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Supporting a National Vote to Declare War

Supporting a National Vote to Declare War/tiles/non-collection/p/pm_041imgtile1.xml
Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration


Although the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, there have been proposals since at least the early 20th century to allow U.S. citizens the opportunity to vote on the decision to go to war. In 1938, Indiana Representative Louis Ludlow proposed a constitutional amendment requiring a national referendum before Congress could declare war. Thirty-eight residents of Danville, Ohio, signed this petition and provided $1.15 in donations in support of Ludlow’s cause.

After the devastation of World War I, many Americans turned to isolationism. They were desperate to avoid involvement in another costly European war, and focused on domestic affairs instead. The proposed amendment was particularly popular with Christian churches, with which Ludlow was strongly associated. The signatories in this petition were from the Church of the Brethren, a Historic Peace Church that, along with Quakers and Mennonites, objects to participation in war.

Many Representatives shared these isolationist views and, starting in 1935, Congress passed a series of neutrality bills that prevented American involvement in escalating conflicts overseas. However, some in Congress sought additional solutions to ensure the nation’s neutrality.

One such solution was the Ludlow Amendment, which required a national referendum before the United States could enter a war, except in cases of invasion or attack on U.S. soil. Although the idea had been proposed before, interest in a war referendum was particularly high in the years before World War II. A poll in 1937 found 73 percent of respondents favored it. Ludlow and his supporters felt that because soldiers would be drafted from the American people, it was only fitting for the citizenry to have a voice in whether the country went to war.

As tensions continued to escalate in Europe and Asia, however, polls showed the popularity of the proposed amendment falling into decline. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, put the neutrality issue—and Ludlow’s proposed amendment—to rest. On December 8, the House of Representatives voted 388 to 1 to approve President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s request to declare war on Japan, with the President signing the declaration later that day. On December 11, Congress approved war resolutions against Germany and Italy, with Roosevelt also signing them the day they were passed.

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