What America's Wars Revealed About Their Commanders-In-Chief

The Long March
An illustration from the 1816 book, The History of England, from the Earliest Periods, Volume 1 by Paul M. Rapin de Thoyras. The source holder, of this book, is the U.S. Library of Congress.
Wikimedia Commons/Library Of Congress/Paul M. Rapin de Thoyras

In Presidents of War, Michael Beschloss, one of our premier historians, looks at eight wars and nine presidents:

  • James Madison and the War of 1812
  • James K. Polk and the Mexican-American War
  • Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War
  • William McKinley and the Spanish American War
  • Woodrow Wilson and World War One
  • FDR and the Second World War
  • Harry Truman and the Korean War
  • Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and the Vietnam War

Not much in this fat book on battles and strategy. Instead, the focus is on presidential decision making and the play of political forces in shaping the decisions. The book is superb in its focus and its facts, a new look at a central topic.

Some easy comments on the details:

  • Madison was a lot better at writing constitutions than he was at running a war.
  • Polk was a sly one, even corrupt, making a war with Mexico out of little conflict, all the while hiding his true purpose, to acquire Mexican land in then-New Mexico and into California all the way to the Pacific. Which he did.
  • Lincoln’s war, so well documented by armies of historians, nonetheless striking for its shifting purpose, to hold the Union at the start, to end slavery at the finish.
  • McKinley ready to take advantage of the destruction of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor, never using that explosion as his causa bellum but happily starting a war incident to the accident (as is now known to be).
  • Wilson contending with contrary forces, reluctant to go to Europe, then seeing American engagement as his segue to a new League of Nations, then fumbling the politics to create the League.
  • FDR, again his war so well documented, slipping and sliding at its start to get American help to Great Britain in the face of fierce isolationism, then being the very model of the Commander in Chief ... which is the title of Eric Larrabee’s wonderful 1987 history of Roosevelt in that role.
  • Truman, reluctant to war but compelled to stand against Communist expansionism, bedeviled by MacArthur’s insubordination and uncertain of who the enemy was and what that enemy might be prepared to do.
  • Vietnam, Johnson the reluctant warrior far more interested in his Great Society, sucked in ever deeper by his Secretary of Defense and his generals but never with a winning strategy. And Tricky Dick secretly blowing up a potential peace in order to get the presidency in ’68.

The harder lessons are four. First is, in presidential war decisions, the unrelenting role of domestic politics and particularly the need to deal with the power and actions of the opposition party. For example, the Federalists in 1812, a party dead for all practical purposes and never after to rise to power, was at every turn stern opposition shaping presidential moves.

Second (and perhaps because Beschloss makes such extensive use of contemporary press quotations), the role of the American free press in moving the debate.

Third, the near-run nature of all these wars. Viewed from history, it seems obvious that they were to turn out as they did. But not in the moment, not in the time of war, and always with great uncertainty in all these presidents on the right thing to do, the best course of action.

Fourth, and the primary point of the book, the slide through the decades and centuries of the Constitution’s easy formulation that Congress declares wars to today’s reality of a powerful standing army and the decision for war in the hands of the president. With the potential need in this nuclear age to act decisively in minutes, a necessary shift. But so amenable to undemocratic actions meant to favor a president’s political position without proper regard for the costs of war.   

In his conclusion, the author makes a point I’ve made many times here and Mr. Ricks and Andy Bacevich and others, that the All-volunteer Force makes war too easy. Not ever saying "all-volunteer force," Beschloss makes our argument very well in a single sentence: “With no military draft, Presidents who consider taking the nation into a major conflict in our own time may not feel so constrained as earlier leaders by fear that a widespread antiwar movement might erupt.”


John Byron is a retired Navy captain who comes ashore occasionally in Cocoa Beach, Florida

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