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Presidents of War: The Epic Story, from 1807 to Modern Times

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From a preeminent presidential historian comes a groundbreaking and often surprising narrative of America’s wartime chief executives It sometimes seems, in retrospect, as if America has been almost continuously at war. Ten years in the research and writing, Presidents of War is a fresh, magisterial, intimate look at a procession of American leaders as they took the nation From a preeminent presidential historian comes a groundbreaking and often surprising narrative of America’s wartime chief executives It sometimes seems, in retrospect, as if America has been almost continuously at war. Ten years in the research and writing, Presidents of War is a fresh, magisterial, intimate look at a procession of American leaders as they took the nation into conflict and mobilized their country for victory. 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 recent times, we see them struggling with Congress, the courts, the press, their own advisors and antiwar protesters; seeking comfort from their spouses, families and friends; and dropping to their knees in prayer. We come to understand how these Presidents were able to withstand the pressures of war—both physically and emotionally—or were broken by them. Beschloss’s interviews with surviving participants in the drama and his discoveries 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 American history. This important book shows how far we have traveled from the time of our 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.


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From a preeminent presidential historian comes a groundbreaking and often surprising narrative of America’s wartime chief executives It sometimes seems, in retrospect, as if America has been almost continuously at war. Ten years in the research and writing, Presidents of War is a fresh, magisterial, intimate look at a procession of American leaders as they took the nation From a preeminent presidential historian comes a groundbreaking and often surprising narrative of America’s wartime chief executives It sometimes seems, in retrospect, as if America has been almost continuously at war. Ten years in the research and writing, Presidents of War is a fresh, magisterial, intimate look at a procession of American leaders as they took the nation into conflict and mobilized their country for victory. 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 recent times, we see them struggling with Congress, the courts, the press, their own advisors and antiwar protesters; seeking comfort from their spouses, families and friends; and dropping to their knees in prayer. We come to understand how these Presidents were able to withstand the pressures of war—both physically and emotionally—or were broken by them. Beschloss’s interviews with surviving participants in the drama and his discoveries 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 American history. This important book shows how far we have traveled from the time of our 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.

30 review for Presidents of War: The Epic Story, from 1807 to Modern Times

  1. 4 out of 5

    Bill Gates

    If I had been just a year or two older, I might have been called to serve in the Vietnam War. I think that’s one reason why I’m so interested in books and movies about the war. I always come back to the same question: If I had fought in the war, would I have showed courage under fire? Like many people who have not served, I have my doubts. In addition to thinking about those who fought and died in the war, I have also spent a lot of time learning about those who directed the war. My interest in a If I had been just a year or two older, I might have been called to serve in the Vietnam War. I think that’s one reason why I’m so interested in books and movies about the war. I always come back to the same question: If I had fought in the war, would I have showed courage under fire? Like many people who have not served, I have my doubts. In addition to thinking about those who fought and died in the war, I have also spent a lot of time learning about those who directed the war. My interest in all aspects of the war is the main reason I decided to pick up Michael Beschloss’s newest book, Presidents of War. I’m glad I did. In the chapters that focus on Vietnam, I learned quite a few things about the complex calculations that led the U.S. into and out of Vietnam. (I also learned a surprising piece of trivia: the commander of the U.S. carrier division that was fired on in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964—in the incident that provided a premise for President Johnson to send the first U.S. ground troops to Vietnam—was the father of Jim Morrison of the Doors.) But the richest insights for me came from the fact that the book’s broad scope lets you draw important cross-cutting lessons about presidential leadership. Beschloss looks at how presidents have handled each of the nine major conflicts the U.S. entered between the turn of the 19th century and the 1970s: the War of 1812 (James Madison), the Mexican-American War (James Polk), the Civil War (Abraham Lincoln), the Spanish-American War (William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt), World War I (Woodrow Wilson), World War II (Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman), the Korean War (Dwight Eisenhower), and the Vietnam War (Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon). Beschloss didn’t unearth much new material about any of these wars. But looking at each president and each conflict with a similar lens is what makes the book a worthwhile read. It is also timely, given that we’re in our 18th year of war in Afghanistan and have troops deployed in many other places around the world. The first cross-cutting theme is that being Commander in Chief is by far the hardest part of the hardest job in the world. It takes good judgment, moral courage, emotional stability, and curiosity (especially a willingness to learn from previous wars). Based on these criteria, I think we were lucky to have Abraham Lincoln in charge during the Civil War. But Beschloss shows that even Lincoln made significant mistakes and struggled mightily under the strain of war. Lincoln wrote to various friends that he was “wrung by the bitterest anguish,” felt almost ready to “hang” himself, and “I have a strong impression that I shall not live to see the end.” Similarly, we were lucky to have FDR at the helm during World War II. But Beschloss shows that his moral compass was often on the fritz. I had already known that FDR was responsible for the internment of Japanese-American families and chose not to act to save European Jews even after he was absolutely clear that the Nazis were systematically exterminating them. But I hadn’t realized that FDR engaged in Nixon-like spying on political enemies; his son Elliott later acknowledged that his dad “may have been the originator of the concept of employing the IRS as a weapon of political retribution.” (Eleanor Roosevelt comes across with her reputation fully intact based on her moral and physical courage during the war.) The second cross-cutting theme is how often our country goes to war based on wounded pride rather than on more sober considerations. In almost every case, a large majority of Americans don’t want to go to war. But often the tide turns because troops we have put in harm’s way get attacked—or, in the case of the Spanish-American War, simply appear to get attacked—and you get a very predictable honor-driven thing going on. The previous sentiment of “Don’t send our kids off to get killed” shifts very quickly to “We must defend our honor!” For example, James Polk manipulated that national reflex in the Mexican-American War. Beschloss shows how Polk conspired with a “bombastically aggressive” Naval officer to provoke Mexico into attacking U.S. troops and inflaming the public to demand war. In Beschloss’s words, “Satisfied that his ends would justify his means, James Polk lied and connived, creating a pretext for a war that, despite his public claims, was designed to allow the United States to seize vast territory from Mexico.” The third cross-cutting theme is that we still don’t have a well-designed system for deciding to go to war, despite nearly 250 years of history. The Constitution says that only Congress has the power to declare war. And yet U.S. presidents have assumed ever greater authority to march our troops into battle—and Congress has largely acquiesced. Congress has issued a formal declaration of war in only five conflicts, and the last time it did so was in 1942. The final cross-cutting theme is that each of these wars is connected to the ones that came before it. For example, in 1898, the battleship USS Maine blew up in Havana Harbor, killing 266 sailors and igniting the Spanish American War. (The blast was almost certainly a result of a boiler accident rather than a Spanish torpedo.) If that blast had not occurred, the U.S. might not have launched war against Spain. Without the Spanish-American War, the U.S. may not have seized the Philippines and brought Asia into its sphere of influence, or taken Hawaii as its territory, or stationed its Pacific fleet in Pearl Harbor. It is fascinating and heartbreaking to think about the butterfly effect the Maine explosion had on World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Cold War. Beschloss’s book is full of such “what if” moments. It is hard to read about today’s conflicts without thinking about how they might connect to the past and what impact they might have on the future. Presidents of War is worth reading, whether you are one of the nation’s leaders or just an armchair historian.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jeffrey Keeten

    ”At about 4:30 on Friday morning, April 12, 1861, a single mortar shell tore a thin streak through the blue-black sky over Charleston Harbor, then dropped onto Fort Sumter, exploding into a burst of red and orange.” With that one mortar shell, South Carolina touched off a conflict that would claim the lives of approximately 618,222 soldiers. The greatest toll of lives, by far, of any war fought by America. There were two very different perspectives of the prospect of this war. The South was e ”At about 4:30 on Friday morning, April 12, 1861, a single mortar shell tore a thin streak through the blue-black sky over Charleston Harbor, then dropped onto Fort Sumter, exploding into a burst of red and orange.” With that one mortar shell, South Carolina touched off a conflict that would claim the lives of approximately 618,222 soldiers. The greatest toll of lives, by far, of any war fought by America. There were two very different perspectives of the prospect of this war. The South was excited and hell bent on licking those yellow bellied Yankees. The North was still in denial that they were even in a war. They were mystified as to why their Southern cousins were so intent on trying to kill them. A combination of brainwashing, poor education, and a clinging to a way of life that was unsustainable insured that thousands of people were about to die for reasons that, frankly, defied logic and, for most of the participants, was a constant source of confusion. Why are we dying? President Abraham Lincoln, clothed in immense power (I love that scene from the Steven Spielberg movie Lincoln), changed the scope of the executive branch of government and greatly extended the powers of that branch that would have far reaching influences on American politics. The theme of Michael Beschloss’s book is an exploration of the sometimes hidden reasons behind the wars that have been started by American presidents (although in the case of Lincoln, just getting elected president was the spark that led to war) and the actions and reactions of those presidents that led America into its many conflicts. He starts with the forgotten conflict, the War of 1812. Few remember that The Star Spangled Banner was written at the bombing of Fort McHenry during this war. President James Madison was completely unprepared to fight this conflict. The US had no ships, no standing army to speak of, and no funds with which to take on the greatest army and navy in the world. The quarrel began over the British impressment of sailors off US ships. There are a few bright spots in this conflict: Dolley Madison saving the portrait of George Washington from a burning White House, the failure of the US to invade and conquer Canada (good for you, Canada), a few sea battles that the US, bafflingly, managed to win, and of course, Andrew Jackson’s dramatic victory at New Orleans. Interestingly enough, the greatest military victory by Old Hickory came after the war had officially been concluded. Needless to say, communication was a slower process than the instantaneous communications available today. Dolley Madison One of the more humorous moments in the book was when the British soldiers were looting the White House and were playing dress up with the Madison’s abandoned wardrobe. They made ”ribald jokes about Dolley’s voluptuous derriere and breasts.” This caught me completely unawares, and I laughed because I had never really thought about Dolley’s physical conformity. Many years later, she was described at public events as a striking and handsome woman. She was a brilliant marketer of her husband’s legacy, so astute about so many things, and obviously curvaceous, as well. James K. Polk was hell bent for war. President James K. Polk used a pretense of invasion by Mexico to start the Mexican-American War. The intent was to establish the boundary of Texas on the Rio Grande, not the Nueces River, and in the process also acquire what is now New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, parts of Colorado and Wyoming, but most importantly, obtain the jewel of the West...California. This was a huge extension of the power of the Presidency. He couldn’t outright say I want this land from Mexico. Polk had to fabricate an injustice to bolster support for this endeavor. I may not agree with the way this section of North America became part of the United States, but I am very fond of those states and certainly appreciate their inclusion in the union. I can rail against Polk for overreaching his presidential powers to add territory, but at the same time I admit I’m glad he did. The Spanish-American War was one of those situations that America found itself in frequently, where we are supporting the rebels against a foreign power, in this case Cuban rebels against Spain. When the USS Maine exploded in Havana’s harbor, President William McKinley had his pretense to declare war openly on Spain. The official reasons for the war were one thing, but the hidden agenda, or the mission creep as it was referred to, was to add several islands, such as Puerto Rico, Guam, Philippines, Hawaii, and even Cuba, as territorial gains. President Woodrow Wilson campaigned on the idea that he would keep America out of the war in Europe. That was a big, fat, juicy lie, but he did, in my opinion and in the more astute opinions of revered historians, prove to be a good wartime president. Poor Theodore Roosevelt was green with envy that Wilson had such a dust up happen while president. He frequently called Wilson “yellow” because he was dragging his feet about entering the war. Frankly, I think if Wilson had been a more vigorous man, he should have busted TR in the snout. The sinking of the Lusitania and the Zimmerman Telegram are frequently used as pretenses for America entering the war, but really, the truth of the matter is we wanted and needed to get in that war. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor, there was the theme of sinking ships and America’s entry into war, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt was handed exactly what he needed to go to the aid of Europe against the German Aggression of WW2. Again, isolationism proved to be impossible. The world by this time had continued to shrink, and the moats surrounding the United States were not wide or deep enough to keep the war in Europe and Asia from reaching her shores. The frying pan that President Truman, the State Department, and the Pentagon found themselves in after firing General MacArthur. The Korean War became a wintery bog for President Harry Truman. Another time when a President expanded his authority to be able to fight a war not officially sanctioned by congress. His epic battles with General Douglas MacArthur are actually fascinating and a case study for why we have civilian control of the military. I actually respect several of the accomplishments of MacArthur, particularly his governing of Japan after the war, so I’m always a bit wistful about the way his career ended. A similar scene was later played out between President Barack Obama and General Stanley McChrystal. The Korean War was a preview of a much more destructive and long lasting conflict in Vietnam. There was so much desperation of purpose surrounding this conflict. President Lyndon Johnson, beset by doubts, crippled by fear if he does something and equally apprehensive if he does not, was a president, not the first, fighting a war for the wrong reasons. The conflict was designated a policing action, which gave Johnson and later Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon power to wage a major war through the executive branch of government. Vietnam is a quagmire for any review or discussion so I will not venture in, but I will say Beschloss did a great job putting the reader in the mind of LBJ. Lyndon Johnson’s appendix scar becomes Vietnam Beschloss covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq briefly in the epilogue. The subject he took on is a broad subject. I’m sure he had to leave a lot of great observations on the cutting room floor to even keep the book to 586 pages. It does make me wonder if he intends to write about Afghanistan and Iraq in a future book. The pretenses for fighting those wars were not only disturbing, but built on a cascade of the worst lies ever sold to the American public. This book is a terrific overview for amateur historians who may have little knowledge of the various conflicts. The book also provides a potential opportunity for a cohesion of thought for the more astute historian about the real reasons behind these conflicts and how they were presented to the American public. I found my knowledge of American wars to be deepened and also my awareness of the way we continue to be manipulated by politicians into conflicts that would be best resolved in ways other than through the blood of our children and the treasure of our future clarified. If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visithttp://www.jeffreykeeten.com I also have a Facebook blogger page at:https://www.facebook.com/JeffreyKeeten

  3. 5 out of 5

    Aaron Million

    Michael Beschloss spent a decade researching and writing this absorbing portrait of American Presidents taking the country into various wars, and his commitment to the project shows in its high quality. This is a very good book, and as usual with Beschloss, combines popular readability with vigorous research and extended, informative footnotes. Beschloss shows how, over time, the war-making power of Congress has been usurped and now basically ignored by Presidents of both political parties. This Michael Beschloss spent a decade researching and writing this absorbing portrait of American Presidents taking the country into various wars, and his commitment to the project shows in its high quality. This is a very good book, and as usual with Beschloss, combines popular readability with vigorous research and extended, informative footnotes. Beschloss shows how, over time, the war-making power of Congress has been usurped and now basically ignored by Presidents of both political parties. This is in direct contradiction to what the Founding Fathers had written and how they intended this aspect of the separation of powers to work. Beschloss begins with a chapter on a President who chose not to go to war. Thomas Jefferson had the circumstances, in 1807, to request that Congress declare war on Great Britain. He had a golden opportunity when a British warship attacked the Chesapeake off the Virginia coast. While Jefferson was tempted at times to escalate matters, he chose not to do so. But as Beschloss makes clear, Jefferson's decision was at least partially based on the fact that he had starved the infant U.S. Navy almost to death, so it really was not in a position to realistically fight the British anyways. While Beschloss is critical of Jefferson on several counts, he admires the restraint shown here. I believe that he included this chapter to show how a President can avoid conflict, instead of seeking it or immediately escalating one that has been presented to him. Next up is James Madison and the War of 1812. Despite being one of the Founders, and being the expert on separation of powers because he helped to write the Constitution, Madison allowed himself to get goaded by Henry Clay and others into seeking war with Great Britain. This was a disastrous decision on Madison's part, resulting in the destruction of the Executive Mansion and much of the nascent capital of Washington D.C. Madison himself barely escaped and fled into the Virginia countryside for a few days. To his credit, Madison did not try to further inflame events once they reached this dismal point. Madison, of all people, should have known better than to bring the U.S. into a war without a great deal of justification, and one that it most likely would lose. Next up is James Polk, and Beschloss spares him no criticism as he scores him for repeatedly lying to Congress, manufacturing a war with Mexico solely to gain territory, and not explaining his actions to the American people. Polk set a dangerous precedent for other Presidents to follow: the expansion of Executive authority and the trampling over the prerogative of Congress when it comes to war-making. Of all the Presidents that Beschloss examines, Polk might be the biggest offender. And that is saying something, especially considering that Lyndon Johnson ruined himself along with thousands of American soldiers in Vietnam. But Polk was the first one to blatantly disregard Congress, to treat it as subservient to his territory goals. Polk created a false pretext for a war, and then prosecuted it with gusto. It was a needless and senseless war. The territory gained should be returned to Mexico (I know that will obviously never happen, I am writing it rhetorically!). The two chapters on Lincoln's management and struggles during the Civil War are outstanding. It made me wish that Beschloss would have written a book solely on that topic. Beschloss shows how Lincoln, in contrast with Polk, was overly careful to explain his actions to the American people, and to be up front with Congress about what he was doing. But Lincoln did vastly expand his power to deal with the national emergency, although he was very careful to repeatedly assert that his actions and powers were only temporary expedients in an effort to quell the rebellion of the Southern states. Despite assuming great powers, Lincoln knew that, in times of peace, he would not need or want those powers. Lincoln, of course, was not perfect, and his mistakes here are discussed as well, but – as in most aspects of his presidency – Lincoln towers above pretty much everyone else. Of all of the segments, I found the ones concerning the Spanish American War to be the least nuanced. While the U.S. manufactured a war with Spain, once again mainly to gain territory, William McKinley's decision to go to war didn't seem fully explained to me. I did not quite understand, at the end, why McKinley went to war. It seemed that he was initially reluctant to escalate the situation with Spain, which was – at the time – premised on the explosion aboard and sinking of the U.S.S. Maine. There were many loud voices agitating for war, Theodore Roosevelt one of the most vociferous, who seemed to goad/persuade McKinley into going to war. But I did not think that Beschloss fully fleshed this out. That doesn't mean these chapters were – on the contrary they were quite good, especially Beschloss' peek into the life of Captain Charles Sigsbee. Beschloss has numerous issues with Woodrow Wilson's handling of WWI and its aftermath. Wilson, despite being a historian and political scientist, did a rotten job when it came to communicating his intentions, his actions, and his goals. He campaigned, pretty much falsely although technically accurately, in 1916 on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War”. But he knew that could not last much longer, and it did not. Wilson gets his lowest marks though for his abuse and disregard of civil liberties. Even Polk did not do that. Wilson, increasingly in ill health, viewed dissenters as enemies, and acted messianic. Each book that I read about Wilson, or that includes Wilson as part of the story, even if the book is written by someone favorable to Wilson, leaves me questioning just why he is so highly regarded amongst U.S. Presidents. While there were some significant domestic achievements early in his administration, I just do not see the high ratings as being justified. Franklin Roosevelt gets balanced treatment here, just like all of the Presidents that Beschloss discusses. Beschloss does not come down on the side of some conspiracy theorists that think that FDR knew about Pearl Harbor in advance, but he does allow that FDR most certainly knew there would be a Japanese attack somewhere. FDR's leadership through WWII is mostly lauded, but Beschloss rightly condemns him for the atrocious internment of American citizens of Japanese descent. Almost eighty years later, I find that act still deeply disturbing. Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson, while both accomplishing great things, did not make for good war-time Presidents. Neither asked for, nor even considering asking for, a formal declaration of war in their respective administrations, despite both taking the U.S. into lengthy and costly wars. Truman really had no good reason for not involving Congress, and it came back to bite him, driving him out of the White House at the end of his second term (the 22nd Amendment did not apply to him). While Truman never did make a good case to the American people as to why the U.S. was in Korea, Johnson flat-out lied over and over again as escalated U.S. involvement in Vietnam. I think that, with Johnson, depending on what the subject matter is, he's going to come out looking either really great or really horrible. And since this book focuses on war, it is the latter. I really enjoyed this book. Beschloss is such a smooth writer and gifted historian that I cannot imagine him writing anything that is not of the highest quality. If I have any complaint about the book, and it would be a small one, it is that he did not examine Truman's ending of WWII, especially the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. And, he briefly skimmed over Richard Nixon's handling of Vietnam. I understand why: the premise of the book was about Presidents who led the U.S. into wars, not about wars that they inherited. Still, I think those are two areas that he could have included without subtracting anything from this excellent and worthwhile book. Grade: A

  4. 4 out of 5

    Matt

    “While donning his sack coat, [Captain Charles D.] Sigsbee had found a ten-month-old letter from one of [his wife] Eliza’s friends, which had gone unanswered. On the ship’s tricolor stationary, he started writing Eliza (‘My darling Wife’) to apologize, and heard the [USS] Maine’s Marine bugler, ‘Fifer’ Newton, the popular third baseman for the ship’s baseball team, play 'Taps.' Sigsbee put down his fountain pen to listen. Then, at 9:40, just as he slipped his completed letter (‘Lovingly, C.D.S.’ “While donning his sack coat, [Captain Charles D.] Sigsbee had found a ten-month-old letter from one of [his wife] Eliza’s friends, which had gone unanswered. On the ship’s tricolor stationary, he started writing Eliza (‘My darling Wife’) to apologize, and heard the [USS] Maine’s Marine bugler, ‘Fifer’ Newton, the popular third baseman for the ship’s baseball team, play 'Taps.' Sigsbee put down his fountain pen to listen. Then, at 9:40, just as he slipped his completed letter (‘Lovingly, C.D.S.’) into an envelope, he heard the horrific boom…Sigsbee found it ‘a bursting, rending and crashing sound or roar of tremendous volume…followed by a succession of heavy, ominous metallic sounds, probably caused by the overturning of the central superstructure and by falling debris.’ After that came ‘intense blackness and smoke…’ Rejecting his impulse to crawl through an air vent, Sigsbee took ‘the more dignified way of making an exit through the passageway leading forward through the superstructure.’ In the darkness, an orderly, Private William Anthony, bumped into him hard. Rather than run for his life, Anthony saluted, formally apprised the captain that the Maine had been ‘blown up’ and was ‘sinking,’ and made himself useful…” - Michael Beschloss, President of War, describing the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor, February 15, 1898. For an American president, waging war at the head of a representative democracy presents a series of near-insoluble challenges. It is difficult, on a normal day, for the president to walk the line between national necessity and political expediency. Having to maintain that balance during a war is like juggling on a tightrope during a hurricane. It is not enough to simply make the hard military decisions, expending lives and wealth in pursuit of some goal. Instead, the president must do these things while maintaining popular support in a country where the next election is always only two years away. That’s a tall order. Ask Lincoln, attacked as a tyrant as he attempted to save the political system of what he called “the last best hope of earth.”Ask Lyndon Johnson, whose obsession with Vietnam led him to micromanage bombing missions, hoping to find the “light at the end of the tunnel.” Even Franklin Roosevelt, presiding over the largest conflict in history, one that is almost universally acknowledged as absolutely necessary, never received unanimous support. Michael Beschloss captures the plight of the wartime president in Presidents of War, a comprehensive narrative history stretching from James Madison’s mishandling of the War of 1812 to the slow-motion disaster of Vietnam. This is a big book with a big subject and weighs in at a solid 586 pages of text. Even so, Beschloss has put a number of parameters on his study. First and foremost, he does not cover the endless Indian Wars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This means that Washington’s unfortunate decision to send Arthur St. Clair against the Shawnee and Miamis is not explored, nor is Grant’s well-intentioned but failed “Peace Policy” for the Plains Tribes. Second, when a war is split between administrations, Beschloss tends to focus on the man presiding when the guns first started firing. Thus, FDR is covered during World War II, but Truman – and his decision to drop the Bomb – is mostly elided. Later, Truman is critiqued during Korea, but Eisenhower’s role in wrapping things up is mostly ignored. Finally, though this book’s subtitle promises the “Epic Story, from 1807 to Modern Times,” the phrase “Modern Times” is used rather loosely. Aside from the briefest of epilogues, the storyline ends with the fall of South Vietnam in 1975. (I’ll touch on this a bit more below). Given that each of the presidents and wars covered here has been the subject of dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of books, Beschloss’ greatest achievement is in distilling events in an entertaining and educational fashion. It is a feat not unlike a person attempting to swallow an entire t-bone steak in a single bite. The framework of Presidents of War is simple and functional. Typically, when dealing with a president and his war, Beschloss structures each section in a similar fashion: set piece, summary, and conclusion. (The interstitial periods between wars is skipped entirely, meaning that each new war begins without much context. Vietnam, for example, was an issue for Truman and Eisenhower and Kennedy before it fell in LBJ's lap. That is not covered here). The set-piece typically covers the opening event of each particular war, narrated in dramatic fashion. For instance, the segment on the Civil War begins with Fort Sumter, while a brisk retelling of Pearl Harbor opens World War II. Not every war begins in such obvious fashion, of course. The big scene in Beschloss’ account of the War of 1812 actually takes place in 1807, with the lopsided duel between the HMS Leopard and the USS Chesapeake, which proves a useful case study in the impressing of American sailors by the British navy. One of the things you learn by reading about the Thornton Affair (the Mexican-American War), the sinking of the Maine (the Spanish-American War), and the Gulf of Tonkin (the Vietnam War) is that America has girded herself for battle on some extremely flimsy pretexts. What seems a legitimate casus belli in the moment is revealed, in the fullness of time, to be something less. The Maine, for example, was likely the victim of a coal-bunker explosion, rather than an attack by Spanish commandos. The second “attack” on American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin was probably not an attack at all, just confused U.S. ships chasing false radar returns. (Presidents of War presents - mostly without editorial comment - a fairly egregious list of executive decisions). After setting the scene, Beschloss then provides an overarching view of the president’s actions during the war. While smoothly written and packed with detail (including a lot of unnecessary footnotes for those who like collecting trivia), I found that some of these chapters lacked inner cohesion. With some presidents, the focus is mainly on the decision to go to war; with others, it is the prosecution of the war. There is a rather serious look at Lincoln’s relationship to civil liberties during the Civil War, especially with regard to Copperhead Clement Vallandigham. On the other hand, Wilson’s trampling of the First Amendment is dealt with in a more cursory fashion. (Beschloss puts the fate of Eugene Debs – sentenced to a decade imprisonment for daring to criticize America’s entry into World War I, which frankly deserves a lot of criticism – into a footnote). This issue, I think, stems from Beschloss’ lack of a thesis. In Presidents of War, he is a story-spinner first, and never quite gets around to expounding a theory of executive power with regards to making war. If he had, I think this would have been tighter and more enlightening, rather than simply a really good tale. More than that, Beschloss is a noted presidential historian, and I would've liked to hear some sharp judgments, rather than is mild tisk-tisking. With that said, Beschloss does yeoman’s work with the Mexican-American War, the (far-lesser-known) Spanish-American War, and the Vietnam War. I cared less for the Civil War and World War II chapters, which is testament to their scope and sprawl, and also the fact that there has been saturation coverage on the war-handling abilities of Lincoln and FDR. Beschloss ends each section with a few concluding remarks. Here, he actually gives a bit of a report card on that particular president’s handling of the war over which he presided. I liked these parts quite a bit, and – dovetailing with what I mentioned directly above – wish he had done it in a more rigorous and systematic fashion. While Beschloss certainly draws comparisons between various presidents, I think he could have done a much better job in this area. Of course, this is first and foremost a popular history, and it is too much to ask for an analytical discourse when the authorial intent is clearly to reach a mass readership. Beschloss has always been able to switch back and forth between mainstream and academic pursuits, and here gives us something that is both ambitious and accessible, and will be appreciated by both serious presidential students and those with more of a passing interest. (This is what I call a Dad Book. Don’t know what to get your dad for Christmas/his birthday/Father’s Day? Problem solved. Dad will love it). As I mentioned above, Beschloss ends Presidents of War with the outcome of the Vietnam War. He explicitly mentions his reasons for doing so: that more recent wars, especially the War in Afghanistan and the Second Gulf War are too recent, are unsettled history. To an extent, I can respect that line of thinking. Certainly, attempting hard judgments on the political/military/legal/ethical morass that is the “War on Terror” will be difficult in fifty years, much less right now, as it still unfolds, and the emotions are still so high. (It is easy, for instance, to watch those planes hit those towers and immediately, if only for an instant, start to lose all perspective). Still, I think Beschloss missed an opportunity. Presidents of War is an excellent book, a near-great read. It is well-paced and engagingly written and filled with anecdotes, most of which are probably true. But it lacks power. It lacks a lesson. And certainly, there is a lesson to be found, just one you have to draw mostly by yourself. Congress has not declared a war, as required by the Constitution, since June 1942, when America went to war against the lesser-Axis powers of Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania. In 2001, Congress skirted its duties by giving us the Authorization for Use of Military Force, which allowed the president to wage war without declaring war. This provided for the invasion of Iraq and a war in Afghanistan that still sputters today. A lot of people died and a lot of money was spent and those deaths occurred and that money was spent without a lot of honest debate about the reasons, the necessity, and the endgame. Nevertheless, there is no indication that this drift towards the normalization of undeclared wars is going to change. It is a wide road that leads to war, the saying goes. It is a narrow path that leads back home. In other words, it is easy to get into a fight, a lot harder to disengage. Thus, the best way to avoid a divisive and costly quagmire is to have a full and frank discussion before it starts. I wish Beschloss had lent his talent and expertise to a stronger statement against our present reality: that it has never been easier for a president to start a war, with or without the consent of the people who will fight the battles or foot the bill.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Lorna

    Presidents of War: The Epic Story, from 1807 to Modern Times is a meticulously researched book that author Michael Beschloss has spent the last ten years in preparing it for publication by reviewing correspondence, diaries and declassified documents, which is quite apparent in the historical sweep and scope of the book. This historical narrative begins in 1807 with the assault on the USS Chesapeake and the measures taken by President Thomas Jefferson to avoid war through the Bush administration Presidents of War: The Epic Story, from 1807 to Modern Times is a meticulously researched book that author Michael Beschloss has spent the last ten years in preparing it for publication by reviewing correspondence, diaries and declassified documents, which is quite apparent in the historical sweep and scope of the book. This historical narrative begins in 1807 with the assault on the USS Chesapeake and the measures taken by President Thomas Jefferson to avoid war through the Bush administration and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. My favorite parts were the struggles of President Lincoln during the Civil War; President Woodrow Wilson and his valiant efforts to keep the United States out of World War I; the administrations of Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman during World War II; and the agony of President Lyndon Johnson over the war in Vietnam. This was a magnificent book that captured, not only history, but the humanity and struggles of our war presidents. "We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as securely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." -- Abraham Lincoln, Inaugural Address March 1861 "On an unusually warm day in Gettysburg, the President, wearing his black stovepipe hat, climbed onto a horse and joined a funerary parade to the battleground. . .Then he stepped forward to deliver, from notes, what would become the most famous address ever uttered by an American President in time of war and peace." "For his leadership while waging his world war and seeking a durable peace, Wilson deserves credit for his intelligence, eloquence, use of American history, and genuine idealism about what has been called the 'contagion of liberty' around the globe. He managed to keep his country out of Europe for as long as he could. Then he managed to persuade Congress to grant him a war declaration. . . ." "But privately, as he started escalating the war, Johnson was gloomily unable to convince himself it would ultimately lead to victory. . . .To this day, it is difficult to understand how this bighearted man could have brought himself to send young Americans to risk their lives in conflict for which, even at the start, he privately seemed to have so little hope."

  6. 5 out of 5

    Laura Noggle

    Excellent and especially relevant as it pertains to current international affairs. Not surprised to learn that most of the presidents were lifelong avid readers—wish that was currently the case. As Harry S. Truman said, “not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” Appreciated the different perspectives from the biographies on Grant and Roosevelt I read earlier this year.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Joseph

    Essential reading for anyone interested in either American history or the Presidents, this book does not disappoint. The author traces the history of wartime presidents from 1807 to the current time. My only complaint about the book is that it is light on the modern presidents. An entire chapter could have been devoted to the second Iraq war as well as the conflict in Afghanistan. Other than that, it's easy to see why the author is well known as a Presidential historian and scholar.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Joseph Sciuto

    Michael Beschloss' "Presidents of War" is an extraordinary work, so extraordinary that it should be required reading for anyone seeking the Presidency, Vice Presidency, a Senate seat, a congressional seat or any cabinet positions in the United States Government.  This amazing piece of historical record brought me to tears on many occasions just thinking about the mothers and fathers who lost their children to wars fought for the benefit to get a President re-elected, out of selfish pride, stupid Michael Beschloss' "Presidents of War" is an extraordinary work, so extraordinary that it should be required reading for anyone seeking the Presidency, Vice Presidency, a Senate seat, a congressional seat or any cabinet positions in the United States Government.  This amazing piece of historical record brought me to tears on many occasions just thinking about the mothers and fathers who lost their children to wars fought for the benefit to get a President re-elected, out of selfish pride, stupid intelligence, and a rush to judgement without having all the facts.  The book covers all the wars the United States has been in since the "War of 1812" through "Vietnam" in great and enlightening detail. The Founder Fathers would be appalled at what Mr. Beschloss has uncovered, and considering that one of the ill-prepared Presidents who rushed to war is a Founding Father (Madison) is amazing. The only wartime President who truly shines in this book is President Lincoln (what a surprise) and to a much lesser extent President Franklin Roosevelt, more because of the way he handled the war than how he got us into the war. President Nixon, instead of being almost impeached, should of been hung as a traitor. President Johnson should of been imprisoned, and President Truman (who is one of my heroes) got us into Korea because of diplomatic mismanagement by him and his state department. Truman, the President, behind the Marshal Plan, NATO, and desegregating the armed forces failed in an area he was a specialist in and the result was tens of thousand US deaths and countless wounded. President Polk expanded US Terrority during the Mexican-American War by literally fabricating a lie, and in so doing added Texas, California, and New Mexico to our ever expanding country. And in an ironic twist, he captured those areas from the Mexicans who had been there long before us, and now are being called criminals when they try to cross over into the United States. The Presidency of the United States is supposed to represent one third of our government, yet every wartime President has amassed enormous power, disregarding the role the Congress is supposed to play in declaring war. Such a culmination of power was just what the Founders feared most because as the author reiterates throughout, the Constitution was written to protect any one individual from having such power like the Kings and Dictators throughout the world. An amazing book.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Boudewijn

    Intimate portraits how the 'Presidents of war' fared during the war years, their struggles, both politically and emotionally and how the original vision of the founding fathers has eroded during modern times At the dawn of the American republic, the framers of the constitution had a dream: that war would be regarded as the last resort of their invented political system. Unlike the European powers at that time, where monarchs and dictators could declare war at will, in the American Republic it wou Intimate portraits how the 'Presidents of war' fared during the war years, their struggles, both politically and emotionally and how the original vision of the founding fathers has eroded during modern times At the dawn of the American republic, the framers of the constitution had a dream: that war would be regarded as the last resort of their invented political system. Unlike the European powers at that time, where monarchs and dictators could declare war at will, in the American Republic it would be declared only by the congress and not by the president. This book looks at various American presidents and how they took the Americans to war and mobilised their country for victory. It shows how the original dream would already be eroded 60 years later by president Polk and how, after World War II presidents stopped to ask congress to fulfil its constitutional mandate to declare war and how the House and Senate did not serieus reject. As an European, no doubt well less endowed with knowledge about American history as the average American, it was really interesting to see how wars became ‘presidential wars’ and how these presidents fared during these years. How they struggled with the Congress, the courts, the press and their own advisors and how these presidents were able to withstand the pressures of war, or were broken by them. This important book shows how far we have travelled from the time of our 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.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Joe

    Beschloss has an ambitious goal with this book and he almost makes it: An in depth account of each time a President took us to war (and the one time a President didn't, thanks Jefferson!). I say almost because Beschloss largely focuses on the President at the time the war started, but not always. He gives short shrift to those that come later. I'm specifically thinking of Truman with World War II and Nixon and Ford with the Vietnam war. Now I know Beschloss has a whole other book on FDR and Trum Beschloss has an ambitious goal with this book and he almost makes it: An in depth account of each time a President took us to war (and the one time a President didn't, thanks Jefferson!). I say almost because Beschloss largely focuses on the President at the time the war started, but not always. He gives short shrift to those that come later. I'm specifically thinking of Truman with World War II and Nixon and Ford with the Vietnam war. Now I know Beschloss has a whole other book on FDR and Truman so I'll give that a pass. With the other two, I suspect he figured his book was already long enough. That minor quibble aside, this was a great book! I've been reading a lot of political biographies lately and this one is a strong read. I daresay, a must read for any foolish enough to think war has ever been a good idea or should ever be plan A. The bulk of the wars started the same: We got angry, we were cocky, we ignored diplomacy in favor of quick and easy political points, after initial success we got bogged down in a disaster and everyone ultimately regretted getting involved. The only two to buck this trend were Civil War and WWII although I maintain that the Civil War still fits it's just that it was the Confederacy that made the big mistake. Every other war was a mess and ultimately damaged the prestige of all involved. So...yeah, the big lesson? If you break it, you bought it America. I should say we haven't quite learned this lesson. By wikipedia's tally, America is currently in seven wars. SEVEN! Quick, name all places we're at war! Could you do it? ...liar.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Argum

    I won a free copy of this book from Goodreads First Reads. An interesting thread to follow through American history, the presidents that served during wartime from the War of 1812 to Vietnam. A few chapters are devoted to each conflict with the background to the war and the man in office at the time along with politics more broadly. It is interesting how one bleeds into the next via the advisers or the young Congressman of one being President the next. But more importantly decisions made during I won a free copy of this book from Goodreads First Reads. An interesting thread to follow through American history, the presidents that served during wartime from the War of 1812 to Vietnam. A few chapters are devoted to each conflict with the background to the war and the man in office at the time along with politics more broadly. It is interesting how one bleeds into the next via the advisers or the young Congressman of one being President the next. But more importantly decisions made during one inform the next whether it was from lessons learned about how to end it or how to get away with it to what to do with the public to keep up support. Deeply personal stories of the President as well as dirty politics share equal time in the narrative. Really hangs together as a cohesive story as well. WOnderful

  12. 4 out of 5

    Clay Davis

    Liked the earlier wars that were researched than the later ones. The book needs a better cover.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Heather Reads Books

    I finally finished this book! Whew. It took almost two months but I did it. It was certainly worth it, but wow, what an undertaking. Presidents of War is Michael Beschloss's decade plus-long project, telling the story of every American presidential administration that waged war on a foreign entity. To say this book is exhaustively researched is an understatement. In it, Beschloss goes through, in sometimes excruciating detail, the lead up to, the waging of, and the political consequences for the I finally finished this book! Whew. It took almost two months but I did it. It was certainly worth it, but wow, what an undertaking. Presidents of War is Michael Beschloss's decade plus-long project, telling the story of every American presidential administration that waged war on a foreign entity. To say this book is exhaustively researched is an understatement. In it, Beschloss goes through, in sometimes excruciating detail, the lead up to, the waging of, and the political consequences for the presidents at the helm of every major war from the War of 1812 to Vietnam. His thesis is clear at the outset and is proven time and again: that throughout history, every president in war time using the office to strengthen and expand the president's personal power. Where Presidents of War truly excels is this through line, making it easy to trace the expansion of American power from shortly after the country was created through the mid-20th century. Truthfully, some of these wars I've barely even thought about since high school (hello Mexican-American and Spanish-American wars!), and others I was never taught about in school at all (helloooo Korea and Vietnam!). If you're looking for a dense, thorough history book to dive into to teach you these things, look no further. That said, I have a few small caveats about this tome, even if its very existence is a major accomplishment. First, as is probably evident, this is not a light read. It took me the better part of two months, and that's even with the actual page count being almost two-hundred pages shorter than advertised (that last chunk is all the citations and bibliographies!). It also became somewhat repetitive in spots, which is certainly not the author's fault, but rather the fact that history repeats. There is a depressing monotony to realizing that the lead up to so many conflicts is some misunderstood or misrepresented (or, like the Mexican-American war, outright fabricated) pretext, and the resulting mess probably could have been entirely prevented. Third, the subtitle is a bit of a misnomer. It sounds as though some conflicts against the Native Americans were omitted (though, I suppose, this might be due to debatable definitions of what "foreign wars" might mean). However, more egregiously, "modern times" definitely doesn't mean up until the book's publication in 2018, but rather fifty years ago with Vietnam. Beschloss provides a short epilogue acknowledging the Gulf War and the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but does not provide in-depth information about them. This is probably due to the events being too recent for a historian's close scrutiny – for instance, documents Beschloss cited about the Vietnam chapters were declassified as recently as 2015. Still, due to the title I was hoping for a little more coverage of actual modern times, but I can't really blame Beschloss for that either. I assume the title was a marketing move, and surely by the time he got through Vietnam he was ready to collapse from exhaustion (I know I was). And finally, although Beschloss himself never addresses it in the text, here is something I learned from reading this book: wars kill presidents. This was evident again and again, as I read about eight separate conflicts in total. Sometimes they kill presidents outright – both Lincoln and McKinley were assassinated in the wake of their conflicts. But more prevalent is the slow death from the stress and heartache of being at the head of wars in which countless American soldiers are dying. Some presidents died in or shortly after leaving office from aggravated health conditions; others showed marked mental as well as physical decline. I have to say the worst to read about was Lyndon B. Johnson, whose health was so poor during his first elected term he did not seek reelection, and was driven to a gluttonous diet that amounted to "slow-motion suicide." This happened as he privately decried the Vietnam war and saw no way to win it – even before going in. As brutal as this sounds, I found it difficult to empathize with Johnson, when it seemed the main reason staying out of the war was off the table was because he didn't want America to look "weak" on the international stage. As current American politics is entrenched in conversations about staying out of "pointless" wars, as well as the repercussions of the #MeToo movement and the many dangers of misogyny and toxic masculinity, I found his compulsive need to display machismo at any cost especially poignant.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Krisette Spangler

    This novel was a page turner for me. It chronicles the wars of the United States from the War of 1812 to the Vietnam War. The author explores the reasons for the wars and often what the President of the United States did to circumvent Congress to enter the war without congressional approval. I loved the author's approach as he offered equal amounts criticism and praise for these early leaders of our nation. I learned so much, and I hope he does a follow up at some point that includes the War on This novel was a page turner for me. It chronicles the wars of the United States from the War of 1812 to the Vietnam War. The author explores the reasons for the wars and often what the President of the United States did to circumvent Congress to enter the war without congressional approval. I loved the author's approach as he offered equal amounts criticism and praise for these early leaders of our nation. I learned so much, and I hope he does a follow up at some point that includes the War on Terror and the Person Gulf War.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Peter

    Michael Beschloss's Presidents of War addresses the exercise of presidential power in U. S. wars from 1812 to the present, underlining the way that presidents have left their personal morals aside and extended the war powers of the executive branch. It is a deeply researched and very readable report of the American experience with that aspect of international politics we call "War." The book is long—about 600 pages of text—and most readers will be familiar with recent wars, perhaps even as parti Michael Beschloss's Presidents of War addresses the exercise of presidential power in U. S. wars from 1812 to the present, underlining the way that presidents have left their personal morals aside and extended the war powers of the executive branch. It is a deeply researched and very readable report of the American experience with that aspect of international politics we call "War." The book is long—about 600 pages of text—and most readers will be familiar with recent wars, perhaps even as participants. So this review focuses neglects the 20th and 21st century wars (WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Middle East). Background Following the Revolution, the new United State of America had no resources to draw on for infrastructure and national security. The bulk of its revenues was from import duties that were commonly avoided by smugglers, though that problem was mitigated by Alexander Hamilton's 1790 creation of a fleet of Revenue Cutters which would become the U. S. Coast Guard. Having no steady source of income, the federal government also had no credit standing. Its primary source of non-tariff income was voluntary payments by the states. The governance of America was quickly split into two political parties. The Federalists, organized using a name that had represented their point of view throughout the Constitutional Convention debates; the Federalists favored a strong central government with access to international credit markets, a steady source of revenue, and a central bank designed to support the public credit by serving as the fiscal agent of the government—receiving, holding and disbursing taxes, marketing federal bonds—and by standardizing the nation's currency to encourage domestic trade. Alexander Hamilton's name was written on all these ideas. The Democratic-Republicans, a modern name for the original Jeffersonian Republicans, favored decentralized power distributed among the individual states, believing that any service that a central government could perform was best done at the state level. This party was the antecedent of Ron Paul and the modern right wing of the Republican party and, proving that social memories are extremely long, is still a source of contention. A common belief among both parties was that war was a last resort to be used only in the face of existential threats, and that the power to declare war should not be a decision of the head of the Executive Branch. Rather, the power to declare war was in the Legislative Branch (Congress) though, somewhat in contradiction, but the power to wage war was in the Executive Branch (the President); the distinction became important as the U. S. experienced more wars. The Federalist power center was New England; the Republicans dominated in the south and the west. With the exception of the apolitical George Washington and the often-absent John Adams, a Federalist, the early presidents—Jefferson, Madison, Monroe—were Democratic-Republicans favoring a small central government and distribution of power among the states. The War of 1812 (1812-1815) The end of the American Revolution did little to mitigate Britain's hostility to its former colony. Overt conflict was ended, but Britain's "Orders in Council" continued to promote British impressment of American men into its Navy, to allow British naval vessels to capture U. S. merchant vessels, and to effect a British embargo of exports to the U. S. The first two were fleas under the U. S. blanket, irritating American pride but not creating serious damage. The third had significant adverse effects on the American economy, in part because of a simple requirement of international trade balance—if we couldn't buy their goods, they wouldn't have the wherewithal (cash) to buy our goods. This state of continued tension on the seas (and on the border with British Canada) was made worse during the parsimonious Thomas Jefferson's presidency. Instead of developing a small fleet of warships that might protect U. S. vessels, he built a large fleet of small and poorly-armed gunboats designed for inland and near-coastal service. In short, Jefferson starved the U. S. Navy at a time when the opposing power (Britain) was a major naval power and a U. S. Navy was the only counterweight to British power. In 1807 an event promoting national outrage highlighted this imbalance. The U. S. ship Chesapeake was attacked by the British warship Leopard with loss of American lives. This event heightened U. S.-British tensions and lingered in American politics for years. In 1811 James Madison, a follower of Democratic-Republicanism, became president. As a member of the Continental Congress and a contributor to the Federalist Papers during the Constitutional Convention, Madison had been in the war-as-a-last-resort camp; as president he shared Jefferson's parsimonious instincts but he balked at British behavior. Madison found himself a covert promoter of war with Britain and when that war arrived—without the benefit of a Congressional declaration—the American politics of war shifted. Madison did not seek a declaration of war from Congress, nor did he simply wage war without reference to Congress. Though he had drafted the constitutional limits on the president's war powers, that was an abstract war; Madison wanted this war, and Congress might well have opposed it. So he obfuscated by referring to Congress as "having accepted the continuing state of war between Britain and America." Thus, our first war president lowered the barrier to war decisions by future presidents; America went to war with few arrows in its quiver: one newspaper reported that "The feeble and timid mind of Mr. Madison" has conceived a war "without money, without soldiers, and without generals." The primary point of contention with Britain was the hated Orders In Council, seen as both a slap in the face and as a real economic burden imposed on America. In that world of very slow communication, Madison proceeded toward war unaware that the British had repealed the Orders in Council before he initiated the War of 1812, a war for which he took a great deal of criticism as well as praise. Madison did not seek a declaration of war from Congress, nor did he simply wage war without reference to Congress; he knew better since he had drafted the constitutional limits on the president's war powers. He wanted this war and Congress might well have opposed it, so he obfuscated by referring to Congress as "having accepted the continuing state of war between Britain and America." Thus, our first war president lowered the barrier to war decisions by future presidents. America's military power, such as it was, was on land, so the first action in the War of 1812 was a U. S. invasion of British Canada initiated almost immediately after Madison's 1811 reelection. Canada was thought to be an easy target promising a quick victory, but Madison discovered that it was neither; a discovery made by most nations embarking on war. There was much back and forth, but the British and their Indian allies dominated on the "forth." After securing a number of land victories, they imposed a naval blockade on the U. S. East coast, and—after Napoleon's defeat in 1814 released British forces for use in the American war—the British occupied Washington in August and burned the White House and the Capitol; Madison fled Washington and was depending on the kindness of strangers. It was all over but the fighting even thought there was some subsequent face-saving action, though insignificant in effect. In particular the British fleet was repelled at Baltimore's Fort McHenry; the lasting effect was Francis Scott Key's national anthem; Andrew Jackson defeated of the British at New Orleans and became a national hero and, later, a president. The war ended with the Treaty of Ghent and the warring parties to the status quo ante. Thus, Madison's war began on a false premise—that Orders In Council were still in effect—and ended in a standoff that Madison declared a victory. The Mexican War (1845-1847) By the 1840s party designations had changed: the "Federalists" were now the "Whigs" and the Jeffersonian Republicans (or "Democratic-Republicans") were now the "Democrats." In 1840 the newly-elected General William Henry Harrison, a Democrat from Indiana and a hero of the War of 1812 was elected President. Harrison would die within a month of taking office and John Tyler, his vice president and the hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe, would ascend to the presidency. As we know, Tyler believed in America's Manifest Destiny—to spread from coast to coast. Perhaps the most contentious issue at the time was the status of the independent territory of Texas, formed in 1836 after Sam Houston's defeat of Santa Anna's Mexican army. The Grand Old Man of the Democrats, Andrew Jackson—the hero of New Orleans and now ex-President and de facto head of the Democrat party—had enormous influence in the party and Jackson badly wanted Texas off the fence and into the Union. There were several reasons. First, Texas was a slave state that could be sliced into about five states, each of them slave-owning; this would expand the number of slavery states and increase the power of slave-owning states in Congress. Second, the addition of Texas to the Union could become a casus bellifor war with Mexico and the obvious success of that war would transfer Mexico's western territories (California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah) to the United States. In 1844, near the end of his first and only term, Tyler introduced an annexation proposal that would attach Texas to the Union. This was, of course, an effort to encourage a war declaration by Mexico and make it possible for the president to induce a split Congress to declare war or our southern friend. The annexation proposal was never supported by Congress, but it remained a framework for James Polk, elected President in 1844. Polk was initially indifferent to the Texas issue, but when Andrew Jackson supported him for the presidency Polk became a true believer. His election made a war with Mexico likely, and Polk's redefinition of what was Texas made it a certainty: the traditional Texas-Mexico border was the Neuces River running northwest from Corpus Christ, cutting below San Antonio. Polk unilaterally redefined the border as the Rio Grande River. This was well to the south of the Neuces, and it swept a large portion of the southeastern "horn" of Texas into the potential new state. Polk's military commander was General Zachary Taylor. In August of 1845 Taylor was sent with 2,000 troops into western Texas as an "army of occupation." Polk also ordered Taylor to seize the city of Matamoros if even one Mexican soldier crossed the Rio Grande. He simultaneously sent an envoy to Mexico to test the waters for an outright purchase of the contested areas in the west and the "new" Texas area between the Neuces and Rio Grande Rivers. The envoy was rejected, leaving Taylor's force as the only solution. Polk ordered Taylor to occupy the area south of the Neuces down to the Rio Grande; he did this, blockading the crucial city of Matamoros at the tip of the horn and cutting Mexico's supply lines. In response, Mexico sent 6,000 troops to the Matamoros area. Congress voted to declare war in May of 1846. American victory was swift and complete: at the Battle of Palo Alto, Taylor defeated an army three times his size, losing only five men to Mexico's 500; in the battle of Resaca de la Palma Taylor lost 34 men while Mexico lost almost 500, 300 of them drowning while fleeing back over the Rio Grande. It's often said that No crisis should be wasted and heeding this advice, early victories led Polk to keep going: Taylor went on to take Buena Vista, at which point Polk replaced him with General Winfield Scott, an action induced by Polk's fear that Taylor's popularity would induce him to run for the presidency against Polk. Scott ultimately took Veracruz and Mexico City. The result was the Treaty of Guadaloupe Hidalgo and the transfer of not just Texas but also Mexico's territories as far west as California. These goals went far beyond the Congressional goals described by the war declaration. An American President had gone beyond Madison's initiation of war to a new level: the compromising of the Constitution by exceeding Congressional mandates. The Civil War (1861-1865) Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809 in Kentucky and his family moved to southern Indiana in 1816 when he was age seven; both states were slave-owning states, though Indiana abolished slavery in 1826, when Lincoln was seventeen. His youth was not one of rural poverty; his father had farmed 800 acres in Kentucky but ran into land title problems and farmed 80 acres when they moved to Indiana. Lincoln was not keen on the hard life of farming and spent as much of his time as possible in self-education. By 1827 his mother and two siblings had died and he was left with only a father whom he detested. In 1830, at age 21, Lincoln moved with his father to Illinois. The "War of Rebellion" began immediately following the election of the first president from the Republican (nee Whig) party. The match that lit the war was the the bombardment of Charleston's Fort Sumter, an attack which Abraham Lincoln had hoped would occur: war was virtually inevitable, so it was best that the other side be the initiating aggressor. A model for Lincoln's subsequent actions was the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion, in which largely southern rebels joined in opposition to Alexander Hamilton's attempt to raise federal revenue with a tax on whiskey; without a war declaration General Washington had sent 13,000 troops from state militias to quell that rebellion. Like Washington, Lincoln exceeded the authority granted to the federal government by the Constitution, arguing that an internal rebellion required no declaration of war—to declare war on an internal foe would imply that the rebel South was a foreign country, thereby supporting the south's claim of independence. Among Lincoln's many "unapproved" actions was a call to the states to provide 75,000 troops from their militias, a number that would grow to an additional 400,000 federal troops and, ultimately, require a draft in 1863 draft that provoked riots. He placed a blockade on southern ports, normally an act of war with a foreign power. He suspended the writ of Habeus Corpus] requiring that detained persons be told the nature of their crimes. Ultimately Lincoln's actions received Congressional support, but, of course, there were no southern Congressmen voting. In July of 1861, against General Winfield Scott's objection that the federal troops were not yet ready for battle, Lincoln dispatched 35,000 troops to the First Battle of Manassas (the Battle of Bill Run Creek); Scott was right and the Union was badly mauled. Lincoln replaced the aging 75-year old Scott with the egomaniacal General McClelland as General-in-Chief, and he called for volunteers to be mustered by the states and enlisted in federal service for two-to-three years. By now Lincoln realized that the "War of the Rebellion" would be an extended blood bath, and that maintaining the Union commitment would be challenging. There is a modern view that the Civil War was really about slavery. Lincoln's personal antislavery views are well known, but he chose to promote the moral dimension of the war with his Emancipation Proclamation as much to rally support to the Union cause as to end slavery: he hoped for a slave rebellion and for increased northern support for what was becoming a long conflict. Slavery was certainly an issue both before and during the War, but it was not Lincoln's primary concern: that was reserved for preservation of the Union. McClelland was, we know, a parade-ground general; one wag addressed the General's hesitation to commit by saying, "This is a very civil war." After a year he was demoted to leading the Army of the Potomac then, after losing the Peninsula War in the vicinity of Richmond, Virginia, he was replaced entirely and for a period Lincoln became General-in-Chief; during that period he managed an amphibious invasion that successfully captured Norfolk. General Henry Halleck was then appointed General-in-Chief. McClelland would whine about his mistreatment for the rest of his life. At about the same time the Radical Republicans were pushing Lincoln to become outspoken on slavery. He responded by stating that slavery was not a federal matter and proposing that the federal government compensate any state that committed itself to the gradual elimination of slavery. But in mid-1862 he drafted an "Emancipation Proclamation" and set it aside until a significant Union victory occurred. That would not happen at the Second Battle of Manassas in August, a clear loss, but in September at Antietam with a bloody draw. Lincoln consideredtht a sufficient victory and on New Year's Day, 1863, he released the Proclamation. Lincoln was now an anti-slavery President and slavery was in the forefront of the Union effort. The Spanish-American War (1898) In 1898 tensions between the U. S. and Spain were high. Spain, the master of Cuba, faced a committed Cuban insurgency that had been quashed with brutal methods that repelled many Americans, including President William McKinley. Diplomatic efforts to induce Spain to moderate its methods failed, and McKinley had sent the USS Maine to Havana to express American concern. But the Maine mysteriously exploded and suspicions that the Spanish had attached a bomb to her hull quickly crystallized into "fact." The evidence accumulated over the years indicates that the explosion was an internal problem common to coal-fired warships: the ship's coal bunkers had spontaneously ignited from the coal dust-laden air in the confined space. McKinley faced a barrage of anti-Spanish war chants led by publisher William Randolph Hearst with Secretary of State President Theodore Roosevelt in close support. Congress declared war on Spain to punish it for the suspected atrocity, and the U. S. sent troops to invade and capture Cuba, thereby placing it in the benign hands of America with the intent of ultimate independence. But once begun, there was serious mission creep. McKinley realized that if Spain were defeated its Pacific empire centered in the Philippines was up for grabs, so he sent Commodore Dewey to Manila Harbor to subdue the Spanish there. Once that step was conceived, McKinley realized that it would be difficult to maintain a base in the Philippines because of its vast distance from California and the absence of a canal through Central America; so he added Hawaii—an innocent bystander—to the list of American acquisitions. By the end of the Spanish-American War McKinley had morphed from a protector of human rights to an advocate of Manifest Destiny and, with a minimal expenditure of 266 lives of Maine sailors, 400 combat deaths, and many more deaths from disease, the U. S. had acquired two major Pacific footholds. It all resulted from a mistaken assumption that Spain was the cause of the Maine's sinking, and because of the natural tendency for war aims to expand once the troops are in place. And it took only four months!!! Five Stars! An excellent book--extremely well written, thoroughly researched, packed with new (to me) information, and easy to read.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Bruce Katz

    A well written, thorough, and insightful history. I learned a lot of things I hadn’t known, had several misconceptions rectified, saw evidence that many of the things in politics that infuriate me now have been with us for a long, long time.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Charles

    The Erosion of Constitutional Checks on Commitment to War Much has been written about how America’s wars have been conducted. Michael Beschloss has written a book about how America’s wars have started. When a king was unpopular, the framers of the Constitution observed, he would often contrive a war to gain popular support. Thus, in order to make it difficult for a President to take the nation into conflict unilaterally, Congress was given the power to declare war. Beschloss argues that over time The Erosion of Constitutional Checks on Commitment to War Much has been written about how America’s wars have been conducted. Michael Beschloss has written a book about how America’s wars have started. When a king was unpopular, the framers of the Constitution observed, he would often contrive a war to gain popular support. Thus, in order to make it difficult for a President to take the nation into conflict unilaterally, Congress was given the power to declare war. Beschloss argues that over time there has been a steady erosion of these Constitutional checks on the war powers of a President. (The last formal declaration of war by Congress was in 1942.) In the nuclear missile age, a response to such an attack cannot await Congressional action, but it’s hard to argue that imminent danger to the nation precluded Congressional debate and a war declaration over Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq (or indeed other smaller military interventions such as Granada). As early as the War of 1812, President Madison persuaded Congress to declare war against Britain even in the absence of a large and immediate threat to America’s survival. Madison’s era was one of slow communications, so the vote was taken before it was learned that Britain had agreed to stop harassing American ships and impressing American sailors, a major rationale for the war declaration. Having received Congressional authority, Madison proceeded despite the fact that the nation was militarily unprepared for the conflict. The White House was burned, Madison had to flee for his life, and peace was restored largely because Britain couldn’t be bothered, but in American lore the War of 1812 became a victory rather than a cautionary tale. Beschloss argues that James Polk’s 1846 war against Mexico was a case of manufacturing false pretense for war by fabricating an incident on the border. Polk contrived the war to consolidate the boundary of Texas and annex New Mexico and upper California to the United States. Lincoln challenged Polk to show the spot where America was attacked and in criticizing Polk argued that no one man should take the country to war. Lincoln, by contrast, deserves credit for his conduct of the Civil War, says the author. Lincoln assumed the presidency with a small and divided army and doubts about his leadership. But to save the Union he made himself into by far the most powerful President up to that time. “He took for himself unprecedented authority but he did so within the democratic process, and Congress and the courts, for the most part, affirmed him.” Lincoln expected that his expansion of powers would be temporary and curtailed once the war was over. He also set the standard for his efforts to communicate with Congress and to educate and inform the American people. McKinley became president as mass market newspapers could sway public opinion as never before. At first, McKinley tried to put the brakes on calls by the “Yellow Press” for war with Spain (when the Battleship Maine exploded in Havana Harbor, almost certainly from a boiler failure not hostile action). But McKinley’s reluctance to fight turned from caution to an imperative to ask for a war declaration, without much deliberation in between. Days after the declaration of war, Admiral Dewey destroyed the Spanish fleet in Manila and McKinley got caught up in war fever. Soon, as an extreme example of mission creep, this was an excuse for annexation of the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. (Congress had specified that Cuba was not to be annexed but rather to be governed by its own people.) As war raged in Europe beginning in 1914, Beschloss notes that President Wilson was politically weak and in 1916 was re-elected on the basis of a promise: “He kept us out of war.” Within two weeks of taking office for his second term, Wilson persuaded Congress to grant him a war declaration, even though he later confessed that America was “not directly attacked” or “militarily in danger.” Beschloss notes that Congress engaged in vigorous debate in both houses (some 13 hours in the Senate), before declaring war against Germany. The author criticizes Wilson for his aloofness and arrogance once the US entered the war. Wilson’s failure to communicate led to Congressional rejection of membership in the League of Nations and significant post-war disillusionment about whether America should have entered the war at all. World War II, for America, began unambiguously with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s declaration of war against the United States. Franklin Roosevelt had observed first hand Wilson’s failure to communicate with the American people (and Hoover’s similar failure during the Depression). FDR was a master in preparing the American people for war, communicating with Congress, and guiding a resistant nation toward intervention and victory. “Emulating Lincoln, as the conflict ground on, Roosevelt lifted his war aims to a higher moral plane, eloquently citing his Four Freedoms and postwar ‘economic bill of rights’,” Beschloss observes. Since then, American involvement in war has not been preceded by a formal Declaration as required by the Constitution, nor always even a vaguer Congressional authorization for military action. Truman had a House and Senate Democratic majority but elected not to ask for either of these, establishing a precedent. Truman could never explain to Americans exactly why they were at war in Korea, nor did he try very hard, says the author. This started a tradition, Beschloss argues, in which a small percentage of Americans gave their lives for a purpose never well explained while the nation as a whole carried on as normal. The Vietnam war, of course, was to become even more controversial. Based on a report that American ships had been attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin, Lyndon Johnson got from Congress a vaguely worded resolution to respond. LBJ at the time was looking over his shoulder at a challenge from Barry Goldwater and didn’t want to appear weak. But even as he was defending an ever-increasing commitment of troops and treasure to “win”, LBJ privately had his doubts about the prospects for victory. When he saw no prospect to prevail, Johnson should have ended America’s military intervention in Vietnam. In the end, that only happened when Nixon was ousted over Watergate and as South Vietnam collapsed Congress refused Gerald Ford’s request for additional military aid. Beschloss has chosen not to discuss American involvement in Gulf wars, arguing that access to contemporary documents is not yet available and that time must elapse for considered historical judgements. But clearly Beschloss argues that the intent of the authors of the Constitution to limit the unilateral power of a president to take the country to war has largely been circumvented over the past 75 years if not before. Additionally, as America no longer relies upon conscription, we have a very small percentage of our population directly affected by our military conflicts. This is a danger to our values and strength as a nation. Beschloss has written an important book asking us to consider this risk in light of historical experience and the frailty of judgment or hubris of personal ambition that may characterize an individual who occupies the White House.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Ted Hunt

    This is a very well researched and well written book that examines the conduct of war of most, but not all, of the nations "war presidents." It looks at Madison, Polk, Lincoln, McKinley, Wilson, FDR, and Lyndon Johnson, analyzing how each of these men brought the nation into war and how they interpreted and used their status as "commander in chief" to attempt to bring each conflict to a successful conclusion. As one would imagine, given the length of the book (586 pages) and its relatively narro This is a very well researched and well written book that examines the conduct of war of most, but not all, of the nations "war presidents." It looks at Madison, Polk, Lincoln, McKinley, Wilson, FDR, and Lyndon Johnson, analyzing how each of these men brought the nation into war and how they interpreted and used their status as "commander in chief" to attempt to bring each conflict to a successful conclusion. As one would imagine, given the length of the book (586 pages) and its relatively narrow focus, it brings out a wealth of very interesting, if somewhat obscure, details of these events. We read about Madison's actions as the British attacked Washington, D.C., Lincoln thinking about personally leading the Union army into battle, Lady Bird Johnson buying a dress for what she feared would be her husband's funeral in the middle of the Vietnam War. Bescholoss goes to great lengths to show how each man interpreted the role of the president in leading the nation in wartime, as each referenced the conduct of his predecessors and inevitably added new dimensions to the responsibilities of the role. It is interesting (scary, actually) to note how most of these men "bent" the notions of American rights in order to carry out their duties. I was aware that 1968 Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon had secret communications with the government of South Vietnam so that there would not be a cease fire right before the '68 election, which could have given the election to Humphrey. But I was not fully aware of how much surveillance of Nixon the Johnson Administration had conducted. Donald Trump accused the Democrats of spying on him during the 2016 campaign. But Johnson not only used the F.B.I., but the CIA as well. FDR had his 1940 presidential opponent Wendell Wilkie surveilled and there was never any consideration that Wilkie was in contact with another nation. Indeed, the author makes the excellent point that the nation was fortunate that our first war president- James Madison- was also the author of the Bill of Rights, and thus was very sensitive about the precedent that he would set if the notions of American rights could be easily set aside in a time of national emergency. My one complaint about the book is that, despite its length, it seems somewhat incomplete. There is a brief summary of Nixon's actions during the Vietnam War, but considering that he was a war president for as long as Johnson was, I thought that his actions deserved a more detailed analysis: Vietnamization, the "excursion" into Cambodia, the Christmas bombing are just a few of the important decisions that he made. One could argue that the genesis of the entire Watergate scandal was Nixon's reaction to domestic criticism of the war. More importantly, what I consider to be the most significant wartime decision ever made by a president- Truman's decision to drop two atomic bombs- was not touched upon at all. But despite these oversights, this is definitely a book worth reading.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Roger DeBlanck

    Starting with Madison’s decisions to pursue war with the British after their attack on the Chesapeake in 1807, Beschloss offers a sweeping, yet intimate, study of how the presidents handled taking America into war. He investigates the politics and powers that they utilized and manipulated and the pressures they endured while they managed conflicts against foreign and enemy states. He employs rich details, overlooked sources, and the remarkable written and spoken words of the presidents themselve Starting with Madison’s decisions to pursue war with the British after their attack on the Chesapeake in 1807, Beschloss offers a sweeping, yet intimate, study of how the presidents handled taking America into war. He investigates the politics and powers that they utilized and manipulated and the pressures they endured while they managed conflicts against foreign and enemy states. He employs rich details, overlooked sources, and the remarkable written and spoken words of the presidents themselves and those closest around them to offer a spellbinding narrative into the psychology of each Commander in Chief. He gives us a vivid glimpse into their thoughts and feelings as each president either led, deceived, overplayed, or saved the nation during conflicts and how each dealt with the reality of subjecting soldiers to danger and the ultimate sacrifice. From the War of 1812 under Madison, to the seizure of land during the Mexican-American War under Polk, to the imperialism sought during the Spanish-American War under McKinley, to the handling of the World Wars respectively by Wilson and Roosevelt, to the entanglement in Korea under Truman, and finally to the disastrous entrenchment of forces in Vietnam under Johnson, what I found fascinating is the provocation the presidents sought from the “enemy” in order to initiate war so that they could then justify the escalation of conflicts and pursue declarations and support from Congress, which many did not bother to ask for. With each president’s challenges, Beschloss assembles anecdotes and vignettes that offer up intense and intimate scenes of history that read with the suspense and emotion of fiction and provide windows into the decision-making circumstances of how wars started, escalated, and concluded. Beschloss also makes evident how the distress of handling war led to both the mental and physical deterioration of each of the presidents.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Anna Hanson

    With carefully accurate, clear-eyed attention to detail, Mr. Beschloss leads the reader in a journey through time, recounting the wars, declared or not, in which the United States has engaged. No simple listing of dates and decisions, each president’s thought process is examined and explained, giving the reader a glimpse into the human behind the office of President. Excellent for serious history scholars or casual readers who simply want a better handle on the path the U.S. has taken.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Donald Owens II

    A thoughtful and sobering chronicle of the gradual increase of presidential power to unilaterally wage war and ignore the constitutional limits on authority.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Dave Schoettinger

    The author considers this book as being the history of American presidents using war to secure more power and independence of action at the expense of Congressional oversight; and it is that. However, as something of a history geek, I thought the best part of the book was the inclusion of some of the obscure details of the periods covered, such as the route James K. Polk took from Nashville to Washington for his inauguration, or the surprise connection between the Gulf of Tonkin attack and rock The author considers this book as being the history of American presidents using war to secure more power and independence of action at the expense of Congressional oversight; and it is that. However, as something of a history geek, I thought the best part of the book was the inclusion of some of the obscure details of the periods covered, such as the route James K. Polk took from Nashville to Washington for his inauguration, or the surprise connection between the Gulf of Tonkin attack and rock icon Jim Morrison. I also liked the quotes of various observers of history which show, among other things, that vile and tasteless attacks on the sitting president were not invented by Kathy Griffin, but have been, more or less, a staple part of the American saga. More seriously, the book delves into the hidden information, misleading statements, and outright fabrications used by presidents to lead the country into war and conduct the war. This goes hand-in-hand with the political determinations that were instrumental in the conduct of the war. A common thread is that no matter how much the citizenry clamors for war, they will soon tire of it and there will be a price to pay by the president who does not conclude the war quickly and his party. The narrative suggests that a couple of wars did not need to be fought and that almost all of them could have been conducted better and/or more honestly. It appears that the fog of war mentioned by Clausewitz extends not only to the White House, but also to the voters. I was a little disappointed that the author mentioned the First Gulf War only in passing as this was the best example provided by history of a limited war conducted effectively. I think that George HW Bush has never gotten the credit he deserves for pulling this off. After conducting the most efficient war in history, Bush was rejected by the voters because he raised taxes. It shows you where our priorities are.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Stan Prager

    Review of: Presidents of War, by Michael Beschloss by Stan Prager (1-30-19) The Founders sought a separation of powers in war-making, as in so much else of consequence to the new Republic, so the Constitution mandated that only Congress may declare war, while assigning to the President of the United States authority as commander in chief of the armed forces. A history of European monarchs engaging in war by fiat informed this caution in limiting the ability of the executive branch to act without Review of: Presidents of War, by Michael Beschloss by Stan Prager (1-30-19) The Founders sought a separation of powers in war-making, as in so much else of consequence to the new Republic, so the Constitution mandated that only Congress may declare war, while assigning to the President of the United States authority as commander in chief of the armed forces. A history of European monarchs engaging in war by fiat informed this caution in limiting the ability of the executive branch to act without the consent of the legislative. Yet, although the last time Congress issued a formal declaration of war was in 1942 (against Axis-allied Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria), the United States has waged a number of significant wars—in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan—as well as dozens of other military interventions—like those in the Dominican Republic, Granada and Panama—with little more than vague and somewhat flimsy congressional authorizations, or no authorization at all. By October 2018, the War in Afghanistan had gone on for seventeen years, more than four times the length of the Civil War or U.S. involvement in World War II, making it not only our longest war, but—as characterized by historian and retired-colonel Andrew Bacevich—a kind of “endless war.” In Afghanistan, as in every other instance of the use of military force since World War II, war has had its origin in the White House, and a succession of presidents has conducted it with Congress as bystander. How we ended up here, clearly at wide variance from the intentions of the Framers, is the subject of Presidents of War, an ambitious, uneven, and deeply flawed recent book by Michael Beschloss. The premise is simple. Starting with the War of 1812 and James Madison, a couple of chapters are devoted to each major conflict and the POTUS most closely associated with it, with an eye on precedents set as well as the unintended consequences that seem to have bolstered the confidence of successive chief executives to make war by misleading, bypassing or simply ignoring Congress. I have read Beschloss before. He is a leading historian of the modern American presidency, a gifted writer who has authored or edited a number of books in this milieu, and he often appears as media commentator. So, it is surprising that someone with his resume and talents would turn out a thick volume like this beset with a wordy and meandering narrative that falls so far short of its potential. For one thing, there is a jarring lack of uniformity in the seventeen chapters in Presidents of War. Indeed, this is so striking that some of these chapters almost appear to have been penned by different authors. This may be because, as revealed in the “Acknowledgements,” the book was written over a ten-year span, begetting a distinct style and focus shift. The inconsistency might be less glaring if read as separate essays rather than assembled into a single work that purports to tell a cohesive story. It is also plagued by far-too-frequent asterisked footnotes populated with further clarification or “fun facts,” in the maddening tradition of a David Foster Wallace. The saving grace, if there is one, is that Beschloss has an engaging writing style that is appealing to a popular audience, and the narrative is heavy on anecdote, which frequently carries the reader along. The first three chapters—centered around the War of 1812—are styled completely differently than the ones that follow. (We can only imagine that these were the first ones written, a decade prior.) More academic in orientation than the rest of the book and sometimes marred by dull passages that too often fall to quotation in the florid prose of the era—which unnecessarily interrupts the flow—this portion of the book is yet far more focused and coherent, as well as loyal to thesis and theme. The otherwise brilliant James Madison—who like his predecessor and frequent partner Thomas Jefferson proved a far more able Founder than president—along with a complicit Congress stumbled into a war against a much more powerful adversary, then bumbled its prosecution. Elected in 1800 as a Democratic-Republican, Jefferson—with Madison’s assistance—had vastly reduced the armed forces and begun dismantling the fiscal policies that were the legacy of Hamilton and the Federalists, so that by 1812 the United States was woefully unprepared both militarily and financially to take on the United Kingdom, itself engaged in an existential struggle against Napoleonic France. Grandiose plans to annex Canada ended with Washington D.C. in flames and Madison fleeing for his life. The nation survived largely because once Napoleon was vanquished, the Brits were weary of combat and eager to resume trade. Beschloss covers the war competently, then—in a pattern repeated with subsequent conflicts—dedicates a few concluding pages to analysis that seeks to pass judgment on the achievements and shortcomings of the president who conducted it. This framework reveals the challenge of abridging the story of a consequential war to a couple of chapters, as the author is forced to be highly selective with what to include and what to omit. For instance, Beschloss devotes a number of pages to the Chesapeake–Leopard affair of 1807, which saw the humiliating capture of the American frigate Chesapeake by a British warship searching for deserters from the Royal Navy, spawning a lasting bitterness that poisoned Anglo-American relations and echoed down to the run-up of the War of 1812. Much color is added to the narrative with the backstory of the hapless captain of the Chesapeake, James Barron, who is unfairly held to account for the disaster. The multi-page tale of Barron’s disgrace adds flair, but nevertheless begs the question: how essential is it to the larger story? And what has been excised to make room for it? Unimportant to the casual reader, these questions will repeatedly nag those more widely read in the historiography in the chapters ahead. Perhaps the best of these chapters is given to the Mexican War, launched and prosecuted by President James K. Polk on a deliberately manufactured pretext with a secret, nefarious scheme to annex a third of the territory of our southern neighbor, which succeeds all too well. The morally bankrupt Polk was nevertheless the most consequential one term president in American history. The aftermath of the Mexican War and the question of whether the newly acquired territories should be slave or free was the match that lit the secession crisis, although little is made of that in the narrative. The Civil War chapters that follow neatly summarize the latest scholarship, but there is nothing new here. More entertaining for the general reader is coverage of the Spanish-American War of 1898, sustained by much anecdote, especially with regard to another unlucky ship’s captain, this time in Havana harbor. While Beschloss faithfully underscores how presidents looked to the wartime experiences of their predecessors in the Oval Office for both caution and guidance, what is most conspicuous in its absence is the connective tissue that binds one era to the next. The best example of this is his treatment of Wilson and World War I. The nation’s isolationism and Wilson’s reluctance to enter the war against Germany, even after the many American lives lost to the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, did not occur in a vacuum, but was informed by relatively recent history. The Spanish-American War had achieved great territorial gains for a budding American imperialism in a very popular short war with limited loss of life, but sparked a long, bloody rebellion in the Philippines that by the time it was brutally suppressed had largely turned the nation against foreign adventures. And—almost exactly a year before the Lusitania went down—Wilson had blundered into military intervention in Mexico that went sideways, forcing him to pull back and reassess. These events are mentioned in passing, but Beschloss fails to emphasize the critical impact both the Philippine Insurrection and the incursion into Mexico had upon the nation and upon Wilson in contemplation of American involvement in an increasingly catastrophic European war. The book’s approach to Franklin Roosevelt and World War II is quite curious. FDR is generally ranked as America’s third greatest president—after Lincoln and Washington—but that heroic figure is largely absent from the text of Presidents of War. Beschloss glosses over much of Roosevelt’s achievements in shepherding the nation through economic depression and world war, but instead devotes most of his ink to the president’s faults: his failure to anticipate Pearl Harbor, the internment of Japanese-Americans, the less-than-robust efforts to rescue European Jewry from Hitler’s executioners. While there is indeed some merit to the reproach, for this to dominate the emphasis is a distortion of the outsize role FDR played in American life. And, given that emphasis, it was no less than stunning to confront the stark incongruity of the author’s final analysis, that the “President deserves the verdict of the New York Times … that ‘men will thank God on their knees a hundred years from now that Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House,’” adding that: “It is difficult to imagine any other American leader of that generation guiding, with such success, a resistant nation toward intervention and ultimate victory in this most momentous of history’s wars, as well as taking Americans into a postwar assembly that would strive to enforce the peace.” [p432] Beschloss wraps up WWII in just a few pages following FDR’s death, although the defeat of Japan remained uncertain and it was for the new president—Harry Truman—to face the critical atomic option that brought hostilities to the end, something only treated peripherally in the narrative. The next chapters concern Korea, but remarkably there is a complete lack of analysis of how Truman’s role as commander in chief in the final months of WWII and his decision to use the bomb may have informed his leadership in the Korean War. Then it is on to Vietnam and Lyndon Johnson. Beschloss has studied LBJ closely, serving as editor to two volumes of Johnson’s White House Tapes (Taking Charge and Reaching for Glory, both of which I have read). And although he cites LBJ biographer Robert Caro (who has written four volumes on Johnson’s life to date, which I have also read), he ignores Caro’s thesis that the vast portion of Lyndon Johnson was given to political opportunism. Instead, the author seems to take every sentence privately uttered by LBJ about Vietnam at face value, even though these often smack of the height of calculation clearly designed to cultivate a specific audience. Eventually, Beschloss even goes so far as to conclude that: “To this day it is difficult to understand how this bighearted man could have brought himself to send young Americans to risk their lives in a conflict … he … seemed to have so little hope.” [p528] This analysis strikes the reader as the height of political naiveté. Strangely, although the war long outlasts Johnson, the next commander in chief—Richard Nixon—only gets a bit part in the narrative. Then, except for a brief (six pages!) “Epilogue,” Presidents of War ends abruptly. Without explanation, there is no study of Bush, father or son, nor the Gulf War, Afghanistan, or Iraq. Maybe Beschloss was simply tired and ran out of steam. Perhaps his editor told him that at nearly six hundred pages enough was enough. Again, the informed reader cannot help but question the author’s decisions on what to include and what to discard. Can anyone really competently cover the Civil War in eighty-four pages, or World War II in seventy-five pages? In the end, there were many pages that seemed unnecessary, and yet so much that begged for further study. In addition to the absence of a strong concluding chapter, it might have been a welcome juxtaposition to have included a section on presidents who achieved foreign policy objectives without resorting to full-scale war, such as Eisenhower, and especially JFK—who during his crisis-driven tenure managed to circumvent pressures upon him to go to war over Laos, Berlin and the missiles in Cuba. Perhaps it was simply a mistake to imagine such a grand overview confined to a single book: adding a second volume may have resulted in a work more thorough and less unwieldy. Michael Beschloss is an outstanding historian with credentials that far exceed my own, so I must admit discomfort in judging his book so harshly. Still, I have a master’s degree in history, and I have spent a lifetime studying American history and American presidents, so this is hardly unfamiliar territory for me. In the final analysis, Presidents of War may be an entertaining read for a popular audience, but as solid history it largely misses the mark. Review of: Presidents of War, by Michael Beschloss https://regarp.com/2019/01/30/review-...

  24. 5 out of 5

    Porter Broyles

    I listened to about 25% of this book before I quit. It's not necessarily a bad book, but: 1. The coverage of the events is a little light, I'm familiar with many of the stories told. 2. The book felt like it was a subtle advocacy piece. The bias in the book made it hard for me to accept.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Tim

    This was an insightful and engaging history of the the men who have led the US into and through the major wars of our country. For each of the major wars (1812, Mexican-American, American Civil, Spanish-American, WW1, WW2, Korea, and Vietnam), Beschloss begins with an anecdote about the opening events of the conflict and then focuses of the character and decisions of the president at the time. Finally, for each conflict and president, he offers a succinct summary of the decisions and an assessme This was an insightful and engaging history of the the men who have led the US into and through the major wars of our country. For each of the major wars (1812, Mexican-American, American Civil, Spanish-American, WW1, WW2, Korea, and Vietnam), Beschloss begins with an anecdote about the opening events of the conflict and then focuses of the character and decisions of the president at the time. Finally, for each conflict and president, he offers a succinct summary of the decisions and an assessment of how the president fared from the perspective of hindsight. One theme he develops is the idea of a “presidential war”. The US constitution describes war-making as a responsibility of the Congress, yet today, troops are sent abroad more or less at the whim of the president. Beschloss traces the evolution without too much editorializing. All in all I was pleased with this book, but I found the author’s injection of himself into the narrative jarring. Beginning in chapter 12 on the Spanish-American War, Beschloss uses the first person at random in a way I found to be distracting and inappropriate. Referring to Teddy Roosevelt, he says “His son Franklin told me in 1978 ...”. In my opinion, the author should keep himself out of the narrative, or at least consign himself to footnotes, or better yet, refer to himself in third person. This kind of self-injection increases dramatically in the chapter on LBJ and the Vietnam War.

  26. 4 out of 5

    G33z3r

    An interesting outline of how American Presidents got into wars (1812-Vietnam) and waged them, well written with lots of interesting anecdotes. Reads well. Lots of footnotes, most well worth reading. Truman gets a lot of coverage for the Korean War, but his role at the end of WW2 gets summarized in one paragraph at the end of Roosevelt's tenure, and Ike's role in Korea is likewise wrapped up in a few paragraphs. Whis is to say this is more about Presidents getting US into wars. (President Jeffers An interesting outline of how American Presidents got into wars (1812-Vietnam) and waged them, well written with lots of interesting anecdotes. Reads well. Lots of footnotes, most well worth reading. Truman gets a lot of coverage for the Korean War, but his role at the end of WW2 gets summarized in one paragraph at the end of Roosevelt's tenure, and Ike's role in Korea is likewise wrapped up in a few paragraphs. Whis is to say this is more about Presidents getting US into wars. (President Jefferson gets a chapter for not getting into a war with Britain over impressing seamen, i.e. he left it to Madison. Stops short of the Kuwait war ("Desert Storm") and subsequent Afghanistan & Iraq wars; those those are mentioned in a few paragraphs of Epilogue. (Note: I read most of this as eBook, but listened to some as audiobook. Good narration, inserting footnote material when the note is marked in the main text, which can result in some length digressions.)

  27. 4 out of 5

    Joshua

    Ranging from the days of Thomas Jefferson to the modern era, this piece of presidential history explores the evolution of the chief executive's role in wartime. There are lessons to be learned from this book about Congress' failure to hold on to its war declaration powers, the difficulty in restraining presidential power in the modern era, and varying approaches to wartime control from the executive branch. Overall, this is an excellent book and a must-read for American and presidential history Ranging from the days of Thomas Jefferson to the modern era, this piece of presidential history explores the evolution of the chief executive's role in wartime. There are lessons to be learned from this book about Congress' failure to hold on to its war declaration powers, the difficulty in restraining presidential power in the modern era, and varying approaches to wartime control from the executive branch. Overall, this is an excellent book and a must-read for American and presidential history buffs.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Lynn

    This is a long book covering important times in American history. It contained some very small but important information that I never learned before when taking history survey classes but it too was very sweeping in the content. I found myself thinking some small stuff was interesting but the book too sweeping to do its wider topic justice. T wasn’t a fun read but a bit laborious. I read a lot of nonfiction history books so that wasn’t necessarily the issue.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Saab

    I think this is an important read for anyone looking for an anchored perspective on our history with war and insight on the decisions made (in both good and bad faith). It's fascinating to put all the pieces together; I feel like a got a focused realignment of information I learned and probably let get muddy throughout my life.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Jarred Goodall

    This book represents one of the best history/presidential political science books I have read. The research, along with the storytelling and footnotes in history (see Jim Morrison of the Doors, and his ties to Pearl Harbor and Gulf of Tonkin) stood out to me the most, along with his transitions tying each president and his conflicts together as one. I recommend this book without reservation.

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