Declarations of War - An Opinion

Doug Manzer

When we were at war with Germany and Japan, there were formal declarations of war. It not the same as with Vietnam.

This of course is one of the main controversies about the Vietnam war, and it's obviously still not resolved for many people (myself included).

World War II started in September, 1939 but the USA didn't become a belligerent until over two years later -- officially, that is.

However, Americans got involved in a number of ways, some of which constituted acts of war (in breach of neutrality), and I suggest that this 2-year twilight period resembled the Vietnam war in that there were hostilities without a declaration of war.

Here are a few similarities:

Vietnam War: Up until 1965 American volunteers assisted Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians etc. to resist Communist forces.

World War II: American volunteer pilots formed the AVG to conduct operations in China and Burma against the Japanese.

Vietnam War war: American protesters marched in the streets, some even carrying Viet Cong and Democratic Republic of Vietnam flags.

World War II: The German-American Bund, with thousands of members (mostly of ethnic German background) drilled, marched and paraded, dressed in Nazi Party uniforms and flew the Swastika flag.* In a quieter way, the America First organization lobbied behind the scenes to keep the US neutral, which effectively aided the enemy.

* An American friend took extreme exception to this one, saying that the anti-war protesters can't be compared to an ethnic minority demonstrating in support of foreign Fascism. I'm merely saying that they're alike in that they were free to march and fly the "enemy" flag during an undeclared war.

That two year interlude was a time of intense moral debate in America. -- and rightly so, I maintain.

When war was declared in December, 1941 a point was reached when the period for debate was over, and the time had come for action; in other words, a clearly defined decision point and moral watershed had been crossed.

For the Vietnam war, when was that moment?

I sure don't know. Even during escalating hostilities, the controversy went on and the moral issues were still being debated; and the government never made the decisive move to mobilize the country for the effort.

I believe that the duty of the government is to show some moral leadership. This may seem laughable in view of Richard Nixon and Watergate, but then consider President Roosevelt.

A declaration of war is that kind of moral leadership; it removes the uncertainties and ambiguities and says, "Attention everyone, the country has a big problem, and we've all got to pull together and deal with it."

However, any resolution like this needs the support of the people, as expressed through Congress. And the closest thing to such a declaration about Vietnam that the American people ever got from Congress was the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.

Here's what I get when I consider this document, not from a legalistic point of view, but for its moral effect on the population as a call to action. See below for the text of the resolution, as well as the declaration of war on Japan for comparison.

The 1941 declaration of war is very short and to the point; it solidly pledges the entire resources of the country to the conflict. A citizen can be in no doubt that this is a call for an all-out effort and it clearly defines the situation.

However, suppose I'm an American citizen reading the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in 1964. All I can see is that something's going on in SE Asia, but it doesn't say that war has been thrust upon us; it even seems to imply that the President will handle the problem with only the armed forces currently available. The resolution doesn't ask me to do anything, or to respond in any particular way: there's no inherent appeal to plant a Victory Garden, buy War Bonds, or organize a community fund-raiser to purchase an F-105 for the Air Force; there's certainly no admonition to stop talking (no poster campaign about "loose lips sinks ships"). And the conflict will be over, not when we've "won", but when the *President* thinks it's over!

Even the hawkish Lt. General Davidson in _Secrets of the Vietnam War_ argues that Lyndon Johnson should have asked Congress for a declaration of war. That way he either gets a public mandate for the war, and pursues it in a realistic way, or he gets out; the idea being that if you've got a job to do you give it your best effort or you don't bother at all.

Regards, Doug Manzer

+----------------- DECLARATION OF WAR ON JAPAN -------------

Declaring that a state of war exists between the Imperial Government
of Japan and the Government and the people of the United States and
making provisions to prosecute the same.

Whereas the Imperial Government of Japan has committed unprovoked
acts of war against the Government and the people of the United
States of America:

Therefore be it resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives
of the United States of America in Congress assembled,

That the state of war between the United States and the Imperial
Government of Japan which has thus been thrust upon the United States
is hereby formally declared; and the President is hereby authorized
and directed to employ the entire naval and military forces of the
United States and the resources of the Government to carry on war
against the Imperial Government of Japan; and, to bring the conflict
to a successful termination, all of the resources of the country are
hereby pledged by the Congress of the United States.

Approved, December 8, 1941, 4:10 p.m. E.S.T.

+----------------- GULF OF TONKIN RESOLUTION ---------------
Joint Resolution of Congress  H.J. RES 1145
August 7, 1964

(Department of State Bulletin, August 24, 1964)

Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the 
United States of America in Congress assembled, 

That the Congress approves and supports the determination of the 
President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures 
to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United 
States and to prevent further aggression.

Section 2.  The United States regards as vital to its national 
interest and to world peace the maintenance of international 
peace and security in southeast Asia.  Consonant with the 
Constitution of the United States and the Charter of the United 
Nations and in accordance with its obligations under the 
Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty, the United States is, 
therefore, prepared, as the President determines, to take all 
necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any 
member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective 
Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom.

Section 3.  This resolution shall expire when the President 
shall determine that the peace and security of the area is 
reasonably assured by international conditions created by action 
of the United Nations or otherwise, except that it may be 
terminated earlier by concurrent resolution of the Congress.

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