Michelle Obama is ‘wary’ of war; so were other first ladies

Michelle Obama

First lady Michelle Obama (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

In an interview with NBC News’ Savannah Guthrie on Monday, Obama acknowledged that the first lady had her reservations about military action.

“If you ask somebody, if you ask Michelle — ‘Do we — do we want to be involved in another war?’ The answer is no. People are — are — wary about it, understandably,” the president said.

Continuing his round of interviews with several major news networks, Obama offered a similar statement to PBS. “You know, if you talk to my own family members, or Michelle’s, you know, they’re very wary and suspicious of any action,” he said to Gwen Ifill of “The News Hour.”

Given recent polls citing Americans’ hesitancy to go to war, Michelle Obama’s concern isn’t all that surprising. But historically, first ladies’ opinions on war are kept behind closed doors.

“At least to the public, Barbara Bush was supportive” during the Persian Gulf War, said Myra Gutin, first lady historian and communications and journalism professor at Rider University. “But [Barbara Bush] worried terribly about the casualties. She said to me, ‘I’m not the only one watching the coffins come home.’ ”

In the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Gutin said Eleanor Roosevelt had serious concerns about going to war, as did Bess Truman concerning military action in Korea, and Lady Bird Johnson on the Vietnam War.

“In the case of Lady Bird, we didn’t find out about her dissenting thoughts until Johnson was dead 10 years,” said Gutin. “In an interview with an archivist for the LBJ library, she said that if the United States ever got involved with something like [Vietnam] again, there better be some catastrophic event.”

“She said ‘You can’t be pulled into these ongoing wars,’ ” Gutin said.

Betty Boyd Caroli, author of “First Ladies: Martha Washington to Michelle Obama, noted: “In undeclared wars, such as Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, presidents’ wives have been far less visible … First ladies typically try to avoid controversy, and an undeclared war is almost certainly more controversial than a declared one.”

In his attempt to win support from a public that overwhelmingly opposes an attack on Syria, the president may have cited his wife’s concern to quell the nation’s consternation. And with all eyes on the administration’s next steps, Obama’s attempts at empathy will not go unnoticed.

“Michelle Obama is an intelligent woman,” Guzin said. “She’s gotten to know previous history. I don’t think she wants to see her husband’s presidency sucked into another war.”

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