Constitutional Wars? Korea and Vietnam
The United States was involved in both the Korean (1950-53) and Vietnam (1964-73) wars. Though the wars were fought at different times, both dealt with communism and containment. Questions arose as to why the United States was involved in these wars without having any formal declaration of war. Presidents Truman, Johnson and Nixon were involved with these wars. Many people think that congress neglected its constitutional military responsibilities and handed them, by default, to the presidents in office at the time who then, led the country in unconstitutional wars. This statement cannot be considered valid or invalid before four major categories are analyzed; 1) roles of the legislative and executive branches during war 2) decisions made by the Presidents 3) events that took place leading up to and during the wars 4) congress’s influence on these foreign affairs. Evaluating these four items will help to explain why the Vietnam War is constitutional but the Korean War is not. Because the constitutionality of these wars is being questioned, the first thing that needs to be looked at is the Constitution to understand what roles are possessed by the legislative and executive branches during a time of war.
The legislative branch, called congress, is divided into two parts called the house and the senate; their duties are outlined in article one of the Constitution. Congress is granted it’s authority by article one, section one of the constitution which states that, “All Legislative powers
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herein granted shall be vested in a congress of the United States” (Article one Section one of the Constitution). Article one, section eight outlines the powers of congress, these are often called the enumerated powers. It states that congress is responsible for providing the common defense and general welfare of the United States. Some of these responsibilities are, raising and supporting armies, providing and maintaining a Navy, regulation of land and naval forces, and to govern, organize, arm, discipline and call fourth the Militia (Article one Section eight of the Constitution). One of the most important authorities possessed solely by congress is the power to declare war. America has not officially declared war since World War 2. According to the United States war records, there have only been five wars officially declared by the United States and congress. Those wars were; the War of 1812, Mexican War, Spanish-American War, World War 1, and World War 2 (usconstitution.net). The Vietnam War and the Korean War are notably absent from this list of five officially declared wars. Many aspects need to be looked at to understand why these wars were fought having not been declared. One of the most important aspects is the power of the president during wars.
The powers of the executive branch belong to the President, Vice President and cabinet members. As outlined in article two, section one of the constitution, “The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America” (Article two Section one of the Constitution). The President is head of state and head of government for the United States. Under the constitution, the President has many duties as the leader of the country, such as approving bills and nominating federal judges, but to better understand how the Korean and Vietnam wars got started; only his war duties will need to be analyzed. Article two; section two of the Constitution states that, “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of
The United States, and of the Militia of the several States”. Even with the power of being Commander in Chief of the armed forces, the President cannot declare war; only congress can. That being said, as Commander in Chief, the President has the authority to direct war after it has been declared. He is also authorized to repel any sudden attacks on America, allowing him to use his military force in order to protect the country but not to start a war unless declared by congress. Now that the roles of the executive and legislative branches in a time of war have been analyzed, it is time to look at whether or not the Korean and Vietnam wars followed the Constitution and whether or not they can be considered constitutional wars.
The Korean War started with the division of Korea. This happened when the end of the Second World War led to the Empire of Japan surrendering to the allies, ending Japan’s 35 year colonial rule of Korea. In August of 1945, the Soviet Union invaded North Korea; fearing that the Soviets would take over the entire country and convert it to communism, the United States sent troops into the southern part of the country (Elsey). Shortly after this occurred, the two sides agreed to divide the country in half along the 38th parallel. Failure to hold free elections throughout the country deepened the two side’s differences. In 1948, the prime minister of North Korea, Kim IL Sung, organized North Korea into a communist government called the Democratic People’s Republic. Shortly after, Syngman Rhee set up a rival, non communist power in South Korea called the Republic of Korea (Flint and Robertson 218). Rhee was also the first president of South Korea. Both powers hoped to reunite the country under its own government. Because this could not happen, war broke out and the Korean War was started.
The Korean War officially started on June 25, 1950 when North Korea crossed the 38th parallel. North Korean forces organized an attack and headed south toward the city of Seoul
(Flint and Robertson 218). Chinese forces backed the North Korean forces. The United Nations Security Council saw this invasion as a “breach of the peace”. Because the Soviets had boycotted the U.N. Security Council, no one was there to veto the resolution authorizing military intervention in Korea. President Harry S. Truman quickly committed American forces to a combined United Nations military effort and named Gen. Douglas MacArthur Commander of the U.N. forces (Elsey). Twenty other nations sent troops to help the United Nations. The United States involvement was considered a “police action” and Truman never sought a formal declaration of war from congress. So why did the United States get involved in the Korean War, and was it constitutional? A look into critical events and President Truman’s actions should reveal the answer.
The biggest reason why America got involved in the Korean War was to stop the spread of communism. Before the Korean War (1947), Truman presented the Truman Doctrine; in it, he asked Congress for financial and military aid in the countries of Greece and Turkey. Truman was attempting to help countries from falling under Soviet control and stop the spread of communism. In his speech, Truman says “The free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms” (Truman Doctrine) Truman knew that if the countries were not helped, they would fall to communism. This shows Truman was against the spread of communism. Many other things happened before the invasion that made Truman uncomfortable; the Soviet Union exploded an atomic bomb in 1949. This meant that the United States was no longer the only country with nuclear power. China became allies with the Soviets making them a communist super power. Back in the United States, the Truman administration was facing criticism regarding its commitment to anticommunism (Elsey). Many people thought Truman
had let China get away when it joined the Soviets, they thought Truman could have prevented the Chinese from becoming a communist power. Truman was being pressured to not appear weak or soft when it came to anticommunism. So when North Korea invaded, Truman saw this as the perfect opportunity for the United States to prove their devotion to stopping communism. Truman almost immediately committed United States forces to help South Korea. President Truman feared that communist powers would continue to grow and spread if action was not taken. He wanted to do everything in his power to contain communism. In a speech he gave to his staff two days after the invasion, he said “There’s no telling what they’ll do, if we don’t put up a fight now.” Truman wanted to send a message the Soviets and China letting them know communism was going to be contained. That being said, it was not America’s job to end communism in Europe or Asia. President Truman’s decision to get The United States involved in the Korean War was constitutionally wrong. Truman never sought an official declaration of war from congress, he just acted on his own thoughts and feelings. Congress did not neglect their responsibilities, it did not seem as though congress thought the United States needed to get involved. Under the Constitution, the president does not have the power to declare war. Therefore, Truman did not have the power to send American troops into battle without an official declaration or permission from congress. Only congress has the power to declare war and all fourth a militia. Truman violated the Constitution by making decisions he was not authorized to make. Truman could have sent troops if The United States was under attack, but they were not. The argument can be made that America was not officially going to war with Korea and that Truman was only helping out the United Nations as a police action. America took the lead in the war but they did so under the rubric of the United Nations (Elsey). Because Truman’s actions fell
under measures recommended by the U.N., it is seen how America’s involvement could be considered valid. Truman made a statement on June 27, 1950 talking about the Situation in Korea and said that “The United States will continue to uphold the rule of law” (Truman (library)). This statement is saying that America will continue to support the U.N. in containing communism and defending South Korea. Truman choosing to defend South Korea and help with the fighting of North Korea can be considered an act of war. Since only congress is granted the power to declare, Truman declaring it was unconstitutional and so was the Korean War. America’s involvement in the Korean War made it clear they were determined to contain communism; their dedication will be tested when the Vietnam War erupts.
America’s involvement with the Vietnam War stemmed from many thing, one of the largest being the Gulf of Tonkin incident. On August 2, 1964, the USS Maddox was performing a signals intelligence patrol when it came across three Vietnamese Navy torpedo boats (Kim). A battle between America and North Vietnam erupted, the result was the three Vietnamese boats being damaged. The larger outcome of this incident was the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which was a joint resolution that was passed by congress on August 7, 1964. This resolution granted President Lyndon B. Johnson the use of conventional military force in Southeast Asia without having a formal declaration of war by congress. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution stated that “Congress approves and supports the determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repeal any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent any further aggression”(Gulf of Tonkin Resolution).
The biggest reason why The United States got involved in the Vietnam War was to contain communism and help protect South Vietnam. President Johnson was worried about the
domino theory which stated that if one country in Southeast Asia fell to communism, surrounding countries would too (Nelson). With the new power from the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Johnson had the authority to send U.S. troops into war. In March of 1965, United States combat units were deployed to Vietnam. They were fighting against North Vietnam which was supported by communists. Johnson’s goal was not to win the war but to help the defenses of South Vietnam. Everything changed in 1969 when Richard Nixon became the new President. Nixon implemented a plan called Vietnamization, a process to remove U.S. troops from Vietnam while handing back the fighting to the South Vietnamese(Nelson). American troops began being removed in July 1969, but quite a few had to stay and continue fighting. U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War came to an abrupt halt in June 1973 when the Case-Church Amendment was approved by Congress. This amendment prohibited future U.S. military activity in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos unless the President was granted Congressional approval in advance. This ended all direct U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam War. The U.S. was involved in The Vietnam War from 1964-1973. President Johnson made the decision to send U.S. military forces into Vietnam; but not without proper consent from Congress. Johnson did not have the power to declare war, but the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution gave him the power of using conventional military force without a declaration of war; something he took full advantage of. Because of the resolution, Johnson’s decisions were allowed under the Constitution, making the Vietnam War constitutional. It can be seen why people may think the Vietnam War was unconstitutional. The argument could be made that because America was not under attack, military force should not have been used by the President. Many individuals have also argued that the Gulf of Tonkin incident never happened and that The United States was just because of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Johnson’s and Nixon’s decision as well as their actions were constitutionally sound.
Since the beginning of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, it has been questioned whether or not they were valid under the Constitution. After analyzing the Constitution, reviewing the President’s decisions and looking at some of the major events from the wars, a conclusion can be made. The Korean War was not constitutional; but The Vietnam War was. The biggest reason why The Vietnam War was valid was because Congress authorized Johnson to use of military force without declaring war. Truman did not have that authorization, making his actions unconstitutional. If military force is going to be used outside of The United States, Congress must approve of it.