in Book Review

Presidents of War

The Epic Story, from 1807 to Modern Times

The United States has a long history of waging wars for various reasons and purposes. Presidents of War: The Epic Story, from 1807 to Modern Times, by Michael Beschloss, examines eight US presidents and the wars they presided – focusing almost solely on the chief executives, and the decisions they and their allies (and opponents) made. The more specific details of the wars are not discussed as the book.

The book goes through eight leaders – Madison, Polk, Lincoln, T. Roosevelt, Wilson, FDR, Truman, and Johnson – and how each president formed (unintentionally or otherwise) precedents for the future leaders who will also wage their own wars. More than this, the book also places judgment on each leader’s methods: how they convinced Congress to declare wars (note that Truman and Johnson did not have war declarations from Congress), how they publicly defended their wars, and how much they sought to bend the laws to achieve their goals.

The way modern presidents justified their wars derived from their predecessors. For one thing the book highlights is the relations between the executive and the legislative branches, of how each president was beset with troubles on convincing their Congresses to back their wars – by hook or by crook. Lies and deception were employed to convince the legislators of the “need” to declare a state of war, and mobilize the people to fight for America.

The resulting verdict for each chief executive may or may not be agreeable to readers. And, at least for me, it was not very straightforward in all cases – the author’s judgments are presented at the end of each president’s two-chapter narratives, yet when going back to the narratives themselves it’s not clear how the author arrived at his conclusions.

Nonetheless, Presidents of War succeeds in illuminating the decisions each president had to make, before, during, and after the conflicts they fought. It’s almost never dignified and just – sending people to their deaths, in order to kill other people, hardly qualifies as such – but the wars discussed here are integral to understanding America and its inner workings. To dismiss such wars simply on the basis of them being on the “wrong” side of the good-and-evil duality risks viewing US history and foreign policy in an overly simplistic manner. And the best way to address the dilemmas of waging wars is to understand how and why the presidents of the past fought theirs.

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