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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 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 sendi. 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 uestion If I had fought in the war would I have showed courage under fire Like many people who have not served I have my doubtsIn 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 uite a few things about the complex calculations that led the US into and out of Vietnam I also learned a surprising piece of trivia the commander of the US 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 US ground troops to Vietnam was the father of Jim Morrison of the DoorsBut 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 US 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 NixonBeschloss 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 worldThe 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 warThe second cross cutting theme is how often our country goes to war based on wounded pride rather than on 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 uickly 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 US 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 US presidents have assumed ever greater authority to march our troops into battle and Congress has largely acuiesced Congress has issued a formal declaration of war in only five conflicts and the last time it did so was in 1942The 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 US might not have launched war against Spain Without the Spanish American War the US 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 HarborIt 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

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Presidents of War

Ng 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 hi. 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 940 just as he slipped his completed letter Lovingly CDS into an envelope he heard the horrific boomSigsbee found it a bursting rending and crashing sound or roar of tremendous volumefollowed 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 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 1898For 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 critiued 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 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 US 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 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 uite 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 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 uite a bit and dovetailing with what I mentioned directly above wish he had done it in a 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 of a passing interest This is what I call a Dad Book Don t know what to get your dad for Christmashis birthdayFather 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 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 politicalmilitarylegalethical 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 reuired 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 Ira 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 uagmire 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

Michael R. Beschloss · 4 Read & Download

S 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. Michael Beschloss Presidents of War is an extraordinary work so extraordinary that it should be reuired 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 amazingThe only wartime President who truly shines in this book is President Lincoln what a surprise and to a much lesser extent President Franklin Roosevelt because of the way he handled the war than how he got us into the warPresident 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 woundedPresident 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 StatesThe 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 worldAn amazing book


10 thoughts on “Presidents of War

  1. says:

    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 uestion If I ha

  2. says:

    ”At about 430 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 6

  3. says:

    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 uality This is a very good book and as usual with Beschloss combines popular readability with vigorous research and exten

  4. says:

    “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

  5. says:

    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 documen

  6. says:

    Excellent and especially relevant as it pertains to current international affairs Not surprised to learn that most of the presidents

  7. says:

    Michael Beschloss' Presidents of War is an extraordinary work so extraordinary that it should be reuired reading for anyone seeking th

  8. says:

    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 timesAt the dawn of the American r

  9. says:

    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 Beschlos

  10. says:

    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 broadly It is interesting how one bleeds into the next via the advisers or the young Congressman of one be