(CNN)Such is the state of world affairs that it was news Monday when Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary told reporters that, no, the US has not declared war on North Korea.
There had been some confusion among the North Koreans.
As CNN’s Zachary Cohen reported Monday:
North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho on Monday accused US President Donald Trump of declaring war on his country by tweeting over the weekend that North Korea “won’t be around much longer.”
“Last weekend Trump claimed that our leadership wouldn’t be around much longer and declared a war on our country,” Ri said, according to an official translation of his remarks to reporters in New York.
“Since the United States declared war on our country, we will have every right to make all self-defensive counter measures, including the right to shoot down the United States strategic bombers at any time even when they are not yet inside the aerospace border of our country,” Ri said.
But it’s a funny thing, how the US government works, despite being engaged in numerous armed conflicts costing hundreds of thousands of American lives, the US hasn’t actually declared war on another country since 1942, when the US declared war on Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania during World War II.
In fact, the US has only declared war 11 times in its history, according to the US Senate website. Six of those times had to do with World War II, two of them with World War I and then war with Great Britain in 1812, war with Mexico in 1846 and war with Spain in 1898.
Why doesn’t the US declare war anymore? It’s a power Congress has largely ceded to the President.
The Constitution grants Congress the ability to declare war in Article 1, Section 8.
But presidents don’t really have to wait for Congress with the more broad interpretation of executive authority that has developed around the executive branch. When they do feel they need congressional authority, they have been more likely to seek an authorization for the use of military force. Even that has become more perfunctory in recent years.
Three successive US presidents have used the 2001 Authorization For the Use of Military Force against terrorism to prosecute military action in Afghanistan and in other terrorist hotspots. A separate Authorization for the Use of Military Force was passed in 2002 to authorize the second Iraq War.
Lawmakers are loathe to take difficult votes on military force, however they do, to some extent, control the President’s ability by controlling the national purse strings. They could, conceivably, choke off funding for a war.
CNN contributor and University of Texas constitutional law professor Stephen Vladeck said it’s a bit too simplistic to simply say the US doesn’t declare war anymore.
“In fact, it’s a bit more complicated, and has a lot to do with the international movement toward prohibiting aggressive/offensive war, with the idea being that declarations of war raise international law concerns that more limited use-of-force authorizations don’t,” he said in an email. “There’s also the related point that a declaration of war triggers a whole bunch of standby statutory authorities that Congress doesn’t usually like to activate, whereas a more limited use-of-force statute doesn’t.”
The North Koreans could be forgiven for misinterpreting Trump’s bellicose pledge to bring “fire and fury” against them if they continued to threaten the US.
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Trump said in August during a meeting on opioids from his golf club in New Jersey. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen … he has been very threatening beyond a normal state. They will be met with fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
During a speech at the UN, Trump went further.
“The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea,” he said.
Trump’s decision could be enough for, essentially, war and North Korea should know. It was against North Korea in 1950 that Harry Truman deployed troops without approval from Congress, setting the precedent of the modern US policy of authorizing force but not declaring war. He committed US troops and announced the move to the nation because of a violation of UN Security Council resolutions, not Congressional action. Louis Fisher at the Constitution Project has written about how far the US has come from the Constitutional idea of a declaration of war.
“We are not at war,” Truman said during a 1950 press conference not long after committing troops.
But more than 1.7 million Americans served in Korea — and more than 35,000 died there.
The Korean war, by the way, never officially ended, although hostilities ceased in 1953. US troops are still stationed in South Korea and look each day over the border into the North.