PRESIDENTS OF WAR
By Michael Beschloss
Crown $35, 739 pages
A distinguished historian who has written 10 outstanding books perhaps can be excused for a single outrageous sentence that leaves a reader shaking his head in disbelief.
Michael Beschloss makes just such a misstep in his otherwise magnificent account of how American presidents went to war over the centuries. He writes that the way the nation entered World War II “did so much to elevate [President] Roosevelt’s standing that it increased the temptation for later Presidents to elevate their reputation by seeking foreign conflict.”
Pardon my dissenting blink. As Washington correspondent for The Philadelphia Inquirer 1967-68, I witnessed Lyndon Johnson’s open agony on a daily basis as he fought a war that essentially destroyed his presidency. And I thought of the frustrations endured by President Truman by waging the Korean conflict into which he was abruptly thrust. Neither man felt that war “elevated” their reputations, to be sure.
That quibble aside, Mr. Beschloss offers fascinating insight about how presidents have dealt with what is surely their most demanding responsibility: That of asking Congress to put the nation into war.
The men who created the United States wisely decided that such a decision should not be left to the president alone. Memories of European wars commenced by unrestricted monarchs haunted the Founding Fathers. In their view, “war would be a last resort under the political system they had invented.”
Invoking the hindsight essential to a historian, Mr. Beschloss does not always agree with the decisions that presidents made. Should the United States have gone to war with Britain in the War of 1812? He suggests that President James Madison over-reacted to a trade dispute that could have been settled peacefully.
But Madison was motivated also by the British navy’s nasty practice of “impressing” sailors against their will, regardless of nationality, to fill empty berths. Contesting the British militarily was arguably essential to preserving the new union.
But the United States definitely walked on shaky moral ground in going to war with Mexico in 1848. To be sure, there were border disputes. Nonetheless, claims that Mexico initiated hostilities by firing on American cavalry were dubious. Congress voted overwhelming for war, but the young Army officer Ulysses S. Grant opined, “the Mexican war was a political war, and the administration conducting it desired to make party capital out of it.”
A sub-text for the Mexican War was the desire of Southern politicians to add more slave states to the union. However flimsy the justification for the war, the outcome added a substantial chunk of territory to the United States, stretching from Texas to California.
So, too, legitimate grounds were flimsy for going to war with Spain in 1898. To be sure, the Spaniards subjected residents of their Cuban colony to unspeakably brutalities. The catalyst that put the county into war was the explosion of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor.
The hyper-yellow Hearst press immediately blamed Spanish sabotage, and within days President William McKinley dispatched troops to Cuba. Only later was the explosion attributed to coal stored dangerously close to munitions. No matter. Spain was kicked out of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.
Mr. Beschloss deservedly directs his heaviest criticism at President Woodrow Wilson. With Germany threatening to conquer Europe from 1914 on, Wilson repeatedly vowed to keep America neutral.
Even as German submarines were sinking American ships, Wilson based his 1916 re-election campaign on the slogan, “He Kept Us Our of War!” Wilson famously declared that America was “too proud to fight.” Inevitably, German oversteps forced Wilson to ask Congress for a declaration of war.
President Roosevelt’s conduct in the years before Pearl Harbor also reflected a good deal of deliberate deception. Roosevelt faced a strongly anti-war public. But while vowing neutrality, Roosevelt made significant steps to aid Britain and its allies, chiefly through loans to buy munitions.
Mr. Beschloss detects a nefarious motive for Roosevelt’s extension of the American security zone in the Atlantic in early 1941. Doing so “dramatically increased the chance that German submarines would attack American ships.” Such an attack “could provoke previously skeptical Americans to clamor for war.” He told his Cabinet he was not “willing to fire the first shot.” The Japanese attack in Pearl Harbor in December 1941 made his maneuverings moot.
Subsequent presidents found grounds to avoid a direct congressional war vote. For Truman, intervention in Korea was a “police action” sanctioned by the United Nations. President Kennedy put the American foot into Vietnam through “military advisers.”
Johnson expanded the American role through the Gulf of Tonkin resolution of 1964, which he termed “the functional equivalent of a declaration of war.” Our Middle East interventions have the barest fig leaf of legality.
The inescapable conclusion: Somehow or another, presidents find the authority they want.
• Joseph C. Goulden’s books include “Korea: The Untold Story of the War” and “Truth Is the First Casualty,” on the Tonkin resolution.