Reconceiving the War Powers Debate

Posted: 14 Oct 2011 Last revised: 17 Feb 2013

Date Written: June 25, 2012


Since the Vietnam War congressionalists and presidentialists have been locked into an unceasing controversy on presidential war powers. It has been increasingly difficult for each side to offer fresh evidence or new arguments. The purpose of this article and the larger project from which it is drawn is not so much to contribute to the existing scholarly debate as it is to reconceive it.

The war powers debate itself has lacked a historical context. Scholars have tended to assume that the debate is an age-old controversy from the early republic. I argue that it is fundamentally a product of the Cold War. Once we situate the war powers debate in a Cold War context, this naturally suggests that we focus on the distinctive assertions of power presidents made in this period. Over time, the academic debate has focused more on the claims of scholars than of presidents. While this is not entirely surprising, what is startling is how badly many prominent scholars have misunderstood the nature of these presidential claims. In turn, because of this misunderstanding the clarity with which the evidence from the founding period speaks to the contemporary war powers debate has not been appreciated fully. Beginning with Truman, all postwar presidents claimed that they had the unilateral power under Article II to initiate war, “real” war, full-scale war. The underappreciated crux of the war powers debate is what while this bold presidential claim was inconsistent with the historical meaning of the Constitution, it had an eminently defensible policy rationale that was widely supported, at least in the circumstances prevailing after World War II.

While I am not sympathetic to this unilateral presidential claim, the standard congressionalist critique is simply too limited. From the perspective of the executive branch, this claim did not appear extraordinary because it was encapsulated in a larger perspective, which many found persuasive, in which military force was one tool among others in advancing the foreign policy and preserving the national security of the United States. I contend that presidential war powers claims should be understood within the framework of American diplomacy generally and, more specifically, within the context of U.S. objectives and strategy in the Cold War period. The presidentialist position in the war powers debate cannot be understood and evaluated unless we have a firm grasp on the situation the executive branch faced in the early Cold War. We must expand the frame of the debate considerably in order to do this. This article and the project from which it is drawn are based on extensive research into primary and secondary sources in diplomatic history that have generally been bypassed in the traditional war powers debate.

In Part I, I describe briefly what postwar presidents have claimed with respect to their power to go to war. Like many scholars, I argue that Truman’s 1950 decision to intervene in Korea without congressional authorization marked a signal change. But while this argument is not new, scholars have been unable to offer a satisfactory explanation of why it occurred and how subsequent presidents were able to claim the Korea decision as a “precedent.” To establish the significance of Truman’s decision, in Part II I compare the power Truman and his successors claimed to the original constitutional plan for war. The specific nature of Truman’s claim allows us to establish with reasonable precision that it was inconsistent with the historical meaning of the Constitution. Along the way, I critique John Yoo’s argument that evidence from the eighteenth century supports the presidentialist position. Part III begins explaining how this constitutional change occurred by elaborating the concept of a constitutional order and describing the prewar constitutional order in which President Roosevelt made decisions prior to Pearl Harbor. Part IV completes the explanation by setting out in detail how Truman’s Korea decision grew out of the circumstances of the early Cold War.

Those interested in this paper should consult my forthcoming book, "Long Wars and the Constitution," (Harvard University Press, June 2013).

Keywords: war powers, constitutional change, Korean War, Truman

Suggested Citation

Griffin, Stephen M., Reconceiving the War Powers Debate (June 25, 2012). Tulane Public Law Research Paper No. 12-10. Available at SSRN: or

Stephen M. Griffin (Contact Author)

Tulane University Law School ( email )

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