Matthew Dallek, an associate professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, is working on a book about the John Birch Society.
In 1846, President James Polk responded to an ambush of a U.S. military patrol near the Rio Grande by asking Congress to declare war on Mexico. Polk wanted to win control of California and New Mexico and extend slavery westward. But he hid these reasons from the public, and his ulterior purposes had profound implications for the American way of war. “Just a half century into the life of the American Republic, Polk had crushed the Founders’ hope that their fresh new country would not indulge in the Old World monarchs’ habit of manufacturing false pretexts for wars that they sought for other, more secret reasons,” Michael Beschloss writes in “Presidents of War,” his sweeping inside-the-Oval-Office account of how presidents waged America’s major wars between 1812 and 1968.
“Presidents of War” is a significant feat of historical synthesis. Beschloss is a deft researcher and a first-rate storyteller, and his book draws from not only other scholarship but also from diaries, memos, tapes and interviews to construct a pointillist canvas that captures the hopes, ideals, fears and delusions that prompted some presidents to lead the country into armed conflict. Rather than a paean to presidential courage in the tradition of Stephen Ambrose, “Presidents of War” is a sober-minded analysis that stresses the ways presidents weaponized deception. They hid the risks of war from soldiers and civilians, used false pretexts to fight their wars, and they waged wars even though the republic’s survival wasn’t at stake. “With the too-frequent acquiescence of Congress, [presidents] have seized for themselves the power to launch large conflicts almost on their own authority,” Beschloss observes.
The idea that presidents have acquired imperial power, especially in war, is familiar. Yet “Presidents of War” provides a deep history of how chief executives since the early 19th century have waged war under confused circumstances and often with secret motives. During the War of 1812, President James Madison set a precedent by failing to level with Americans that fighting Britain required painful sacrifices. America’s fledgling democracy was not under mortal threat, and Congress and the public were both divided over the wisdom of war. Madison’s war leadership “lowered the threshold so that future Presidents and Congresses could — contrary to the spirit of most of the Founders — more easily enmesh the nation in sundry conflicts for lesser purposes,” Beschloss writes.
Presidents sometimes learned the wrong lessons from their forbears. Polk followed in Madison’s steps when he concealed his agenda of westward expansion during the war with Mexico. President William McKinley wanted to go to war with Spain in 1898, even though a faulty boiler, rather than Spanish sailors, probably caused the sinking of the USS Maine battleship in a Cuban harbor. McKinley also promised to liberate the Cuban people from Spain’s occupation, but his war “became — without consulting the Congress or the American people — a struggle for an American empire.” He grabbed the Philippines from Spain and ordered the conversion of Filipinos to Christianity. His war upended the nation’s original notion of itself as a democracy devoted to upholding liberty and the principle of self-rule, with ulterior purposes reminiscent of Polk’s.
President Woodrow Wilson tried to inscribe democratic values on the world order during World War I. But his disdain for Congress and failure to educate the public about his wartime agenda backfired. He jailed his antiwar foes and faltered at persuading Americans to back his idea for a League of Nations.
Beschloss cites two exceptions to this otherwise lamentable string of war presidents. Neither is particularly surprising — Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. Lincoln and FDR, he says, waged the Civil War and World War II for higher moral purposes (saving the union, abolishing slavery, defending democracy from fascism), and they educated the public about why the country was sacrificing so many lives and so much treasure. (Beschloss does not shy from discussing FDR’s internment camps and Lincoln’s suspension of habeus corpus, among other wartime abuses of power.)
“Presidents of War” is better at describing presidents’ actions during these wars than it is at explaining how ideas such as racism, jingoism and anti-communism, to cite three examples, shaped how presidents thought about their wars and why they waged them.
The physical and emotional toll inflicted on these war presidents is covered extensively, and Beschloss’s section on Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam is particularly fresh and enlightening. He builds on previous books such as Mark Bowden’s “Hue 1968” showing that Gen. William Westmoreland asked LBJ to put nuclear weapons in South Vietnam in case he needed to use them during the battle of Khe Sanh in 1968. Although LBJ wisely nixed Westmoreland’s request, his leadership of the Vietnam War was, overall, abysmal. LBJ doubted early in his presidency that victory in Vietnam was even possible. His paralysis — he could not fully commit to waging war, nor could he defy hawkish advisers and critics, declare victory, and simply leave — is on vivid display. His war leadership was even more anguished, impoverished and ill-conceived than had been previously known.
The Founding Fathers, Beschloss concludes, hoped that “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.” As this fine book demonstrates, the Constitution, for all its virtues, has proved unable to check presidents bent on waging war. Most of the wars described here were grounded in deception and, arguably, were unjust wars of choice. Beschloss drives this point home in his disquieting study.
By Michael Beschloss
Crown. 739 pp. $35