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'Presidents of Wartime' review: Michael Beschloss on U.S. Commanders in Chief, from Jefferson to LBJ

Michael Beschloss, author

Michael Beschloss, author "Presidents of War" (Crown, October 2018) Credit: Stephen Voss

PRESIDENTS OF WAR: The Epic Story, from 1807 to Modern Times, by Michael Beschloss. Crown, 739 pp., $35.

More than 10 years in the making, "Presidents of War" is a weighty contribution to the crowded shelves of American political history. Starting with Thomas Jefferson and ending with Lyndon B. Johnson, veteran historian and television talking head Michael Beschloss surveys how military conflicts have strengthened the presidency, with momentous consequences for both America and the world.

Although the Constitution grants Congress the sole authority to declare war, Beschloss shows that the president, as commander in chief, has wielded ever-increasing power to wage war without Congressional sanction. “With the too-frequent acquiescence of Congress, [chief executives] have seized for themselves the power to launch large conflicts, almost on their own authority,” he writes.

Thomas Jefferson avoided war with Great Britain over its predatory naval attacks on American ships. But his successor, James Madison, was not so successful, leading his young country into the nearly calamitous, unnecessary War of 1812. Underfunded American forces blundered their way through battle; the British burned the White House. Madison, who had darkly called war “the true nurse of executive aggrandizement” and enlisted Congress in a conflict that the United States was hardly ready to fight, started what Beschloss calls the “long presidential encroachment on Congress’s war-making power.”

The Founders had hoped war would only be fought as a last resort. But this was not the case in the Mexican-American War. In 1846, James Polk was granted limited consent to wage war against Mexico, but he transformed the war into an expansionist grab, taking New Mexico and California for the United States. He deceived a pliant Congress about his imperial aims and marginalized his critics as unpatriotic.

It was only America’s greatest military conflicts — the Civil War and the Second World War — that brought out leadership Beschloss finds admirable. Abraham Lincoln amassed awesome power in his fight against the Confederacy. To some, he looked like a tyrant — he suspended the writ of habeas corpus, for example, a wildly controversial move. But, as Beschloss reminds us, “the crucial fact is that he did so within the democratic process, and Congress and courts, for the most part, affirmed him.” Above all — and this separates him from most other presidents — Lincoln was a supreme communicator whose literary and oratorical powers “let him, at almost every turn, connect his aims to Americans’ shared historical memory, their understanding of the Constitution, and their sense of morality.”

Beschloss is more critical of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s record — the internment of Japanese-Americans remains a dark stain on FDR’s presidency — but his eloquence and willingness to level with the American public elevated him to the very top ranks of American presidential leadership. The Second World War, it should be noted, was the last time a president asked Congress to declare war.

During the Korean War, Harry S. Truman never asked for Congressional approval, choosing instead to conduct the war as a United Nations operation. Beschloss is critical of Truman’s failures to conclusively end a clash that haunts American foreign policy to this day.

The author is an expert on the Lyndon B. Johnson years, and his chapters on the unfolding disaster of Vietnam are finely etched. In 1964, Congress, without declaring war, granted Johnson the authority to deploy troops and escalate the conflict. It was a debacle. Beschloss reveals Johnson’s doubts and agony about a war that could not be won. “No earlier Chief Executive … had pushed Americans into a major war with such initial pessimism,” Beschloss observes.

All too often, Congress has ceded its war-making authority to the executive branch, a disturbing pattern that shows no sign of coming to an end — Iraq and Afghanistan were both undeclared wars — in the 21st century.

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