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The Spoils of War: Greed, Power, and the Conflicts That Made Our Greatest Presidents

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How would we remember Abraham Lincoln if not for the Civil War? This may seem like a silly question—Lincoln is applauded for starting a war over a moral outrage he couldn't bear, so there's little reason to imagine his legacy without it. Yet when political scientists Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith examine the facts, a different picture emerges. Lincoln did littl How would we remember Abraham Lincoln if not for the Civil War? This may seem like a silly question—Lincoln is applauded for starting a war over a moral outrage he couldn't bear, so there's little reason to imagine his legacy without it. Yet when political scientists Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith examine the facts, a different picture emerges. Lincoln did little to take on slavery before Dred Scott proved that the political climate was changing. Seeing an opportunity, Lincoln began sowing the seeds of political disunion, thus making himself a serious presidential contender. It was a strategy that paid off for Lincoln, in his career, his finances, and his historical legacy. But he also dragged out the war, taking an enormous human toll in the process. And it isn't just Lincoln. Indeed, it's striking how many of the presidents Americans most venerate—Lincoln, Washington, FDR, and JFK, to name a few—oversaw some of the republic's bloodiest years. One after another, Bueno de Mesquita and Smith put America's great leaders under the microscope, showing how their calls for war, usually remembered as brave and noble, were in fact selfish and convenient. In every case—and in many others not covered here—our presidents chose personal gain over national interest while loudly evoking justice and freedom. The result is an eye-opening retelling of American history and a call for reform. Neither pacifists nor war hawks, the authors instead argue for a more transparent dialogue between politicians and the people they are meant to serve. By offering concrete policy changes (for instance, abolishing the electoral college), they suggest a way in which such transparency—a notion most of us have long since given up hope imagining—could be brought about. This is an entertaining and persuasive debunking of some venerated national myths, and proof that we'd be better off without them.


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How would we remember Abraham Lincoln if not for the Civil War? This may seem like a silly question—Lincoln is applauded for starting a war over a moral outrage he couldn't bear, so there's little reason to imagine his legacy without it. Yet when political scientists Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith examine the facts, a different picture emerges. Lincoln did littl How would we remember Abraham Lincoln if not for the Civil War? This may seem like a silly question—Lincoln is applauded for starting a war over a moral outrage he couldn't bear, so there's little reason to imagine his legacy without it. Yet when political scientists Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith examine the facts, a different picture emerges. Lincoln did little to take on slavery before Dred Scott proved that the political climate was changing. Seeing an opportunity, Lincoln began sowing the seeds of political disunion, thus making himself a serious presidential contender. It was a strategy that paid off for Lincoln, in his career, his finances, and his historical legacy. But he also dragged out the war, taking an enormous human toll in the process. And it isn't just Lincoln. Indeed, it's striking how many of the presidents Americans most venerate—Lincoln, Washington, FDR, and JFK, to name a few—oversaw some of the republic's bloodiest years. One after another, Bueno de Mesquita and Smith put America's great leaders under the microscope, showing how their calls for war, usually remembered as brave and noble, were in fact selfish and convenient. In every case—and in many others not covered here—our presidents chose personal gain over national interest while loudly evoking justice and freedom. The result is an eye-opening retelling of American history and a call for reform. Neither pacifists nor war hawks, the authors instead argue for a more transparent dialogue between politicians and the people they are meant to serve. By offering concrete policy changes (for instance, abolishing the electoral college), they suggest a way in which such transparency—a notion most of us have long since given up hope imagining—could be brought about. This is an entertaining and persuasive debunking of some venerated national myths, and proof that we'd be better off without them.

30 review for The Spoils of War: Greed, Power, and the Conflicts That Made Our Greatest Presidents

  1. 5 out of 5

    John

    BBDM is a complicated thinker and is not afraid to take on difficult subjects. I don't agree with all his analysis and he simplifies everywhere. But he makes a good case that presidential power is often put to the purpose of achieving personal goals that have little to do with helping the average citizen. The analysis is simplistic but remarkable in how well it matches to actions taken by some of our greatest leaders. He challenged some deeply held assumptions about our country and its given me BBDM is a complicated thinker and is not afraid to take on difficult subjects. I don't agree with all his analysis and he simplifies everywhere. But he makes a good case that presidential power is often put to the purpose of achieving personal goals that have little to do with helping the average citizen. The analysis is simplistic but remarkable in how well it matches to actions taken by some of our greatest leaders. He challenged some deeply held assumptions about our country and its given me lots to think about.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Alex MacMillan

    Whenever the Catholic Church considers sainthood for someone, they first appoint a Devil's Advocate to see whether they can successfully tear down the canonization. In this highly flawed book, the authors try their best to do the same thing to US Presidents. Their "cynicism-explains-everything" approach to political science may have made sense for understanding how authoritarian regimes operate, but is a completely naive and myopic way to explain policy choices in a democracy. To me their critic Whenever the Catholic Church considers sainthood for someone, they first appoint a Devil's Advocate to see whether they can successfully tear down the canonization. In this highly flawed book, the authors try their best to do the same thing to US Presidents. Their "cynicism-explains-everything" approach to political science may have made sense for understanding how authoritarian regimes operate, but is a completely naive and myopic way to explain policy choices in a democracy. To me their criticisms could only come off as plausible to someone who has never read a biography about the President or an American history book explaining the period in which they lived. The FDR chapter was particularly laughable after having just finished a biography about him the day before. For those still interested in reading about Presidential leadership or the hows and whys of Presidential rankings by professional historians (which these authors certainly are not), I'd recommend The Strategic President and Where They Stand instead.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Saunaguy

    https://digitalsauna.wordpress.com/20... https://digitalsauna.wordpress.com/20...

  4. 5 out of 5

    Danilo DiPietro

    Excellent relook at how our presidents make the consequential decision to go to war. Very important reading.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Christopher

    George Washington reconsidered as a sleazy real estate speculator. Who can't love that? Or, how to reevaluate all the iconic presidents of American history as warm-up acts for the current imperial kleptocracy aborning.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Jim Blessing

    This was a decent read with some interesting parts.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Vitali Ussenko

  8. 4 out of 5

    Spinny

  9. 4 out of 5

    Cory Thomason

  10. 4 out of 5

    Aaron

  11. 4 out of 5

    Thomas

  12. 5 out of 5

    Eduardo

  13. 5 out of 5

    Peter Yuexin

  14. 4 out of 5

    benji

  15. 5 out of 5

    Arnold Clem

  16. 4 out of 5

    Ted Yang

  17. 5 out of 5

    Eduardo Clark

  18. 4 out of 5

    Donna

  19. 5 out of 5

    J.W.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Mo

  21. 5 out of 5

    Ben

  22. 4 out of 5

    Tom Janson

  23. 4 out of 5

    Tim

  24. 5 out of 5

    Brian Caster

  25. 4 out of 5

    Doc

  26. 5 out of 5

    Robert Hosang

  27. 4 out of 5

    Jessica

  28. 5 out of 5

    Clair Keizer

  29. 5 out of 5

    Carolyn

  30. 5 out of 5

    Jonatan Pallesen

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