Presidents of War
By Michael Beschloss
Crown; hardcover, 752 pages; $35.00
Preeminent presidential historian Michael Beschloss is the author of nine books on presidential history, including, most recently, the New York Times bestsellers Presidential Courage and The Conquerors, as well as two volumes on Lyndon Johnson’s White House tapes. He is the NBC News Presidential Historian and a PBS NewsHour contributor and has received an Emmy and six honorary degrees.
Beschloss’ latest epic work, Presidents of War, is a groundbreaking saga of America’s wartime chief executives.
Beschloss put ten years into the research and writing of this fresh, magisterial, and intimate look at a procession of American leaders, from Madison, Polk, and Lincoln to McKinley, FDR, Truman, and LBJ; as they took the nation into conflict, mobilized their country for victory, and expanded presidential power.
We see them privately plotting against Congress, the courts, the press, and antiwar protesters; seeking advice and solace from their spouses, families, and friends; and dropping to their knees in prayer.
It brings us into the room as they make the most difficult decisions that face any President, at times sending hundreds of thousands of American men and women to their deaths.
From James Madison and the War of 1812 to Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam, we see presidents struggling with Congress, the courts, the press, their own advisers and antiwar protesters; seeking comfort from their spouses, families and friends; and dropping to their knees in prayer.
“The 1812 conflict proved to be the first major test of the constitutional system for waging war,” Beschloss writes of the starting point for this book. “In Philadelphia, Madison the Founder had worried that American Presidents, like the European monarchs they execrated, might be tempted to take the nation into military confrontation without a national consensus and an immediate, overwhelming foreign danger. But with the War of 1812, Madison had, however reluctantly, succumbed to exactly that temptation. Much of the country and Congress had opposed waging war with Great Britain, and two years into this struggle, many Americans still did not fully understand why they were fighting.”
With analysis like this, the reader comes to understand how these Presidents were able to withstand the pressures of war, both physically and emotionally. or were broken by them.
Beschloss’s rich and vivid storytelling is supported by interviews with surviving participants in the drama and his findings in original letters, diaries, once-classified national security documents, and other sources help him to tell this story in a way it has not been told before.
Presidents of War combines the sense of being there with the overarching context of two centuries of presidents and how they dealt with wars.
Beschloss shows how far we have traveled from the time of the Founding Founders, who tried to constrain presidential power, to our modern day, when a single leader has the potential to launch nuclear weapons that can destroy much of the human race.
On how Lyndon Johnson dealt with Vietnam right after he won the 1964 election against Barry Goldwater, Beschloss writes, “In his inaugural address, on Wednesday, January 20, 1965, Johnson spoke not a word about Vietnam. He had defeated Goldwater in what was the largest presidential landslide in modern history. Benefiting from his coattails, more Democrats dominated the Senate (68 to 38) and House (295 to 140) than any President since Franklin Roosevelt. In his speech, opposite to Kennedy’s in 1961, he spoke exclusively of domestic affairs, for he planned to make fundamental changes in American life – with his War on Poverty, voting guarantees for all Americans, Medicare, aid to education, and other initiatives – that would install the architect of the Great Society in the record books.
“Three days after being sworn in, at 2:26 on Saturday morning, Johnson was hurried by ambulance from the White House to Bethesda Naval Hospital. Lady Bird, who had been resting up from the inauguration at Camp David, feared that he had suffered another heart attack. As she later told her diary, when she arrived at the hospital, she ‘just patted him and sat down and held his hand. It could have been a frightening day. It was a day I had expected and thought about.’ Without telling him, she brought a black dress, just in case she needed one for her husband’s funeral.
“When Johnson returned to the White House after three days at Bethesda, Lady Bird told her journal that Lyndon was feeling ‘washed out’ and ‘depressed.’ He called Nicholas Katzenbach to ask what the Constitution said about presidential disability. Eight days after his collapse, the First Last recorded that, ‘Lyndon spent most of the day in bed,’ and ‘for a man of his temperament, it means you have time to worry.’ She told her diary, ‘It’s sort of a slough of despond…the obstacles indeed are no shadows. They are real substance – Vietnam, the biggest.’ His malaise reminded her of William Butler Yeats’s poems ‘The Valley of the Black Pig’ (1896), which portrayed a desperate man facing an apocalyptic war:
The dews drop slowly and dreams gather: unknown spears
Suddenly hurtle before my dream-awakened eyes,
And then the clash of fallen horsemen and the cries
Of unknown perishing armies beat about my ears
“Soon the First Lady’s fears came to pass. On Saturday, February 6, the Viet Cong attacked a US Army barracks in Pleiku, killing eight Americans. That evening, Johnson called Speaker McCormack, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, McNamara, and other advisers to the Cabinet Room and told them he would order retaliatory air strikes against three North Vietnamese targets. He explained he had ‘kept the shotgun over the mantel and the bullets in the basement for a long time now,’ but now they had to act because ‘cowardice has gotten us into more wars than response has.’ Citing history, he contended that the United States could have avoided both world wars ‘if we had been courageous in the early stages.’ As Lady Bird recorded on Sunday, the seventh, Lyndon took repeated calls from the Situation Room: ‘The ring of the phone, the quick reach for it, and tense, quiet talk…We’ll probably have to learn to live in the middle of it – for not hours or days, but years.”
Johnson ended up not running for re-election in 1968 because of opposition to the Vietnam War.
Presidents of War is nothing short of a masterpiece on American history.