Wag­ing bat­tle

Michael Beschloss ex­am­ines the lead­er­ship of US pres­i­dents through the coun­try’s many wars

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More than 10 years in the mak­ing, Pres­i­dents of War: The Epic Story, from 1807 to Mod­ern Times, 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, pres­i­dents 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. (Newsday/TNS)

(US State De­part­ment)

US PRES­I­DENT Lyn­don B. John­son greets Amer­i­can troops in Viet­nam in 1966.

PRES­I­DENTS OF WAR By Michael Beschloss Crown752 pages; $35

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