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Presidents of War (2018)

by Michael R. Beschloss

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290868,631 (4.15)17
"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"--… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
When I studied the US Constitution for the first time in the late 1990s as a high-school student, I noticed that it gave Congress, not the Presidency, the responsibility of declaring war. This seemed contrary to my experience, in which the President led the nation into war. It is commonly said that the UN Charter, ratified by Congress, supersedes this earlier practice.

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.

( )
  scottjpearson | Jan 25, 2020 |
Summary: An account of eight American presidents who led the nation into war, how they coped with its stresses, and the consequences of their actions with regard to presidential power.

As recent tensions (I write in July 2019) with North Korea and Iran underscore, the potential and power of a U.S. president to lead the nation into war is great, and brings solemn consequences in terms of loss of life, ongoing entanglements, or the ultimate cataclysm of nuclear conflict. Michael Beschloss, in this work, studies eight American presidents who led the nation into war. The presidents are James Madison (War of 1812), James Polk (Mexican-American War), Abraham Lincoln (the Civil War), William McKinley (Spanish-American War), Woodrow Wilson (World War I), Franklin Roosevelt (World War II), Harry Truman (Korea) and Lyndon Johnson (Vietnam).

It is fascinating to see pretexts and concealed motives for conflicts. For example, Madison took a poorly equipped nation into conflict with Great Britain over impressments of American sailors and the high-handedness of George III, while entertaining ambitions to invade and seize Canadian territory. James Polk, similarly had territorial ambitions to annex territory in the southwest from Mexico and used clashes on the disputed Texas-Mexico border to seek a declaration of war. The fall of Fort Sumter was the flashpoint of the simmering conflict between North and South that both knew was about slavery. Yet until the summer of 1862, Lincoln spoke of the war as an effort to restore the Union. The sinking of the Maine, likely caused by a shipboard accident, served as the cause for the Spanish-American War, allowing the McKinley administration to seize the Philippines and achieve "regime change" in Cuba. Critical intelligence was not passed on to fleet commanders at Pearl Harbor, and the catastrophic Japanese attack gave Franklin Roosevelt the mandate he needed to lead a reluctant nation into war. Dubious attacks in the Tonkin Bay in response to covert US activity resulted in a congressional resolution that served as the basis for Lyndon Johnson's escalation of the Vietnam conflict.

Beschloss also chronicles a tension inherent in the U.S. Constitution. While Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution entrusts the sole power to declare war to Congress, Article II, Section 2 names the President the commander in chief of armed forces, entrusting to him the power to launch and direct military operations and deploy our forces, important in the event of attacks upon the country. In this work we see not only how presidents used various pretexts to argue for war declarations up through World War II, but also how Presidents avoided seeking such declarations in the case of Korea and Vietnam, actions that turned out to be unpopular with the American people. Beschloss notes that today's all-volunteer armies and the lack of a draft make this easier.

Presidents used war to push the limits of presidential power, whether in the suspension of habeas corpus, in executive orders, in harnessing civilian industry to war aims (such as Harry Truman's takeover of a strike-plagued steel industry), or even the Emancipation Proclamation, effecting an end of slavery without constitutional amendment. At the same time, failure in the exercise of these powers brought new curbs or temporarily weakened the presidency, such as the 1973 War Powers Act, after Vietnam, and the weakened administrations of Ford and Carter, post-Vietnam.

Beschloss also studies how different presidents coped with the pressures of war. Madison seemed not to cope well at all, offering indecisive leadership and being routed from Washington. Polk was the first president who paid a toll with his health for fighting a war, barely surviving his presidency in broken health. Lincoln admitted, "This war is eating my life out" and he had a strong impression that he would not live to see its end (he barely did before an assassin's bullet struck him down). McKinley turned to his Bible and justified the seizure of the Philippines as a trust to bring Christianity to the archipelago. His life was also ended by assassination while in office. Wilson suffered a stroke after fighting for his Fourteen Principles, the League of Nations, and the Treaty of Versailles. Roosevelt also suffered a fatal stroke on the eve of the allied victory and Johnson's health was seriously impaired with his death coming within five years of leaving office. Fate is not kind to most war presidents.

This work is an excellent survey of many of America's wars, and of presidential leadership, both in taking the nation into war and leading the country through them. It is disturbing how many times the country is deceived or deprived of critical information in being led into war, and how often fervor substitutes for a sound basis for war, perhaps most notably in 1812 and in Vietnam. Given the high stakes of modern warfare, Beschloss's work suggests that questions of character, demonstrated leadership, and the mental and physical fitness of the holders of the office of President should weigh heavily in our electoral processes. It also suggests the critical role of Congress in the exercise of its War Powers, and its role of requiring a President to make the case for war to the American people. The fate of a nation, or even the world, may rest on how our President, and our elected representatives act. ( )
  BobonBooks | Jul 7, 2019 |
5630. Presidents at War, by Michael Beschloss (read 31 May 2019) This is a 2018 book studying the actions of American presidents in regard to entry into war, It shows that Madison allowed himself to become a war president,and asked Congress to declare wa. Polk wanted to expand the United States and contrived to get into war with Mexico--certainly his actions to go to war were reprehensible but the benefits to the USA were great. Lincoln's actions in regard to the Civil War are viewed as commendable and in the long run it is great that the country remained undivided. McKinley allowed himself to be pushed into war and then became an imperialist. Wilson tried to avoid war but finally became convinced he should ask that we declare war. FDR asked for a declaration of war and Congress was wholeheartedly in favor of war. Truman boldly and rightfully opposed Communist aggression in Korea, but never asked Congress to declare war. The whole sad story of Vietnam is examined and the Gulf of Tonkin resolution was equivalent to a declaration of war and only two men in Congress voted against it. All these situations are examined with much clarity and the book is full of interest. Though Beschloss says he worked on the book for ten years there are some errors. I was struck that on page 150 he says Polk planned to sign the treaty ending the Mexican War on July 4, 1849--at that time no only was Polk not president any more--he was dead. I know it is just a typo but it seems so glaring that one is amazed the book could be published with the error undetected. Some of the author's judgments are questionable. This it the 4th book by Beschloss I have read and is very readable and thought -provoking, though I thought his source notes not as good as I like to see such in a book..4 ( )
  Schmerguls | May 31, 2019 |
Presidents of War

Michael Beschloss
5-

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. ( )
  wwj | Apr 20, 2019 |
Beschloss is a well-known and respected authority on the history of American presidents. This is a big book that is heavily documented although the main documentation is in the back and not indexed in the reading text. It gives a great deal of insight into the political climate in which decisions for and against war were made by the respective presidents. The main underlying theme is the disturbing trend to increase executive power at the expense of congressional approval as outlined and intended by the Constitution. The book essentially ends with the Viet Nam conflict with only brief mention of those currently ongoing disturbances in the Middle East and Afghanistan. The book largely avoids making political statements or judgements of current events and the recent presidents who have initiated them. ( )
  mldavis2 | Feb 14, 2019 |
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(Preface) Since the start of the Republic, Presidents of the United States have taken the American people into major wars roughly once in a generation.
(Prologue) And so it had come to this.
The cascade of hostilities that led to the War of 1812 and the burning of Washington had begun half a decade earlier, under President Thomas Jefferson, when an unexpected naval confrontation brought the United States and its estranged British parent to the edge of full-scale war.
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"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"--

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