The Historic Use of Force Abroad.

In 1912, the Depart- ment of State published a memorandum prepared by its Solicitor which set out to justify the Right to Protect Citizens in Foreign Countries by Landing Forces.185 In addition to the justification, the memorandum summarized 47 instances in which force had been used, in most of them without any congressional authorization. Twice revised and reissued, the memorandum was joined by a 1928 independent study and a 1945 work by a former government official in supporting conclusions that drifted away from the original justification of the use of United States forces abroad to the use of such forces at the discretion of the President and free from control by Congress.186

New lists and revised arguments were published to support the actions of President Truman in sending troops to Korea and of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson in sending troops first to Vietnam and then to Indochina generally,187 and new lists have been propounded.188 The great majority of the instances cited involved fights with pirates, landings of small naval contingents on barbarous or semibarbarous coasts to protect commerce, the dispatch of small bodies of troops to chase bandits across the Mexican border, and the like, and some incidents supposedly without authorization from Congress did in fact have underlying statutory or other legislative authorization. Some instances, e.g., President Polk’s use of troops to precipitate war with Mexico in 1846, President Grant’s attempt to annex the Dominican Republic, President McKinley’s dispatch of troops into China during the Boxer Rebellion, involved considerable exercises of presidential power, but in general purposes were limited and congressional authority was sought for the use of troops against a sovereign state or in such a way as to constitute war. The early years of this century saw the expansion in the Caribbean and Latin America both of the use of troops for the furthering of what was perceived to be our national interests and of the power of the President to deploy the military force of the United States without congressional authorization.189

The pre-war actions of Presidents Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt advanced in substantial degrees the fact of presidential initiative, although the theory did not begin to catch up with the fact until the “Great Debate” over the commitment of troops by the United States to Europe under the Atlantic Pact. While congressional authorization was obtained, that debate, the debate over the United Nations charter, and the debate over Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949, declaring that “armed attack” against one signatory was to be considered as “an attack” against all signatories, provided the occasion for the formulation of a theory of independent presidential power to use the armed forces in the national interest at his discretion.190 Thus, Secretary of State Acheson told Congress: “Not only has the President the authority to use the armed forces in carrying out the broad foreign policy of the United States implementing treaties, but it is equally clear that this authority may not be interfered with by the Congress in the exercise of powers which it has under the Constitution.”191


J. Clark, Memorandum by the Solicitor for the Department of State, in RIGHT TO PROTECT CITIZENS IN FOREIGN COUNTRIES BY LANDING FORCES (1912). [Back to text]
Id. (Washington: 1929; 1934); M. OFFUTT, THE PROTECTION OF CITIZENS ABROAD BY THE ARMED FORCES OF THE UNITED STATES (1928); J. ROGERS, WORLD POLICING AND THE CONSTITUTION (1945). The burden of the last cited volume was to establish that the President was empowered to participate in United Nations peacekeeping actions without having to seek congressional authorization on each occasion; it may be said to be one of the earliest, if not the earliest, propoundings of the doctrine of inherent presidential powers to use troops abroad outside the narrow compass traditionally accorded those powers. [Back to text]
E.g., H. REP. NO. 127, 82d Congress, 1st Sess. (1951), 55–62; Corwin, Who Has the Power to Make War? NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE (July 31, 1949), 11; Authority of the President to Repel the Attack in Korea, 23 DEPT. STATE BULL. 173 (1950); Department of State, Historical Studies Division, Armed Actions Taken by the United States Without a Declaration of War, 1789–1967 (Res. Proj. No. 806A (Washington: 1967)). That the compilation of such lists was more than a defense against public criticism can be gleaned from a revealing discussion in Secretary of State Acheson’s memoirs detailing why the President did not seek congressional sanction for sending troops to Korea. “There has never, I believe, been any serious doubt—in the sense of non-politically inspired doubt—of the President’s constitutional authority to do what he did. The basis for this conclusion in legal theory and historical precedent was fully set out in the State Department’s memorandum of July 3, 1950, extensively published. But the wisdom of the decision not to ask for congressional approval has been doubted. . . .” After discussing several reasons establishing the wisdom of the decision, the Secretary continued: “The President agreed, moved also, I think, by another passionately held conviction. His great office was to him a sacred and temporary trust, which he was determined to pass on unimpaired by the slightest loss of power or prestige. This attitude would incline him strongly against any attempt to divert criticism from himself by action that might establish a precedent in derogation of presidential power to send our forces into battle. The memorandum that we prepared listed eighty-seven instances in the past century in which his predecessors had done this. And thus yet another decision was made.” D. ACHESON, PRESENT AT THE CREATION 414, 415 (1969). [Back to text]
War Powers Legislation: Hearings Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 92d Congress, 1st Sess. (1971), 347, 354–355, 359–379 (Senator Goldwater); Emerson, War Powers Legislation, 74 W. VA. L. REV. 53 (1972). The most complete list as of the time prepared is Collier, Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798–1989, CONG. RES. SERV. (1989), which was cited for its numerical total in United States v. Verdugo-Urquidez, 494 U.S. 259, 273 (1990). For an effort to reconstruct the development and continuation of the listings, see F. WORMUTH & E. FIRMAGE, TO CHAIN THE DOG OF WAR 142–145 (2d ed. 1989). [Back to text]
Of course, considerable debate continues with respect to the meaning of the historical record. For reflections of the narrow reading, see NATIONAL COMMITMENTS RESOLUTION, Report of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, S. REP. NO. 91–129, 1st Sess. (1969); J. ELY, WAR AND RESPONSIBILITY: CONSTITUTIONAL LESSONS OF VIETNAM AND ITS AFTERMATH (1993). On the broader reading and finding great presidential power, see A. SOFAER, WAR, FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND CONSTITUTIONAL POWER: THE ORIGINS (1976); Emerson, Making War Without a Declaration, 17 J. LEGIS. 23 (1990). [Back to text]
For some popular defenses of presidential power during the “Great Debate,” see Corwin, Who Has the Power to Make War? NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE (July 31, 1949), 11; Commager, Presidential Power: The Issue Analyzed, NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE (January 14, 1951), 11. Cf. Douglas, The Constitutional and Legal Basis for the President’s Action in Using Armed Forces to Repel the Invasion of South Korea, 96 CONG. REC. 9647 (1950). President Truman and Secretary Acheson utilized the argument from the U.N. Charter in defending the United States actions in Korea, and the Charter defense has been made much of since. See, e.g., Stromseth, Rethinking War Powers: Congress, the President, and the United Nations, 81 GEO. L. J. 597 (1993). [Back to text]
Assignment of Ground Forces of the United States to Duty in the European Area: Hearings Before the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees, 82d Congress, 1st Sess. (1951), 92. [Back to text]