Presidents of War

By Michael Beschloss

Crown. 739 pp. $35

Reviewed by Chris Patsilelis

On June 29, 1950, five days after communist North Korean troops attacked South Korea, President Harry S. Truman called a news conference to determine whether the United States, as an ally of South Korea, would play a part in the conflict. Asked whether America would send ground troops, he answered, “No comment on that.” Asked about “any possibility of having to use the atomic bomb,” Truman darkly responded, “No comment.”

What the reporters and the American people did not know was that three days earlier, the president, with Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s encouragement, had already decided to confront North Korea militarily. And later, citing the urgency of the situation, Truman would go to war without congressional approval, calling his move a “police action” and flouting what had been considered a requirement stipulated in the Constitution.

In this revealing new book, Michael Beschloss, familiar television commentator and author of The Conquerors (2002), Presidential Courage (2007), and seven other books on U.S. history, has written a monumental cautionary tale tracing how presidents of the past have chosen to exercise their war-making authority. Vividly written, Presidents of War is a sobering and timely look at our commander-in-chief’s awesome war-making powers, and how those powers can so easily circumvent our Constitution.

Beschloss starts with Thomas Jefferson, who had to contend with the Chesapeake affair, in which the Royal Navy’s HMS Leopard, seeking British navy deserters, fired upon the USS Chesapeake on June 22, 1807. Abhorring war, Jefferson exercised superhuman restraint in not succumbing to the public outcry for military revenge. But Jefferson was also being practical: He knew his country’s navy was merely a fledgling. With Congress’ approval, he settled for an embargo on imported British goods.

James Madison’s encounter with conflict, Beschloss informs us, was an entirely different matter. When the British frigate Guerrière halted the American ship Spitfire and impressed an American sailor on May 1, 1811, it provoked an outright naval battle. The bellicose Madison subsequently pushed and misled Congress toward war — although the young United States had little means to defend itself at the time. In the ensuing War of 1812-14, Washington was burned by the British (Aug. 24, 1814) and at war’s end, the Royal Navy could still impress American sailors with relative impunity.

According to Beschloss, President James K. Polk is a prime case study in how to manipulate a country into war. Focused on acquiring huge swaths of land from Mexico — land that later became California, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah — he sent Gen. Zachary Taylor to the Mexican border to provoke war in spring 1846. The Mexican War broke out, and the bullying, unscrupulous Polk subsequently added almost a million square miles to the United States by 1848.

President William McKinley’s Spanish-American War was ignited by the explosion of the USS Maine on Feb. 15, 1898, in Havana harbor. A court of inquiry ruled the blast that killed 265 had been caused by a mine, yet it did not name Spain directly. Public outcry, however, framed the explosion as a Spanish act of war, and the resulting battle devolved into another Polk-style land grab, garnering the Philippines, Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, and Puerto Rico. From a McKinley memo: “We must keep what we get.”

The author gives high war-leadership marks to President Abraham Lincoln. Inheriting the tinderbox secession crisis and the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter, Lincoln carefully, thoughtfully steered the nation through the Civil War. Step by step, ever in observance of his generals’ strengths and foibles, and keeping Congress and nation informed, he was the antithesis of the cunning, unprincipled Polk. Lincoln also used the power of the pen to guide the country’s riven culture: His Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address went far toward healing a suffering nation.

President Franklin Roosevelt also gets high marks from Beschloss. Forthrightly asking Congress to declare war on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt, like Lincoln, proceeded to firmly guide the prosecution of an incomprehensibly global Armageddon. He asked Americans to take out their maps and globes to follow the war’s progress, and gave them hope with his radio “fireside chats.”

Lincoln and FDR’s open warmheartedness contrasts with the uncommunicative arrogance of President Woodrow Wilson. Even though the United States had helped Britain, France, and their allies achieve an armistice in World War I, he managed to squander all that good will both in Europe and in his own Congress, destroying any chance of U.S. membership in the League of Nations.

Yet the most tragic figure in Presidents of War is President Lyndon B. Johnson. Beschloss clearly conveys how Johnson, using spurious reports of North Vietnamese torpedo boat attacks on U.S. warships in the Gulf of Tonkin (Aug. 2 and 4, 1964), and encouraged by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, became hopelessly mired in a futile conflict. Congress, without ever seeing any truly cohesive plan of military action, abetted Johnson’s request for war with its 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. According to Democratic Sen. Wayne Morse of Oregon, it was a “deliberate” pretext “to justify making war against North Vietnam.” Not wanting to be the first U.S. president to lose a war, Johnson began one that would cost more than 58,000 American lives.

Beschloss shows us that the chief executive concentrates such power and influence in one person that, at times of stress and public outcry, it is comparatively easy for president and Congress to ignore what the Constitution says and what common sense may dictate. It’s a lesson we keep having to learn and relearn.

Chris Patsilelis is a writer in Meriden, Conn.