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Imagine! Congress trying to curb my right to conduct unconstitutional wars! Why, that’s unconstitutional!, drawing by Bill Sanders, 1973

The Constitution’s framers divided war authority between the legislative and executive branches to prevent unilateral military decisions that might endanger the nation. President Richard Nixon’s decision to bomb Cambodia expanded the Vietnam conflict to another country without the consent of Congress. As commander in chief, Nixon believed he could conduct war, but Congress disagreed and passed legislation to curtail presidential war powers.

Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries

Imagine! Congress trying to curb my right to conduct unconstitutional wars! Why, that’s unconstitutional!, drawing by Bill Sanders, 1973

Congress Limits Presidential War Powers

The Constitution divides war powers between Congress and the president. Only Congress can declare war and appropriate military funding, but the president is commander in chief of the armed forces. The United States nonetheless engaged in conflicts in Korea and Vietnam without congressional declarations of war. After President Richard Nixon ordered the bombing of Cambodia without Congress’s consent, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution of 1973, intended to limit the president’s authority to conduct war.

While Congress holds the constitutional authority to declare war, it is balanced by the president’s authority as commander in chief. In 1973 Congress passed legislation further clarifying the division of power.