Dec. 11, 1941 Declaration of War Question

On December 11, 1941 the US Congress voted a Declaration of War against Germany and Italy. What is interesting and what I am wondering is the vote totals, Senate votes for the two were 88-0 and 90-0 respectively and House votes were 393-0 and 399-0 respectively. Why did some decide not to vote for war against Germanny when they did decide to vote for war agianst Italy?

It looks like some members weren’t present, not surprising the confusion and slower travel. BTW, one member of congress from Montana voted present, not Aye. She also voted against the declaration of war against Germany in 1917.

Jeannette Rankin who was a lifelong pacifist; she also voted NO on the Declaration of War on Japan on December 8th, the only member of the house or senate to do so.

The vote on war against Japan took place on Dec. 8, but then the votes on Germany and Italy both took place on Dec. 11. I guess it’s possible that some more people arrived between those two votes.


Yes, but I don’t think that’s the question. The DOW votes against Germany and Italy took place the same day, and he’s asking why some people voted for war against Italy (90 senators voted aye) who didn’t against Germany (88 senators voted aye).

This article from the NYT explains that "The larger Congressional vote against Italy was attributable to the fact that some members reached the floor too late to vote on the declaration against Germany. "

Given the unanimity, I highly doubt it was a pressing concern for the Congresscritters to have made it to the floor to vote. Whoever happened to be present when the motion for passing the declaration was moved are those who got to vote, and they didn’t go out of the way to let people know there was a vote. While Rankin was never going to vote for it, she wasn’t exactly going to vote against it either, and there was no doubt in anyone’s mind what the result was going to be.

I don’t think that was it.

A number of Senators and Representatives were out of town when the attack on Pearl Harbor happened. They all rushed to get back to Washington, but travel was much slower in those days. If you read the Congressional transcripts of Dec 8, you find a number of congressmen making short speeches about how so-and-so wasn’t there but was in total support of the declaration of war (they’d talked to them by phone, I expect). It was important in a symbolic way for them to register support.

So over the next few days, those who were out of town were slowly trickling back in. My guess is that some got there between the two votes.

Given that Germany and Italy had already declared war on the US. What was the point of the vote ? What would have happend had congress voted ‘no’ ?

I’ve always wondered that too! My best guess would be FDR might have been sneaky and decided to take some “police action” or declare Hitler a criminal so we could go after him. Maybe (in the case of Japan) say they commited a terrorist act and go that route?

Maybe they figured Italy would be a lot easier to beat than Germany.

I know this is GQ, and not GG (General Guesses), but I always assumed that the vote was to give the President “war” powers (as defined by the laws previous Congressional sessions set up). I don’t know where to find a list of things “unlocked” for the President during time of war.

Calling up the National Guard, for instance? The ability to declare Martial Law, as was done in the Territory of Hawaii for the duration? These are the only ones that come to mind.

I’m pretty sure that Congress would not have expected the military to hold their fire, even if attacked, until there was a DoW passed.

Of course. U.S. Navy personnel at Pearl Harbor resisted to the best of their ability as soon as they realized they were under enemy attack.

The President can in fact use the National Guard without asking the state’s governor in times of emergency or war, so I’m not sure he could call on them unless he somehow made it an emergency.

However, at least 125 times in the past the President has used the military without asking Congress. The last time we were technically at war (as voted on by congress) was again, WWII.

A very good guess, actually.

There are a large number of powers that become available to the President after a declaration of war is passed. These include things like more flexibility to manage the armed forces (including allowing for the unlimited call up of reserves for unlimited amounts of time, which is not allowed in times of peace), various sanctions and seizure authorities, and… well, the list goes on and on.

Oh yeah, and the Constitution says that Congress, not the President, has the power to declare war, so there’s that, too.

What I meant by my statement was that, with the attack on Pearl Harbor, it’s clear that a state of war did indeed exist between the U.S. and Japan. Japan wasn’t going to halt attacks on U.S. forces or territory if the Congress did not pass a formal Declaration of War, and the U.S. military sure wasn’t going to refrain from shooting back or otherwise defend itself.

So… the President is just asking the Congress to officially (i.e. legally) unlock his [Presidential] war powers.

The National Guard had actually been mobilized first in September 1940. The Department of War and Navy’s budgets had exploded after the Fall of France. A naval war was being waged in the Atlantic. The draft was in place, and had just been extended. All with the previous consent of Congress.

Essentially the DoW was really just a formality at that point.

A declaration of war also makes clear that the nation is committing itself to a major effort to achieve victory over a foe. Although it has legal consequences, it also has social and morale dimensions. When war is not declared, as in Korea or Vietnam, it can give rise to questions as to just how serious or determined the nation is to “win” (define that as you will).

As my link above to a contemporary report (NYT from December 11, 1941) shows, that’s exactly right - more Senators and Congressmen arrived between the two votes.

That article doesn’t say why the Senators and Congressmen missed the earlier vote. Were they just getting into town, or were they not notified of the vote, or even just late coming back from lunch? I was making a guess as to why.

But I’m sure they all thought the votes were important, even given the certainty of passage. So I’d be surprised if it were from lack of interest or notification.