The handful instances of formal declarations since the Second World War include Panama’s 1989 announcement of war with the U.S., a 2006 announcement of hostilities by Chad against Sudan, and last year’s announcement by Sudan that it was in a state of conflict with South Sudan.

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7 Comments

  1. While most leaders these days might see it as a useless formality, there is one big problem. Since it is a violation of the Hague convention it technically is a warcrime. I personally would not want to go to prison for ignoring a formality.

  2. The actions of the USA and its allies in Korea and the UK in the Falklands were justified by UN Security Council resolutions.

    The USSR was unable to veto the Resolution 82, dealing with Korea, because it was then boycotting the UNSC over a procedural dispute. The Chinese seat was still held by the Nationalists.

    Resolution 502 on the Falklands allowed the UK to invoke Article 51 of the UN Charter, giving it the right of self-defence. The Communist countries all abstained; their interests were not directly affected and Argentina was ruled by a right wing dictatorship.

    • Slightly theoretical i guess, but would NATO’s Article 5 also avoid the need for individual country members to declare war, should it be invoked against another nation state / alliance? Does it have a legal standing?
      Cheers!

  3. I’d have thought that members of an alliance coming to the aid of another member of the alliance would still have to declare war on the country that had attacked their ally.

    In 1939, Britain and France were obliged by treaty to come to the aid of Poland. Both still declared war on Germany.

  4. You’ve missed the key legal issue here. The UN Charter (articles 1, 2 and 51) effectively forbids the use of war as an instrument of policy without Security Council authorization. UN members give up the right to declare war in return for the collective security of the UN.

  5. The Soviet Union didn’t need to declare war on Afghanistan as it was not at war with the Afghan government but actually sided with it against the Mujahideen.

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