The Ludlow Amendment was a proposed amendment to the Constitution of the United States which called for a national referendum on any declaration of war by Congress, except in cases when the United States had been attacked first.[1][2] Representative Louis Ludlow (D-Indiana) introduced the amendment several times between 1935 and 1940. Supporters argued that ordinary people, who were called upon to fight and die during wartime, should have a direct vote on their country's involvement in military conflicts.[3][4]


History of concept

The idea of a national referendum on any declaration of war was first suggested in 1914, and was supported by such notable politicians as three-time Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan and United States Senators Robert M. La Follette, Sr. and Thomas P. Gore.[5][6] In the 1924 election campaign, both the Democratic and Progressive party platforms endorsed the idea of a popular vote on war, "except in case of actual attack" (Democrats) or "except in case of actual invasion" (Progressives).[7]

Public support and opposition

Public support for the amendment was very robust through the 1930s, a period when isolationism was the prevailing mood in the United States, but began to erode as the situation in Europe deteriorated at the end of the decade. A Gallup survey in September 1935 showed that 75% of Americans supported the amendment; the approval rate was 71% in 1936, and 73% in 1937. In January 1938, when it was voted on in Congress, 68% of the US population still supported the amendment. But by March 1939, support had dropped to 61%; and six months later, following the German invasion of Poland, support for the amendment dropped to 51%. In addition, Good Housekeeping magazine, the National Council for Prevention of War, and Roger Nash Baldwin, president of the ACLU, endorsed the amendment.[4][8][9][10][11]

Others also opposed the amendment. Michigan Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg, who was normally an isolationist, argued that the amendment "would be as sensible to require a town meeting before permitting the fire department to face a blaze". Author Walter Lippmann argued that the amendment would make "preventive diplomacy" impossible and would ensure "that finally, when the provocation has become intolerable, there would be no remedy except total war fought when we were at the greatest possible disadvantage." Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr opposed the amendment stating that war was a policy area where pure democracy was most pernicious.[4][7][12][13]

Panay incident and 1938 congressional vote

Congressional debate on the amendment was prompted by the December 12, 1937 bombing of the USS Panay by Japanese warplanes. The Panay, a gunboat, was anchored in the Yangtze River near Nanjing, China and flying the American flag. President Franklin D. Roosevelt discussed with his cabinet and the military high command the possibility of economic or military retaliation against Japan. Roosevelt drew back, however, when he realized that there was no public outcry for retaliation, and that, in fact, peace sentiment in the country had actually strengthened. "We should learn that it is about time for us to mind our own business," Texas Democrat Maury Maverick declared in the House of Representatives. Two days after the Panay was sunk, Congress took up the Ludlow amendment.[12][14][15] The Roosevelt administration attempted to keep the bill in the House Judiciary Committee, where it had been buried since Ludlow introduced the amendment in 1935; but at the end of 1937 the amendment got enough congressional support, including the signatures of nearly half the Democrats in the House, for a House vote on a discharge petition designed to permit debate on the proposed amendment.[7][16]

The amendment came closest to overcoming a discharge petition on January 10, 1938, when it was defeated in Congress by a vote of 209 to 188. The difference in votes may have been provided by Postmaster General James Farley, who Roosevelt asked to sway the votes of the Irish Congressmen who were isolationists. Despite Roosevelt's fears, this vote was far short of the two-thirds vote required by both houses of Congress (290 in the House) for later passage of a constitutional amendment.[2][4][17]

Before the discharge petition vote, speaker of the House William B. Bankhead read a letter written by President Roosevelt:

I must frankly state that I consider that the proposed amendment would be impracticable in its application and incompatible with our representative form of government.

Our Government is conducted by the people through representatives of their own choosing. It was with singular unanimity that the founders of the Republic agreed upon such free and representative form of government as the only practical means of government by the people.

Such an amendment to the Constitution as that proposed would cripple any President in his conduct of our foreign relations, and it would encourage other nations to believe that they could violate American rights with impunity.[2][8][18]

Subsequent proposals

In his 1993 book War and Responsibility: Constitutional Lessons of Vietnam and its Aftermath, noted constitutional scholar John Hart Ely made a proposal that "[brought] back memories" of the Ludlow Amendment,[19] writing that, when initiating military action, "even notice to the entire Congress is insufficient to satisfy the constitutional requirement: We the people are part of the process too."[20]

Text of proposed amendment

SEC. 1. Except in the event of an invasion of the United States or its Territorial possessions and attack upon its citizens residing therein, the authority of Congress to declare war shall not become effective until confirmed by a majority of all votes cast thereon in a nationwide referendum. Congress, when it deems a national crisis to exist, may by concurrent resolution refer the question of war or peace to the citizens of the States, the question to be voted on being, Shall the United States declare war on ________? Congress may otherwise by law provide for the enforcement of this section.
SEC. 2. Whenever war is declared the President shall immediately conscript and take for use by the Government all the public and private war properties, yards, factories, and supplies, together with employees necessary for their operation, fixing the compensation for private properties temporarily employed for the war period at a rate not in excess of 4 percent based on tax values assessed in the year preceding the war.[21]

See also


  1. ^ H.J. Res. 167, 74th Congress. Other peace resolutions included H.J. Res. 89 and H.J. Res. 158, 74th Congress.Goldman, Ralph M. (Summer 1950). "The Advisory Referendum in America". The Public Opinion Quarterly. 14 (2): 303–315. doi:10.1086/266186. JSTOR 2745800.
  2. ^ a b c Powaski, Ronald E. (1991). Toward an Entangling Alliance: American Isolationism, Internationalism and Europe, 1901–1950. p. 74.
  3. ^ Sherry, Michael S. (1997). In the Shadow of War: The United States Since the 1930s. Yale University Press. p. 6. ISBN 0-300-07263-5.
  4. ^ a b c d Rhodes, Benjamin D. (2001). United States Foreign Policy in the Interwar Period, 1918–1941: The Golden Age of American Diplomatic and Military Complacency. Praeger/Greenwood. p. 151. ISBN 0-275-94825-0.
  5. ^ Wiebe, Robert H. (1995). Self-rule: Cultural History of American Democracy. University of Chicago. ISBN 0-226-89562-9. Page 208
  6. ^ Kauffman, Bill (2006-11-20) The Populist Patriotism of Gore Vidal, The American Conservative
  7. ^ a b c Schlesinger, Arthur Meier; Arthur Meier Schlesinger, Jr. (2004). The Imperial Presidency By. Houghton Mifflin Books. ISBN 0-618-42001-0. Page 97-98
  8. ^ a b Horowitz, David A. (1996). Beyond Left & Right: Insurgency and the Establishment. p. 168.
  9. ^ Ole R., Holsti (2004). Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy By. University of Michigan. ISBN 0-472-03011-6. Page 17-18
  10. ^ Robert C., Cottrell. Roger Nash Baldwin and the American Civil Liberties Union.Page 236
  11. ^ Chatfield, Charles (May 1969). "Pacifists and Their Publics: The Politics of a Peace Movement". Midwest Journal of Political Science. 13 (2): 298–312. doi:10.2307/2110180. JSTOR 2110180.
  12. ^ a b Buchanan, Patrick J. (2002). A Republic, Not an Empire: Reclaiming America's Destiny. Regnery Publishing. ISBN 0-89526-159-6.
  13. ^ Bullert, Gary B. (March 22, 2002). "Reinhold Niebuhr and the Christian century: World War II and the eclipse of the social gospel". Journal of Church and State. 44 (2): 271–290. doi:10.1093/jcs/44.2.271.
  14. ^ Herring, George C.; John Martin Carroll (1996). Modern American Diplomacy. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 90. ISBN 0-8420-2555-3.
  15. ^ Kennedy, David M. (1999). Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945. Oxford University Press. p. 402. ISBN 0-19-503834-7.
  16. ^ Parrish, Michael E. (1994). Anxious Decades: America in Prosperity and Depression 1920-1941. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 457. ISBN 0-393-31134-1.
  17. ^ "War Referendum Recalled To House; Petition to Relieve the Rules Committee Signed by 218 Members, One Now Dead Will Reach Floor Jan. 10 Administration Leaders Say Amendment Will Be Defeated When Vote Is Taken War Referendum Recalled To House Signers Of Referendum Members of House Who Forced Out the War Curb Bill". The New York Times. December 15, 1937. p. 1.
  18. ^ "Roosevelt Week". Time. January 17, 1938. Archived from the original on March 22, 2008.
  19. ^ Robert F. Turner, War and the Forgotten Executive Power Clause of the Constitution: A Review Essay of John Hart Ely's War and Responsibility, 34 Virginia Journal of International Law 903, 967 (1994)
  20. ^ Ely, John Hart, War and Responsibility: Constitutional Lessons of Vietnam and its Aftermath p. 87 (1993)
  21. ^ Bolt, Ernest. "PEOPLE POWER OVER WAR AMENDMENT". University of Richmond. Archived from the original on 2012-02-10. Retrieved 2006-09-05.

Further reading