Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armed Forces

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Commander-in-Chief the United States Armed Forces
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Donald Trump

since January 20, 2017
United States Armed Forces
Vested in President of the United States
Status Supreme commanding authority
Residence White House
Seat Washington, D.C.
Operating from The Pentagon
Constituting instrument United States Constitution
Abbreviation C-in-C
Deputy United States Secretary of Defense (de facto)

The Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armed Forces is the supreme commanding authority of the United States Armed Forces, which are composed of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. It is an executive power vested in the President as written in Article II of the United States Constitution.


The power to declare war is constitutionally vested in Congress, but the president has ultimate responsibility for the direction and disposition of the military. The present-day operational command of the Armed Forces is delegated to the Department of Defense and is normally exercised through the Secretary of Defense. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Combatant Commands assist with the operation as outlined in the presidentially approved Unified Command Plan (UCP).[1][2][3] The framers of the Constitution took care to limit the president's powers regarding the military; Alexander Hamilton explained this in Federalist No. 69:

The President is to be commander-in-chief of the army and navy of the United States. ... It would amount to nothing more than the supreme command and direction of the military and naval forces ... while that [the power] of the British king extends to the DECLARING of war and to the RAISING and REGULATING of fleets and armies, all [of] which ... would appertain to the legislature.[4] [Emphasis in the original.]

Pursuant to the War Powers Resolution, Congress must authorize any troop deployments longer than 60 days, although that process relies on triggering mechanisms that have never been employed, rendering it ineffectual.[5] Additionally, Congress provides a check to presidential military power through its control over military spending and regulation. Presidents have historically initiated the process for going to war,[6][7] but critics have charged that there have been several conflicts in which presidents did not get official declarations, including Theodore Roosevelt's military move into Panama in 1903,[6] the Korean War,[6] the Vietnam War,[6] and the invasions of Grenada in 1983[8] and Panama in 1989.[9]


According to Article II, Section 2, Clause I of the Constitution, the President of the United States is “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.”[10]

Since the National Security Act of 1947, this has been understood to mean all United States Armed Forces. U.S. ranks have their roots in British military traditions, with the President possessing ultimate authority, but no rank, maintaining a civilian status, other than the title of Commander in Chief.[11]

The exact degree of authority that the Constitution grants to the President as Commander in Chief has been the subject of much debate throughout history, with Congress at various times granting the President wide authority and at others attempting to restrict that authority.[12]

The amount of military detail handled personally by the President in wartime has varied dramatically.[13] George Washington, the first U.S. president, firmly established military subordination under civilian authority. In 1794, Washington used his constitutional powers to assemble 12,000 militia to quell the Whiskey Rebellion—a conflict in western Pennsylvania involving armed farmers and distillers who refused to pay excise tax on spirits. According to historian Joseph Ellis, this was the "first and only time a sitting American president led troops in the field", though James Madison briefly took control of artillery units in defense of Washington D.C. during the War of 1812.[14]

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, successfully preserved the Union during the American Civil War

Abraham Lincoln was deeply involved in overall strategy and in day-to-day operations during the American Civil War, 1861–1865; historians have given Lincoln high praise for his strategic sense and his ability to select and encourage commanders such as Ulysses S. Grant.[15] On the other extreme, Woodrow Wilson paid very little attention to operational military details of World War I and had very little contact with the War Department or with General John J. Pershing, who had a high degree of autonomy as commander of the armies in France.[16] As President in World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt worked closely with his generals, and admirals, and assigned Admiral William D. Leahy as Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief.[17] Harry S. Truman believed in a high amount of civilian leadership of the military, making many tactical and policy decisions based on the recommendations of his advisors—including the decision to use atomic weapons on Japan, to commit American forces in the Korean War, and to terminate Douglas MacArthur from his command.[18] Lyndon B. Johnson kept a very tight personal control of operations during the Vietnam War, which some historians have sharply criticized.[19]

In 1990, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing Gulf War in 1991, saw George H.W. Bush assemble and lead one of the largest military coalitions of nations in modern times. Confronting a major constitutional issue of murky legislation that left the wars in Korea and Vietnam without official declarations of war, Congress quickly authorized sweeping war-making powers for Bush.[20] The leadership of George W. Bush during the War in Afghanistan and Iraq War achieved mixed results. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks by al-Qaeda, the subsequent War on Terror that followed, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq due to Iraq's sponsorship of terrorism and alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction, the speed at which the Taliban and Ba'ath Party governments in both Kabul and Baghdad were toppled by an overwhelming superiority of American and allied forces defied the predictions of many military experts. However, insufficient post-war planning and strategy by Bush and his advisors to rebuild those nations were costly.[21][22]

Before 1947, the President was the only common superior of the Army (under the Secretary of War) and the Navy and Marine Corps (under the Secretary of the Navy).[23] The National Security Act of 1947, and the 1949 amendments to the same act, created the Department of Defense and the services (Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force) became subject to the "authority, direction and control" of the Secretary of Defense; the civilian cabinet-level official serving as the head of the Department of Defense and who is appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate.[24][25]

The Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986 codified the default operational chain of command: running from the President to the Secretary of Defense, and from the Secretary of Defense to the combatant commander.[26] While the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff outranks all other military officers, he does not have operational command authority over the Armed Forces. However, the chairman does assist the President and the Secretary of Defense in the exercise of their command functions.[27]

During the 20th century, certain area commanders came to be called "Commander-in-chief".[28] As of 2011, there are nine combatant commanders: six have regional responsibilities, and three have functional responsibilities. Before 2002, the combatant commanders were referred to in daily use as "Commanders-in-chief" (for instance: "Commander in chief, U.S. Central Command"), even though the offices were in fact already designated as "combatant commander" (CCDR) in the law specifying the positions.[29] On 24 October 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld announced his decision that the use of "Commander-in-chief" would thereafter be reserved for the President only.[30]


U.S. States

In U.S. states, the governor also serves as the commander-in-chief of the National Guard (while under state control), State Militia, and State Defense Forces. In the Commonwealth of Kentucky, for example, KRS 37.180[32] states:

The Governor shall be commander in chief of the Kentucky active militia, and the adjutant general shall be the executive officer and shall be responsible to the Governor for the proper functioning of the Kentucky active militia, and he is hereby authorized and empowered to take necessary action to perfect and maintain an efficient organization for the purposes herein set out. He shall have charge of all matters of administration and organization, which shall be in all respects, insofar as necessary and applicable, the same as that of the National Guard.

Similarly, Section 7 of Article 5[33] of the Constitution of the State of California states:

The Governor is commander in chief of a militia that shall be provided by statute. The Governor may call it forth to execute the law.

See also


  1. ^ "DOD Releases Unified Command Plan 2011". United States Department of Defense. April 8, 2011. Archived from the original on May 13, 2011. Retrieved February 25, 2013. 
  2. ^ 10 U.S.C. § 164
  3. ^ Joint Chiefs of Staff. About the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Retrieved February 25, 2013.
  4. ^ Hamilton, Alexander. The Federalist #69 (reposting). Retrieved June 15, 2007.
  5. ^ Christopher, James A.; Baker, III (July 8, 2008). "The National War Powers Commission Report". The Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. Archived from the original (PDF) on November 26, 2010. Retrieved December 15, 2010. No clear mechanism or requirement exists today for the president and Congress to consult. The War Powers Resolution of 1973 contains only vague consultation requirements. Instead, it relies on reporting requirements that, if triggered, begin the clock running for Congress to approve the particular armed conflict. By the terms of the 1973 Resolution, however, Congress need not act to disapprove the conflict; the cessation of all hostilities is required in 60 to 90 days merely if Congress fails to act. Many have criticized this aspect of the Resolution as unwise and unconstitutional, and no president in the past 35 years has filed a report "pursuant" to these triggering provisions. 
  6. ^ a b c d "The Law: The President's War Powers". Time. June 1, 1970. Retrieved September 28, 2009. 
  7. ^ Mitchell, Alison (May 2, 1999). "The World; Only Congress Can Declare War. Really. It's True". The New York Times. Retrieved November 8, 2009. Presidents have sent forces abroad more than 100 times; Congress has declared war only five times: the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish–American War, World War I and World War II. 
  8. ^ Mitchell, Alison (May 2, 1999). "The World; Only Congress Can Declare War. Really. It's True". The New York Times. Retrieved November 8, 2009. President Reagan told Congress of the invasion of Grenada two hours after he had ordered the landing. He told Congressional leaders of the bombing of Libya while the aircraft were on their way. 
  9. ^ Gordon, Michael R. (December 20, 1990). "U.S. troops move in panama in effort to seize noriega; gunfire is heard in capital". The New York Times. Retrieved November 8, 2009. It was not clear whether the White House consulted with Congressional leaders about the military action, or notified them in advance. Thomas S. Foley, the Speaker of the House, said on Tuesday night that he had not been alerted by the Administration. 
  10. ^ Joseph G. Dawson, ed. Commanders in Chief: Presidential Leadership in Modern Wars (1993)
  11. ^ Matthew Moten, Presidents and Their Generals: An American History of Command in War (2014)
  12. ^ Ramsey, Michael; Vladeck, Stephen. ""Common Interpretation: Commander in Chief Clause"". National Constitution Center Educational Resources (some internal navigation required). National Constitution Center. Retrieved May 23, 2017. 
  13. ^ Andrew J. Polsky, Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War (Oxford University Press, 2012) online review
  14. ^ "George Washington and the Evolution of the American Commander in Chief". The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. 
  15. ^ James M. McPherson, Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln As Commander in Chief (2009)
  16. ^ John Milton Cooper, Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (2009) ch 18
  17. ^ Eric Larrabee, Commander in Chief: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, His Lieutenants, and Their War (2004)
  18. ^ The Awesome Power: Harry S. Truman as Commander in Chief. LSU Press. pp. 265–269. 
  19. ^ Larry Berman, Lyndon Johnson's War: The Road to Stalemate in Vietnam (1991)
  20. ^ "The Presidency of George H.W. Bush". University of North Carolina School of Education. 
  21. ^ Accessing the George W. Bush Presidency. Edinburgh University Press. p. 261. 
  22. ^ Presidential Decisions for War. JHU Press. 
  23. ^ King, Archibald (1960) [1949]. Command of the Army (PDF) (reprint). Military Affairs. Charlottesville, Virginia: The Judge Advocate General's School, U.S. Army. 
  24. ^ 50 U.S.C. § 401
  25. ^ 10 U.S.C. § 113
  26. ^ 10 U.S.C. § 162
  27. ^ 10 U.S.C. § 152.
  29. ^ 10 U.S.C. § 164
  30. ^ "CINC" Is Sunk, American Forces Press Service, 25 October 2002. Retrieved on 2016-05-04.
  31. ^ Associated Press. "Military aides still carry the president's nuclear 'football'". USA Today, May 5, 2005. Accessed 16 December 2009.
  32. ^ Governor is commander in chief -- Adjutant general is executive officer., Constitution of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
  33. ^ California Constitution - The Executive. Archived 8 January 2011 at the Wayback Machine., Constitution of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

External links

  • Website of the White House
  • U.S. Department of Defense website
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