The War Powers Act of 1973: Definition & Summary

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  • 0:03 What is the War Powers Act?
  • 0:45 History of War Declaration
  • 1:31 The Constitution
  • 2:24 Wars of the last 150 years
  • 5:20 How Constitutional is…
  • 6:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mark Pearcy
Who makes decisions about going to war - Congress, the President or both? The War Powers Resolution of 1973 was an attempt to clear up the question, but it only succeeded in making a gray area even more ambiguous. Learn about this chapter in history and the events that led up to it.

What Is the War Powers Act?

The War Powers Act, also known as the War Powers Resolution of 1973, requires the following: the President, upon sending troops into military action, must notify Congress within 48 hours that he has done so. The Resolution also forbids military personnel from remaining in a state of conflict for more than 60 days (including an additional 30 days for withdrawal). After that, the President must seek an additional authorization from Congress or a formal declaration of war.

So, you may ask, how was war declared prior to 1973? For an answer to that question, we'll have to look back at some prior conflicts and at the U.S. Constitution.


The last time the United States declared war against another nation was on June 4, 1942, against Romania. This was largely a formality; Romania was an ally of Nazi Germany, and we knew we'd have to go through them on the way to Berlin. And anyway, World War II was in full swing at that point and one more declaration didn't change things that much. Still, it was the last time that the U.S. Congress discharged its official duty when it comes to entering the nation into conflict.

However, as you may have noticed, the U.S. has been in lots of conflicts since - you might even term them wars. How can that be, though, when Congress is supposed to be the institution that makes the call on when to send Americans into harm's way?

The Constitution

The Constitution has a couple of seemingly contradictory things to say about war. On the one hand, Congress, in Article I (right at the top), is given the power to not only declare war, but also the power to raise an army and navy, to fund war efforts and even to support militias (which aren't around as much anymore). So, it would seem that the Congress is supposed to be calling the shots on war-related issues - except when they don't.

The problem is that the President, in Article II, is named commander-in-chief of the armed forces and the militia. There's a pretty good-sized gray area around what that means; just about everyone agrees that this means the President is chief decision-maker about how the military is used and that the President is the only person that can lead the armed forces into conflict. So, who, then, gets to make decisions about 'when' we go to war?

Wars of the Last 150 Years

Oddly, given this fair-sized hole in the Constitution, not much came of it for the first 150 years of America's existence. There were a few perplexing moments, particularly in the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln exerted 'war powers' that no one (Lincoln included) was really sure he had. He took measures against the Confederacy (for instance, suspending the civil right of habeas corpus), but since the Confederates were considered in the North to be a breakaway group of rebels and not a foreign nation, it didn't technically conflict with the war powers of Congress. This was the biggest hiccup in the wartime history of the United States - until 1950.

In 1950, the United States joined a United Nations-sponsored effort to defend South Korea against communist North Korea. This effort lasted three years and cost over 53,000 lives, but did not include a declaration of war by Congress. This made many Americans, in and out of government, uneasy and caused anxiety over the U.S. possibly becoming a regular partner, or even a leader, of such international efforts.

It was the Vietnam Conflict that really bothered Congress. The mission of military advisors, which were first sent in 1954, was troublingly open-ended, and many questioned whether or not what they were doing constituted an act, if not a declaration of war. The Gulf of Tonkin Incident in 1964 (in which North Vietnamese torpedo boats allegedly attacked U.S. Navy destroyers) provoked President Lyndon Johnson to ask Congress for the power to act. In response, Congress issued a joint resolution (from both Houses, which has the force of law), known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized the President to take all necessary steps to resist North Vietnamese aggression.

By 1969, the conflict had widened, and a new President was in charge. Richard Nixon had campaigned promising to end the war (or whatever it was) in Vietnam, but instead, he covertly authorized an invasion of Vietnam's neighbor, Cambodia, allegedly to destroy command and supply facilities of the North Vietnamese based there. The President announced the action publicly in April 1970, causing immediate public outcry against the invasion of a neutral country.

Many members of Congress felt they had been poorly informed or deceived outright about the invasion. This event was the catalyst for the introduction of the War Powers Resolution of 1973. It's actually a resolution, instead of an act, as it's often called. This is because, while it passed both Houses of Congress in 1973, it was initially vetoed by President Nixon. It then passed again, by two-thirds' majority, which caused it to become law without a presidential signature.

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