What Does 'Commander in Chief' Really Mean?

How Presidents' Military Powers Have Changed Over Time

President George W. Bush chatting with sailors on US aircraft carrier
President Bush Speaks to Nation from Aircraft Carrier. U.S. Navy / Getty Images

The U.S. Constitution declares the President of the United States to be the “Commander in Chief” of the U.S. military. However, the Constitution also gives U.S. Congress the exclusive power to declare war. Given this apparent constitutional contradiction, what are the practical military powers of the Commander in Chief?

The concept of a political ruler serving as the ultimate commander of the armed forces dates to the Emperors of the Roman Kingdom, Roman Republic, and Roman Empire, who held imperium—command and regal—powers. In English usage, the term may have first been applied to King Charles I of England in 1639. 

Article II Section 2 of the Constitution—Commander in Chief Clause—states that “[t]he President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States.” But, Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution gives Congress the sole power, To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water; …”

The question, which comes up almost every time the grim need arises, is how much if any military force can the president unleash in the absence of an official declaration of war by Congress?

Constitutional scholars and lawyers differ on the answer. Some say the Commander in Chief Clause gives the president expansive, almost unlimited power to deploy the military. Others say the Founders gave the president the Commander in Chief title only to establish and preserve civilian control over the military, rather than give the president additional powers outside a congressional declaration of war.

The War Powers Resolution of 1973

On March 8, 1965, the 9th U.S. Marine Expeditionary Brigade became the first U.S. combat troops deployed to the Vietnam War. For the next eight years, Presidents Johnson, Kennedy, and Nixon continued to send U.S. troops to Southeast Asia without congressional approval or official declaration of war.

In 1973, Congress finally responded by passing the War Powers Resolution as an attempt to stop what congressional leaders saw as an erosion of Congress’s constitutional ability to play a key role in military use of force decisions. The War Powers Resolution requires presidents to notify Congress of their commitment combat troops within 48 hours. In addition, it requires presidents to withdraw all troops after 60 days unless Congress passes a resolution declaring war or granting an extension of the troop deployment.

Sources and Further Reference

  • Dawson, Joseph G. ed (1993). “.”Commanders in Chief: Presidential Leadership in Modern Wars University Press of Kansas.
  • Moten, Matthew (2014). “Presidents and Their Generals: An American History of Command in War.” Belknap Press. ISBN 9780674058149.
  • Fisher, Louis. “.”Domestic Commander in Chief: Early Checks by Other Branches Library of Congress
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Longley, Robert. "What Does 'Commander in Chief' Really Mean?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 11, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-commander-in-chief-4116887. Longley, Robert. (2021, August 11). What Does 'Commander in Chief' Really Mean? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-commander-in-chief-4116887 Longley, Robert. "What Does 'Commander in Chief' Really Mean?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-commander-in-chief-4116887 (accessed June 8, 2023).