A History of National Emergency Declarations

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Most declared ‘National emergencies” in United States history were brief, and directly related to war.  The very first, put into place by Woodrow Wilson during World War I, claimed that it was about protecting water rights.  This was necessary at this time in history, the Russian Revolution suddenly having overtaken its namesake, the War itself grinding on horrifically, America finally going beyond it’s purely for profit instincts to get involved in the final days of the conflict.  What this act specifically outlawed during the time of emergency was the leasing or transfer of naval ships to foreign powers.  Apparently several of the naval manufacturers were interested only in the highest bidder, and were willing to give Germany a fancy new battleship or submarine if the price was right.  The National Emergency Act (then a very primitive executive order) outlawed this, threatening corporate giants with treason should they dare to violate the new federal law.

In fact, something.similar was declared in 1907 by Theodore Roosevelt. Only that time it was about protecting fleeing.refugees from the.rampaging soldiers of the Bolivian revolution.  World War II certain saw a number of national crisis’s.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared four (the same number that Donald Trump has declared in just over two years.  FDR had thirteen years, a time which included the Great Depression, the bombing of Pearl Harbor and, of course, the war itself.)  Harry S. Truman decided that the US needed the military to fight in the Korean War.  Richard Nixon instituted two nation emergencies, both of these over battling strikes, the major one with the US Postal Service  In fact, up until 1976, when Gerald Ford initiated the federal national emergencies act, every national emergency was about war, revolution, human rights violations, and outright economic collapse.  Ford’s initiation of an altered federal constitution involved the cracking seems of the nation following Richard Nixon’s disgrace.  There were military powers put into place in case some of the former hippies turned radicals attempted to overthrow the US government.  This was meant, regardless of the questionable politics behind it, to protect the integrity of the nation.


Jimmy Carter used the new law in conjunction with the Iranian Revolution, and the subsequent hostage crisis, freezing overseas assets, and outlawing American industry from doing business with Iran.  It was Ronald Reagan who was the first president to take advantage of the new law for issues that were far less substantial, altering the purpose of the American government from safety and the exportation of human rights (something we have rarely lived up to), and into the realm of pure business.


The first two national emergencies Reagan put into place were both expansions of Carter’s trade act, allowing the President to have much farther reaching powers about crushing a foreign economy.  This was then used against Nicaragua, South Africa, Libya, and Panama, finishing out Reagan’s orders.  It is curious that none of these involved the Soviet Union, then, certainly, the greatest threat.  We can even make an argument for the validity of all these declarations, at least as acts of protest and/or war.  Nicaragua and Panama were being run by brutal drug lords, Libya was then at the peak of Muammar Gaddafi’s tyranny, and South Africa was then being pressured by the entire world to end its hateful practice of Apartheid (it is, perhaps, important to note that this particular resolution was a watered down version of what was initially a Democratic congressional bill called the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, but it amounted, in the end, to the same thing.)

There have been fifty-nine declared National Emergencies in our nation’s history.  Thirty-eight of these have been put into place since Bill Clinton was in office.  Clinton initiated nine of them, George W. Bush thirteen.  Obama?  Twelve.  Trump, so far, has imposed four.  Of these thirty-eight, only seven have expired.  Let’s discuss the other thirty-one, and figure if we have cause for alarm.


Clinton’s eight look like this:

Prohibiting Certain Transactions With Respect to Haiti:  Yes, there was definitely human rights violations occurring in Haiti at the time–grotesque and disgusting acts committed against the citizens of that island nation.  American history shows that such cruelty is condemned by cutting off all monies exchanged with barbaric leadership.  But this one has a slight shift with profound consequences.  It is the word ‘certain.’  This has opened the door to tremendous corruption.

Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction: This was about having the government take control over the export of such weapons, both our own, and other nations within the sphere of the Monroe Doctrine.  It says nothing about actual sales, but does not prohibit this either.

Prohibiting Transactions With Terrorists Who Threaten To Disrupt the Middle East Peace Process: This was another partial sanction, identifying and naming merely a handful of the terrorist organizations throughout the world at that time.  It included the heavy hitters, sure: Hezbollah, Hamas, and a handful of other anti-Israeli cults then active, before the formation of Al Quida.

Prohibiting Certain Transactions with Respect to the Development of Iranian Petroleum Resources: This was only about blocking a single deal between Iran and Conoco that the US deemed a potential threat.

Blocking Assets and Prohibiting Transactions with Significant Narcotics Traffickers: This was used as an attempt to track down the US Companies working with drug cartels to help them launder money.

Declaration of a National Emergency and Invocation of Emergency Authority Relating to the Regulation of the Anchorage and Movement of Vessels: This came after two US civilian airplanes were destroyed by the Cuban military, who mistook them for warplanes.  It was a stern warning and punishment about what might happen if any nation should make such a stupid mistake again.

Prohibiting New Investment in Burma:  Problems in Burma and, growing economic competition, initiated this very questionable sanction.  This was repealed at the end of the Obama administration.

Blocking Sudanese Government Property and Prohibiting Transactions With Sudan: This declares the on-going trade embargo with the criminal Sudanese government.

Blocking Property of the Governments of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro), the Republic of Serbia, and the Republic of Montenegro, and Prohibiting New Investment in the Republic of Serbia in Response to the Situation in Kosovo: A response to the ‘ethnic cleansing’ then rampaging through this three-way civil war.


Looking at Bill Clinton’s national emergencies, most of them remain in line with our past declarations, although the increase in them causes a shudder.  Is this because the world has gotten so much more frightening, or the US government more tyrannical?  Could it be both?  Although most of these issues deal with human rights violations around the world, they had very little impact on at home national interests at the time.  The economy was booming, so the cost was negligible, and many people felt good about the American morality we seemed to be presenting to a world at war with itself, even if the President himself was being shamed in the world news daily.


George W. Bush was in office for less than a year when the events of September 11, 2001 changed the world permanently.  His thirteen national emergencies deserve a reevaluation:

Prohibiting the Importation of Rough Diamonds From Sierra Leone: Human rights over child labor in the mining of blood diamonds.

Blocking Property of Persons Who Threaten International Stabilization Efforts in the Western Balkans: Anti-terrorism.

Continuation of Export Control Regulations: To regulate the international sale of weapons.

Declaration of National Emergency by Reason of Certain Terrorist Attacks: 9/11.

Blocking Property and Prohibiting Transactions With Persons Who Commit, Threaten To Commit, or Support Terrorism: 9/11

Blocking Property of Persons Undermining Democratic Processes or Institutions in Zimbabwe: A more traditional human rights sanction against the vicious Robert Mugabe, over rigged elections and the intentional starvation of the people of this nation.

Protecting the Development Fund for Iraq and Certain Other Property in Which Iraq Has an Interest: A failed, and finally corrupt, effort to give a single contract to American developers in Iraq following the defeat of Saddam Hussein.

Blocking Property of Certain Persons and Prohibiting the Export of Certain Goods to Syria: More of a warning–certain goods a big question mark.  Food and water and medicine continued going in, with weapons sometimes included in the packaging, while drugs were shipped back out.

Blocking Property of Certain Persons Contributing to the Conflict in Côte d’Ivoire: More human rights attempts to help the victims of civil warfare.

Blocking Property of Certain Persons Undermining Democratic Processes or Institutions in Belarus: More of a warning to Vladimir Putin after his thuggish minion Alexander Lukashenko was elected to office, and immediately started sending troops out to brutalize protesters.

Blocking Property of Certain Persons Contributing to the Conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: After the first free election in the Congo in more than thirty years, the nation erupted into chaos, those on the losing side versus those on the winning.  It was wide bloodshed.  The specifics of this sanction were never truly established.

Blocking Property of Persons Undermining the Sovereignty of Lebanon or Its Democratic Processes and Institutions: As the middle east continued its collapse in the wake of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, and other nations internal revolutions, emergency protocols were attempted to stabilize the region, targeted many of the newer terrorist sects, and continuing to focus on Hezbollah, who ruled much of Lebanon.

Continuing Certain Restrictions With Respect to North Korea and North Korean Nationals: Removed North Korea from the list of “State Sponsors of Terrorism” in the wake of their developing nuclear program, establishing a more warlike relationship with that nation, aware of their increasing threat.


So Bush has a number of questionable acts here, but all of them remain within the same fundamental idea of the past–stopping terrorism, helping the oppressed, blocking the transfer of dangerous weapons, and cutting off money to international criminals.  This is what these acts were, and had been designed to do.  Until . . .


Barrack Obama.  Here:

Declaration of a National Emergency With Respect to the 2009 H1N1 Influenza Pandemic: Based upon the overblown fear of a nasty flu season, a radical effort to find a cure was undertaken, with no success.

Blocking Property of Certain Persons Contributing to the Conflict in Somalia: The aftermath of a genocide.

Blocking Property and Prohibiting Certain Transactions Related to Libya: Coping with a revolution.

Blocking Property of Transnational Criminal Organizations: Targeting the Russian Mob, Mexican and Colombian cartels and, curiously, the Japanese Yakzua, more over concerns about munitions transactions than the growth of illegal drugs.

Blocking Property of Persons Threatening the Peace, Security, or Stability of Yemen: Another civil war consequence.

Blocking Property of the Government of the Russian Federation Relating to the Disposition of Highly Enriched Uranium Extracted From Nuclear Weapons: A very significant act, this exposed the fact that Russian gangsters, usually former KGB agents (in cahoots with the Russian government) were selling weapons all over the world, to the highest bidder, that could give them the technology to build their own nuclear devices.

Blocking Property of Certain Persons Contributing to the Situation in Ukraine: More against the threat of Russia, and their brutal re-taking of Ukraine.

Blocking Property of Certain Persons With Respect to South Sudan: Civil War.  Geonicde.

Blocking Property of Certain Persons Contributing to the Conflict in the Central African Republic: Civil War.  Genocide.

Blocking Property and Suspending Entry of Certain Persons Contributing to the Situation in Venezuela: Gasoline crisis and the obnoxious words of a loudmouth, taken too personally.

Blocking the Property of Certain Persons Engaging in Significant Malicious Cyber-Enabled Activities: Leading into the 2016 election.

Blocking Property of Certain Persons Contributing to the Situation in Burundi: Civil War.  Genocide.


In the Obama years we can see the growing collapse of the entire world.  Russians selling nukes, many nations torn apart and slaughtering each other.  The internet weaponized.  People can certainly make a claim that Obama over-reached on several of these actions, and that some of them were simply too expensive (H1N1, put into place more out of public hysteria than medical reality.)  But the motives continued to be in line with America’s intentions since becoming a significant world power.


Donald Trump . . . we’ll get to the wall in conclusion.  Let’s see what else he has done:

Blocking the Property of Persons Involved in Serious Human Rights Abuse or Corruption: A superficially legitimate sanction, in line with previous humanitarian considerations.  This was suggested by Rex Tillerson and was subsequently slammed by President Trump as “a waste of money.”

Imposing Certain Sanctions in the Event of Foreign Interference in a United States Election: A boldly cynical reaction to something the President denied ever happened.  What this ultimately did was limit the amount of time intelligence agencies have to investigate election fraud to forty-five days.  After that time expires–too expensive, not worthwhile.  “What can’t be discovered after a month and a half?” wondered the President.

Blocking Property of Certain Persons Contributing to the Situation in Nicaragua: A targeting of Daniel Ortega–surely a horrible person–more as a reminder to older Republicans that we still have some of the same enemies that we used, to and align their thoughts that we still exist in the era of the Fall of Communism, allowing this to be a rallying cry against how younger liberals can be easily classified while under attack.


Now I could more savagely pick apart numerous of the past acts under Clinton, Bush, and Obama, but none of these were anywhere near as cynical and self-serving as the second two of Trump’s.  But then came this:

Declaring a National Emergency Concerning the Southern Border of the United States 

This is a military action.  The last time we had one of those Presidential National Emergencies was after 9/11.  Prior to that, of the fifty-nine national emergencies, there have been three others than engaged the military: Truman’s declaration of the Korean War, and two different versions of the same thing over World War II.  Donald Trump is equating a border wall–his terrified response to not having control over everything–with all out world conflict; with the apocalyptic designs of people all over the world.  This seems to be exclusively an act of ego, more of the same mine-mine-mine screaming that Donald Trump has no doubt engaged in since he tore a new toy out of one of his sibling’s hands.  Yet now this is being done with the Constitution of the United States of America.


Look at how hollow Trump’s acts ring.  Supporters like to point fingers at previous nation emergencies, claim that Obama declared way too many (he did), and that Trump has the right to do the same (also true).  But we have to think, which is a better approach dealing with the conflicts of the world?  Do we engage, and try to help in order to make the world a better place?  Or do we cower in fear, locking the doors and melting all the keys?  Do we clutch our guns and teddy bears, and pray that some amorphous entity to keep us safe, or do we stand up and face reality?  It seems rather clear which direction we are presently going.



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