"From a preeminent presidential historian comes a groundbreaking and often surprising saga of America's wartime chief executives. Ten years in the research and writing, Presidents of Waris a fresh, magisterial, intimate look at a procession of American leaders as they took the nation into conflict and mobilized their country for victory. It brings us into the room as they make the most difficult decisions that face any President, at times sending hundreds of thousands of American men and women to their deaths. From James Madison and the War of 1812 to recent times, we see them struggling with Congress, the courts, the press, their own advisors and antiwar protesters; seeking comfort from their spouses, families and friends; and dropping to their knees in prayer. We come to understand how these Presidents were able to withstand the pressures of war--both physically and emotionally--or were broken by them. Beschloss's interviews with surviving participants in the drama and his findings in original letters, diaries, once-classified national security documents, and other sources help him to tell this story in a way it has not been told before.Presidents of Warcombines the sense of being there with the overarching context of two centuries of American history. This important book shows how far we have traveled from the time of our Founders, who tried to constrain presidential power, to our modern day, when a single leader has the potential to launch nuclear weapons that can destroy much of the human race"--"From a preeminent presidential historian comes a groundbreaking and often surprising narrative of America's wartime chief executives"--
Whenever it comes up in the news, it's easy to get the impression that this is a recent development. After all, Article I of the U.S. Constitution explicitly states that only Congress has the right to declare war. The value of historian Michael Beschloss's new book is to show that, in the words of Dickens, "'Twas ever thus." This is a very readable examination of the eight U.S. Presidents who presided during times of war — James Madison (War of 1812), Abraham Lincoln (Civil War), James Polk (Mexican-American War), William McKinley (Spanish-American War), Woodrow Wilson (World War I), Franklin D. Roosevelt (World War II), Harry Truman (Korea), and Lyndon B. Johnson (Vietnam) — with an eye toward how they did or did not comply with the Constitution's mandate.
What he found, predictably, was that presidents largely went to war with their own agendas and without asking Congress first, often manipulating events to create situations that "forced" the U.S. into war (see James Polk and the Mexican-American War in 1846) to accomplish goals that were kept secret from both Congress and the public (in Polk's case, the ostensible reason was to defend the recently annexed Republic of Texas; left unstated was his ambition to expand U.S. territory all the way to California). And all too often, presidents were aided and abetted by a weak Congress that shrank from making hard decisions that might prove unpopular with the general citizenry. (Boy, does that sound familiar!)
Beschloss isn't out to provide comprehensive histories of each conflict; he only briefly mentions what we now consider seminal events such as D-Day. But I learned a lot about the wars that we didn't cover much in school, such as the War of 1812 and the Mexican and Spanish conflicts. Beschloss's view seems to be that regardless of whether you view each of those war actions as justified or unjustified, the country would be stronger today if the Constitution's mandate had been more faithfully followed, allowing a vigorous, public debate about why war was necessary and what the end goals really were.
I'll add this, appropriately enough as footnote to my review: This is one book where following the footnotes rewards the diligent reader. Rather than functioning as simple listings of sources, Beschloss crams a lot of incidental, interesting information into those little asides.
As Volume I it is excellent worth a full 5. Unfortunately it stops with Vietnam with Johnson, a few sentences of Nixon’s years of Vietnam (I was at the Paris Peace talks) and not much on the constant war since. With no intimation that there will be a Volume II.
There is also no mention made of the Indian War that occupied the US for over a century. No mention of the Banana Wars. Little mention is made of the Philippines. Up to Korea the wars covered seem to be of the declared type, although no discussion of China’s declaration of war on us is made beyond acknowledging the fact.
Some minor errors in foot notes, our last declaration of war was not 1942, but 1941 and the Purple Heart is not awarded for heroism, the foot notes are a joy.
From Madison through Johnson, it covers the declared wars, Korea and Vietnam. My knowledge is limited to WWII and now Vietnam (I’ve not been able to read of ‘my’ war until my late 60s, even though I served for 3 years). It is a good succinct history, and unerrored that I could see.
I’ve some disagreements with the Vietnam era, I think Oswald was the assassin not the alleged assassin, and I don’t credit Johnson with not following the Joint Chief’s advice. I don’t think we were on the right side, and would argue we shouldn’t have been there at all. But if you are going to have a war, pay attention to the experts. Johnson was a Navy LtC with a medal for flying over combat, hopefully nobody will decide to upgrade it to a MoH.
I would happily buy Vol I, we need a Beschloss looking at what we have been doing since Johnson. The only reason this didn’t get a full five is it didn’t finish Vietnam.
So, who were these “Presidents of War”? Well, in order they were:
Madison – War of 1812
Polk – Mexican War
Lincoln – Civil War
McKinley – Spanish-American Wat
Wilson – WWl
FDR – WWll
Truman – Korean War
LBJ – Viet Nam War
Bush 43 – Iraq, Afghanistan (6 page Epilogue)
I found the chapters on Truman and Johnson to be the most interesting (but they represent only 25% of the book). Until reading Beschloss, I was not totally aware of all the constant self-doubt, debate, and daily ruminations about short-term and long-term issues, about how history would view critical decisions, about China and Russia’s support of the other side, about the next election. Certainly, one of the critical issues from the author’s perspective was who makes the big decision, Congress or the President? What is the role of each? What is clear from “PoW” is that in many cases the Commander-in-Chief of the moment probably worried about it less than did the author. Yet on page 460: “Thus Truman became the first President to engage the country in a major foreign conflict - this one potentially risking war with China – without bothering to ask Congress for a war declaration….As a result, Truman had undermined his ability to wage the Korean War and established a dangerous example for future American Presidents.”
I have two comments about the Epilogue. First, I found it odd that U S wars post Viet Nam were summarized in only six pages. Secondly, the last two sentences in the book…..”They (founding fathers) anticipated that any Chief Executive would strain to avoid taking the nation into conflict, except to confront a genuine, immediate national danger. And they expected that in the absence of such a danger, all future Presidents would resist any temptation – which the Founders saw in the European despots they abhorred – to launch a major war out of lust to expand their own popularity and power.”
Beschloss seeks to tackle this inconsistency head-on. By providing detailed historical analysis, he describes the way our nation has drifted – for better or for worse – from an early view that only Congress could speak for a people entering war. Instead, Congress has willingly (that is, without much complaint) given up its responsibility to declare war to the Chief Executive. Despite extensive American engagements in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq (twice), and Afghanistan, Congress has not declared war on a country since World War II.
Beschloss details this trend’s beginnings under Founding Father James Madison in the War of 1812. Even Madison (who helped co-author the Constitution and defended it to the masses in The Federalist Papers) did not resist expanding Presidential powers in wartime. In the Mexican War, Polk defied Congress with a willingness to speak first and ask questions later. In a quest to save the American Union, Lincoln declared martial law and suspended the writ of habeas corpus. McKinley conducted the Spanish-American War based off of a false inciting narrative. Lyndon Johnson lied to lead America into Vietnam despite his strong disposition that the US would lose that war.
To his credit, Beschloss does not make a moral judgment on this American tendency to defy the Constitution; he only notes the historical trend. Congress has done little to reassert this power, either in the courts or in popular opinion. The start of wars has often begun with doubts about truths (the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, the Vietnam War, and the second Iraq War).
As I write this in the era of Trump, I find it uncanny how the imbalance of a president’s mental stability mirrors those in prior times. Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Donald Trump all seem relatively unsteady and disrespectful towards truth and facts. All three have used questionable means against the opposition in elections as well. Accounts of their private interactions in the White House present a common obsession of image over substance and a fixation on needing to win at all costs (even, in LBJ’s case, at the cost of losing).
I study American Presidents with regularity and find Beschloss’s contribution to the literature to be well-researched and relatively objective. (He relegates affairs after Vietnam to the Epilogue, but is very critical of Johnson.) Although the product of his labor is lengthy and the span of research is immense, Beschloss seems to pull this feat with ease. Anyone with an interest in the American Presidency would enjoy this tome.