The Founders sought a separation of powers in war-making, as in so much else of consequence to the new Republic, so the Constitution mandated that only Congress may declare war, while assigning to the President of the United States authority as
How we ended up here, clearly at wide variance from the intentions of the Framers, is the subject of Presidents of War, an ambitious, uneven, and deeply flawed recent book by Michael Beschloss. The premise is simple. Starting with the War of 1812 and James Madison, a couple of chapters are devoted to each major conflict and the POTUS most closely associated with it, with an eye on precedents set as well as the unintended consequences that seem to have bolstered the confidence of successive chief executives to make war by misleading, bypassing or simply ignoring Congress. I have read Beschloss before. He is a leading historian of the modern American presidency, a gifted writer who has authored or edited a number of books in this milieu, and he often appears as media commentator. So, it is surprising that someone with his resume and talents would turn out a thick volume like this beset with a wordy and meandering narrative that falls so far short of its potential.
For one thing, there is a jarring lack of uniformity in the seventeen chapters in Presidents of War. Indeed, this is so striking that some of these chapters almost appear to have been penned by different authors. This may be because, as revealed in the “Acknowledgements,” the book was written over a ten-year span, begetting a distinct style and focus shift. The inconsistency might be less glaring if read as separate essays rather than assembled into a single work that purports to tell a cohesive story. It is also plagued by far-too-frequent asterisked footnotes populated with further clarification or “fun facts,” in the maddening tradition of a David Foster Wallace. The saving grace, if there is one, is that Beschloss has an engaging writing style that is appealing to a popular audience, and the narrative is heavy on anecdote, which frequently carries the reader along.
The first three chapters—centered around the War of 1812—are styled completely differently than the ones that follow. (We can only imagine that these were the first ones written, a decade prior.) More academic in orientation than the rest of the book and sometimes marred by dull passages that too often fall to quotation in the florid prose of the era—which unnecessarily interrupts the flow—this portion of the book is yet far more focused and coherent, as well as loyal to thesis and theme. The otherwise brilliant James Madison—who like his predecessor and frequent partner Thomas Jefferson proved a far more able Founder than president—along with a complicit Congress stumbled into a war against a much more powerful adversary, then bumbled its prosecution. Elected in 1800 as a Democratic-Republican, Jefferson—with Madison’s assistance—had vastly reduced the armed forces and begun dismantling the fiscal policies that were the legacy of Hamilton and the Federalists, so that by 1812 the United States was woefully unprepared both militarily and financially to take on the United Kingdom, itself engaged in an existential struggle against Napoleonic France. Grandiose plans to annex Canada ended with Washington D.C. in flames and Madison fleeing for his life. The nation survived largely because once Napoleon was vanquished, the Brits were weary of combat and eager to resume trade.
Beschloss covers the war competently, then—in a pattern repeated with subsequent conflicts—dedicates a few concluding pages to analysis that seeks to pass judgment on the achievements and shortcomings of the president who conducted it. This framework reveals the challenge of abridging the story of a consequential war to a couple of chapters, as the author is forced to be highly selective with what to include and what to omit. For instance, Beschloss devotes a number of pages to the Chesapeake–Leopard affair of 1807, which saw the humiliating capture of the American frigate Chesapeake by a British warship searching for deserters from the Royal Navy, spawning a lasting bitterness that poisoned Anglo-American relations and echoed down to the run-up of the War of 1812. Much color is added to the narrative with the backstory of the hapless captain of the Chesapeake, James Barron, who is unfairly held to account for the disaster. The multi-page tale of Barron’s disgrace adds flair, but nevertheless begs the question: how essential is it to the larger story? And what has been excised to make room for it? Unimportant to the casual reader, these questions will repeatedly nag those more widely read in the historiography in the chapters ahead.
Perhaps the best of these chapters is given to the Mexican War, launched and prosecuted by President James K. Polk on a deliberately manufactured pretext with a secret, nefarious scheme to annex a third of the territory of our southern neighbor, which succeeds all too well. The morally bankrupt Polk was nevertheless the most consequential one term president in American history. The aftermath of the Mexican War and the question of whether the newly acquired territories should be slave or free was the match that lit the secession crisis, although little is made of that in the narrative. The Civil War chapters that follow neatly summarize the latest scholarship, but there is nothing new here. More entertaining for the general reader is coverage of the Spanish-American War of 1898, sustained by much anecdote, especially with regard to another unlucky ship’s captain, this time in Havana harbor.
While Beschloss faithfully underscores how presidents looked to the wartime experiences of their predecessors in the Oval Office for both caution and guidance, what is most conspicuous in its absence is the connective tissue that binds one era to the next. The best example of this is his treatment of Wilson and World War I. The nation’s isolationism and Wilson’s reluctance to enter the war against Germany, even after the many American lives lost to the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, did not occur in a vacuum, but was informed by relatively recent history. The Spanish-American War had achieved great territorial gains for a budding American imperialism in a very popular short war with limited loss of life, but sparked a long, bloody rebellion in the Philippines that by the time it was brutally suppressed had largely turned the nation against foreign adventures. And—almost exactly a year before the Lusitania went down—Wilson had blundered into military intervention in Mexico that went sideways, forcing him to pull back and reassess. These events are mentioned in passing, but Beschloss fails to emphasize the critical impact both the Philippine Insurrection and the incursion into Mexico had upon the nation and upon Wilson in contemplation of American involvement in an increasingly catastrophic European war.
The book’s approach to Franklin Roosevelt and World War II is quite curious. FDR is generally ranked as America’s third greatest president—after Lincoln and Washington—but that heroic figure is largely absent from the text of Presidents of War. Beschloss glosses over much of Roosevelt’s achievements in shepherding the nation through economic depression and world war, but instead devotes most of his ink to the president’s faults: his failure to anticipate Pearl Harbor, the internment of Japanese-Americans, the less-than-robust efforts to rescue European Jewry from Hitler’s executioners. While there is indeed some merit to the reproach, for this to dominate the emphasis is a distortion of the outsize role FDR played in American life. And, given that emphasis, it was no less than stunning to confront the stark incongruity of the author’s final analysis, that the “President deserves the verdict of the New York Times … that ‘men will thank God on their knees a hundred years from now that Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House,’” adding that: “It is difficult to imagine any other American leader of that generation guiding, with such success, a resistant nation toward intervention and ultimate victory in this most momentous of history’s wars, as well as taking Americans into a postwar assembly that would strive to enforce the peace.” [p432]
Beschloss wraps up WWII in just a few pages following FDR’s death, although the defeat of Japan remained uncertain and it was for the new president—Harry Truman—to face the critical atomic option that brought hostilities to the end, something only treated peripherally in the narrative. The next chapters concern Korea, but remarkably there is a complete lack of analysis of how Truman’s role as commander in chief in the final months of WWII and his decision to use the bomb may have informed his leadership in the Korean War.
Then it is on to Vietnam and Lyndon Johnson. Beschloss has studied LBJ closely, serving as editor to two volumes of Johnson’s White House Tapes (Taking Charge and Reaching for Glory, both of which I have read). And although he cites LBJ biographer Robert Caro (who has written four volumes on Johnson’s life to date, which I have also read), he ignores Caro’s thesis that the vast portion of Lyndon Johnson was given to political opportunism. Instead, the author seems to take every sentence privately uttered by LBJ about Vietnam at face value, even though these often smack of the height of calculation clearly designed to cultivate a specific audience. Eventually, Beschloss even goes so far as to conclude that: “To this day it is difficult to understand how this bighearted man could have brought himself to send young Americans to risk their lives in a conflict … he … seemed to have so little hope.” [p528] This analysis strikes the reader as the height of political naiveté. Strangely, although the war long outlasts Johnson, the next commander in chief—Richard Nixon—only gets a bit part in the narrative.
Then, except for a brief (six pages!) “Epilogue,” Presidents of War ends abruptly. Without explanation, there is no study of Bush, father or son, nor the Gulf War, Afghanistan, or Iraq. Maybe Beschloss was simply tired and ran out of steam. Perhaps his editor told him that at nearly six hundred pages enough was enough. Again, the informed reader cannot help but question the author’s decisions on what to include and what to discard. Can anyone really competently cover the Civil War in eighty-four pages, or World War II in seventy-five pages? In the end, there were many pages that seemed unnecessary, and yet so much that begged for further study. In addition to the absence of a strong concluding chapter, it might have been a welcome juxtaposition to have included a section on presidents who achieved foreign policy objectives without resorting to full-scale war, such as Eisenhower, and especially JFK—who during his crisis-driven tenure managed to circumvent pressures upon him to go to war over Laos, Berlin and the missiles in Cuba. Perhaps it was simply a mistake to imagine such a grand overview confined to a single book: adding a second volume may have resulted in a work more thorough and less unwieldy.
Michael Beschloss is an outstanding historian with credentials that far exceed my own, so I must admit discomfort in judging his book so harshly. Still, I have a master’s degree in history, and I have spent a lifetime studying American history and American presidents, so this is hardly unfamiliar territory for me. In the final analysis, Presidents of War may be an entertaining read for a popular audience, but as solid history it largely misses the mark.