1970 June 3

ACLU Calls Vietnam War Unconstitutional — Cites Lack of Declaration of War


In a major departure from its traditional practice, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on this day adopted a formal policy declaring the Vietnam War unconstitutional. Traditionally, the ACLU had regarded decisions about going to war to be political questions that were not in and of themselves civil liberties matters. After several years of internal debate over the issue, the ACLU Board of Directors concluded, by a vote of 43 to 1 (with 11 abstentions), that there had been no declaration of war, as required by the Constitution, and that the war had brought on significant violations of civil liberties. The ACLU statement called for an “immediate termination” of the war.

Two months before the ACLU acted, the state of Massachusetts, on April 2, 1970, passed a law declaring that no resident of the state was required to be drafted for the war because of the lack of a congressional declaration of war. Cases challenging the constitutionality of the Vietnam War included Berk v. Laird (June 19, 1970) and Massachusetts v. Laird (November 9, 1970).

The Vietnam War created a number of civil liberties crises. They include (1) the lack of a Congressional Declaration of War as required by the Constitution (June 3, 1970); (2) threats to freedom of the press in the Pentagon Papers case (June 30, 1971); (3) spying on the anti-war movement by the CIA (August 15, 1967); (4) threats to freedom of expression, for example high school student protests (February 24, 1969); censorship of television programs (February 25, 1968); and directly and indirectly some of the events that led to the Watergate Scandal (May 9, 1969; January 27, 1972).

Read: Peter Irons, War Powers: How the Imperial Presidency Hijacked the Constitution (2005)

Read about the Anti-Vietnam War Movement: Thomas Powers, The War at Home: Vietnam and the American people, 1964–1968 (1973)

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