January 2, 2019
War is a messy business, that once started is difficult to stop. The price is high not just for combatants but for presidents who involve the nation in armed conflict. Most war presidents aged significantly in office and suffered serious health problems; several died prematurely (James K. Polk, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson). That's pretty much the message of "Presidents of War," by Michael Beschloss. At 586 pages, Mr. Beschloss's book is long, and seems long due to the nature of the subject: U.S. involvement in nine wars over a period covering most of our nation's history: from the War of 1812 up to the two wars in Iraq. Indeed, the author spent 10 years researching and writing his book. I spent the better part of a week reading it. I did not enjoy it, as the subject is depressing, particularly the war that involved my generation, Vietnam (which consumes 88 pages, more than any war in the book).
It seems our country has been ever at war, and the author reveals a thread--however fine--that connects them all; the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the two wars in Iraq (and the one still ongoing in Afghanistan).
For the most part the wars did not end well. The exception is World War II (the last "good war"). What's disturbing is the questionable justification presidents conjure up in entering the nation in armed conflict, which the author explores in detail. To be fair, presidents have been abetted by hyperactive newspapers across the land, and by ambitious politicians looking to embarrass the sitting chief executive. The Founding Fathers were aware this might happen and created a government where the decision was not one man's alone, but rather that of the the branch that holds the purse strings: the U.S. Congress; or so they had hoped. Some presidents, such as Truman (with Korea) and Johnson (with Vietnam), withheld information from Congress to get funding, information that might have sparred lives and kept the nation out of war. Or, as with George W. Bush (Bush 43), presented information that later proved to be false. In each case, the biggest problem is everyone (including Congressmen) seem to catch war fever and forget that war is a messy and dangerous business--easy to start and difficult to stop--where the first casualty is truth.
By limiting the spending powers to Congress, the Founders hoped to keep their new Republic "from indulging in the Old World monarch's habit of manufacturing false pretexts for wars that they sought for other, more secret reasons." Unfortunately, as the author makes perfectly clear, wars continue to be engaged in under just such false pretexts.
The first threat of war came early in our history, in 1807, under President Thomas Jefferson. The author gives credit to our third president for not stirring up the passions, and keeping the nation out of war. Jefferson hated war. He believed war led to increased federal spending, centralized political power, and strengthened the "monied classes," all prospects that he abhorred. "Never since the battle of Lexington have I seen this country in such a state of exasperation as at present," wrote Jefferson when faced with prospect of yet another war with Great Britain. He clung to his conviction that the resumption of conflict that had been won through something of a miracle only 24 years earlier would be a disaster for the fragile republic, especially after he had halved the military budget and decommissioned most of the U.S. Navy frigates.
The same can't be said for his successor James Madison, who got the nation involved in a second war with Great Britain--the War of 1812. As a result, most of Washington D.C. (including the White House) was burned to the ground by the invading British Army. To win, Madison was forced to do what Jefferson had avoided doing: spend tax dollars on financing a well-equipped Army and Navy. Having sufficiently rearmed, the U.S. went on to win the War of 1812.
The book is more about how wars are started than about war itself. For example President James K. Polk started war with Mexico for no other reason than to expand the boundaries of the U.S. He did this by sending a patrol on a mission to the Rio Grande that he knew would ignite Mexican resistance and result in an armed conflict that in the end would increase U.S. territory by a million square miles, and create the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. The Spanish-American War began when the U.S. Maine blew up while harbored in Cuba--for reasons that were unclear at the time; it's likely the explosion was caused by a faulty boiler rather than by sabotage, as was suspected at the time.
Then there are two wars that probably could NOT have been avoided--the American Civil War and World War II. What Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt did particularly well was to explain to the nation--and more importantly to the soldiers under their command--why the fighting was necessary and important. This is among the principle failures of three other wartime presidents: Woodrow Wilson (with World War I), Harry Truman (with the Korean War), and Lyndon Johnson (with the Vietnam War). Indeed, Johnson was never fully a believer in the Vietnam War to begin with; incredibly, he wouldn't allow a dissenting voice within his administration. He may have been speaking of himself, when he said ruefully, "The nation doesn't understand the Vietnam War."
President Richard Nixon, wishing to avoid becoming the first U.S. president to lose a war, continued the Vietnam War until he achieved what he called "Peace with Honor." The cost was incredibly high: the lives of an additional 21,000 American soldiers, plus an estimated one million Vietnamese civilians, as well as the destabilization and collapse of neighboring Cambodia.
The book ends with a brief discussion of the two Iraqi wars, the second of which continues to this day. As I said at the outset, war is a messy business indeed that once started is difficult to stop. The fact they are entered into so casually and often without a lot of forethought is incomprehensible. Perhaps Mr. Beschloss's book will serve as a reminder to future presidents that they should think first before committing the lives of young Americans--and our national treasury--to yet another war. We can only hope so.