Presidents of War: A book review by Bib Morris

Presidents of War: The Epic Story, from 1807 to Modern Times
Michael Beschloss
Crown (October 2018)

How “the life or death of much of the human race” depends on the character of one person

Today, opinions are divided with regard to whether or not there should be limits on the power of the President of the United States. In his column for The New York Times (Jan. 14, 2019, Charlie Savage recalls a meeting of President George Bush’s cabinet on January 8, 1991. Iraq had invaded Kuwait. “Half a million American troops were deployed and ready to attack. But many lawmakers were demanding a vote before any war. Rejecting mainstream constitutional views, William P. Barr, the deputy attorney general, told Mr. Bush that he wielded unfettered power to start a major land war on his own — not only without congressional permission, but even if Congress voted against it.

“’Mr. President, there’s no doubt that you have the authority to launch an attack,’ Mr. Barr said, as he later recalled.

“Nearly three decades later, President Trump has nominated Mr. Barr to return as attorney general. But unlike the self-restrained Mr. Bush, Mr. Trump revels in pushing limits — a temperament that, when combined with Mr. Barr’s unusually permissive understanding of presidential power, could play out very differently for the rule of law than it did last time.”

Keep this background information in mind as you read Michael Beschloss’s latest book in which he examines eight Presidents presidents and the wars in which they became centrally involved, for better or worse. They are:

James Madison, War of 1812 (1812-1815): Pages 64-96
James Polk, Mexican-American War (1846-1848): 97-156
Abraham Lincoln, Civil War (1861-1865): 157-239
William McKinley, Spanish-American War (1898): 240-292
Woodrow Wilson, World War One (1914-1918): 293-316 and 317-336
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, World War Two (1939-1945): 369-484
Harry Truman, Korean War (1950-1953): 435-491
Lyndon Baines Johnson, Vietnam War (1965-1973): 492-480

To assist your consideration of this exceptionally well-written book, I have selected five brief excerpts that suggest the thrust and flavor of Beschloss’s style:

o “Madison had clearly changed in his later years. By [historian Charles] Ingersoll’s account, he now ‘showed  the strongest dislike of hostilities’ and warned against the American system’s ‘perpetual liability’ to enter a war. Ingersoll believed that by now, the old man’s politics were ‘simple and lovely…to avoid war at almost any price, and to preserve the Union.'”  (Pages 94-95)

o “Lincoln was profoundly moved to hear another Whig Congressman denounce Polk’s war as blatant aggression, devised to ‘force and compel’ the Mexicans to sell their country…When Billy Herndon, that same year, questioned his friend about his antiwar zeal, LIncoln replied that if Americans should ‘allow the president to invade a neighboring nation [e.g. Mexico] whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion…you allow him to make war at pleasure.'” (156)

Years later, “by the night of his murder, Lincoln had won the Civil War, but in death, to a tragic  degree, he lost the peace he had sought. The Martyred President had badly erred by allowing the selection of an 1864 running mate who had neither shared his talent for leadership nor his vision for peace.” (238)

o  “For all his high-flown scholarly rhetoric about liberal democracy, the moment Wilson became a war President, he grabbed for authority with some of the passion of an autocrat, claiming that that ‘unquestionable powers’ were ‘absolutely necessary,’ and stepped on civil liberties. As a scholar, he had overestimated the ability of a President to change pubic opinion. In 1907, he had written that the Chief Executive possessed ‘the only national voice in affairs. Let him once win the admiration and confidence of the country, and no other single force can withstand him, no combination of forces will easily overpower him…If he rightly interpret the national thought and boldly insist upon it, he is irresistible.'” (355-356)

o “Feeling isolated, with his conspiratorial tendencies in full throttle, weakened by heart disease and other ailments, Johnson demonized his opposition and, in his increasingly troubled mind, allowed the war to become a titanic test of whether he could conquer those domestic political foes who defied him. A more coolheaded President might, by contrast, have cut his losses earlier. With half a century’s hindsight, it is clear that whatever Johnson gained for the United States with his war in Vietnam was never worth its ruinous cost in lives, treasure, American self-confidence, or what Thomas Jefferson called ‘the good opinion of mankind.'” (578-579)

Beschloss suggests, “Were the Founders to come back, they would probably be astonished  and chagrined to discover that, in spite of their ardent strivings, the life or death of much of the human race has now come to depend on the character of the single person who happens to be the President of the United States.”

It remains to be seen what awaits the United States in months and even years to come. Will traditional checks and balances prevail or will a President embrace a temptation — “which the Founding Fathers saw in the European despots they abhorred — to launch a major war out of lust to expand their own popularity and power”? With all due respect to political implications, there is a more serious cluster of issues to address, given Michael Beschloss’s assertion that the fate of much of the human race will be determined by Presidential character, for better or worse.


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