Must-Reads of 2018: Ranking Wartime Presidents

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Reading “Presidents of War” by Michael Beschloss is a split-screen experience. Filled with fascinating insights into how nine American presidents conducted war, each chapter provides a frightening reminder of how ill-equipped the current occupant of the White House would be under similar circumstances.

This is the most ambitious project for the eminent historian of modern presidents, 10 years in the making. It covers eight wars: 1812, Mexican-American, Civil War, Spanish-American, World War I and II, Korea and Vietnam.

Two of the nine men, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, were brilliant commanders-in-chief during America’s most honored wars. They brought expertise to the task and political skills, and were sensitive to public opinion and the perils of duplicity —  in short, anti-Trump traits.

Beschloss reminds us that some wars were contrived. James K. Polk, Beschloss notes, “lied and connived” to make a land grab of much of the western U.S., from Texas to California. The catalyst for the Spanish-American War was that Spain had attacked the Maine, a U.S. naval ship — except that the likely cause of the sinking was an internal malfunction.

President Lyndon Johnson used congressional approval of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964 to justify a massive Asian land war, basing it on a bogus charge that the North Vietnamese had initiated an unprovoked attack on American ships.

In drafting the U.S. Constitution, James Madison sought to insure that waging war couldn’t be capricious and that Congress had the ultimate authority. As president, he ignored this in the War of 1812, and ended up fleeing Washington to escape the British.

The usually direct Harry Truman knew history, but nevertheless “blundered into Korea,” Beschloss says, and “failed to level with the public or seek congressional approval.” This is a blemish on the record of a great foreign-policy president. But Truman deserves credit for the firing of the insubordinate General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War. His decision was unpopular but reaffirmed the supremacy of civilian control in wartime.

America’s great debacle was in Vietnam. The decade-long war, with over 58,000 American casualties, was predicated on massive miscalculations and the insecurity of Presidents Johnson and Richard Nixon. 

Beschloss chronicles how Johnson would exult when Defense Secretary Robert McNamara presented him with fatally flawed optimistic projections about the war. LBJ’s mentor, Richard Russell, the hawkish chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, cautioned him early on that an Asian land war would require a half-million American forces and take 10 years. The president seemed to concur, but was afraid of being accused of cutting and running.

Incredibly, Johnson wondered, after four years, why the North Vietnamese enemy fought with “so much more determination than our South Vietnamese allies.” Nixon inherited the war, and quickly realized it was unwinnable. But he kept it going for five years with great carnage, while lying to the public and Congress about it. 

Roosevelt made some terrible mistakes: interning Japanese-Americans during World War II and failing to do more to rescue European Jews from the Holocaust. But he skillfully prepared an isolationist America for a war he thought inevitable.

Unlike Woodrow Wilson, who was contemptuous of Congress and the public before, during and after World War I, FDR resolved to “constantly explain the issues at stake, his strategy and how the conflict was unfolding.” He forged important relationships with military leaders and top allies, while, again unlike Wilson, setting the stage for a workable postwar agenda.

“Americans were lucky to have a commander in chief who was not a neophyte,” Beschloss observes.

Then there was Lincoln. The Civil War didn’t start well for the new president. But he kept Congress and the public apprised even during tragic times. As the third year of the war began, Lincoln’s genius as a political, military and moral leader emerged.

After the great Union victory at Gettysburg, he was furious that the retreating Confederate troops weren’t pursued, and turned to two of America’s greatest generals, Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, who brought victory.

In commemorating the National Cemetery at Gettysburg in late 1863, Lincoln delivered remarks in what appeared to be an afterthought, following the two-hour oration by the main speaker. In 271 words, he gave the most memorable speech of any American president.

Beschloss, a scholar with encyclopedic knowledge of most everything, serves up delicious asides. James Polk was convinced that his secretary of State, James Buchanan, who later became America’s worst president, leaked negative material about the administration to a reporter who was reputed to be Buchanan’s gay lover.

“Presidents of War,” though, is a compelling work on the necessary qualities and dangers for wartime presidents. The political and psychological pressure takes a huge toll on the health of wartime presidents. As Beschloss repeatedly reminds us, the Constitution vested war-making powers with Congress. Lawmakers often have abdicated that responsibility, usually to the detriment of the country and the war effort.

The qualities Beschloss enumerates for a strong wartime president — a strategic vision, knowledge of history and an appreciation for enlisting Congress and the public in the effort — all are impossible to imagine in Donald J. Trump.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.

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