For a pacific, commercial republic protected by two giant oceans and two peaceful neighbors with small militaries, America sure has fought a lot of wars. 

Michael Beschloss’s Presidents of War details eight American leaders beginning in 1807 who took us to war and just one, Jefferson, who didn’t. The text wraps up after the Vietnam War, and represents a synthesis of Beschloss’s nine books on the presidency, along with his editing and publishing of Lyndon Johnson’s White House tapes—much of which deal with that catastrophic conflict in southeast Asia.

Although a liberal, Beschloss’s history provides fodder for conservatives. He details a litany of presidential power accumulation that enabled presidents to disregard congressional approval for war declarations, the last of which was passed in 1942. 

Things started out well for the republic, as Jefferson cut the $5 million military budget in half upon assuming office in 1801. He cited the peace his predecessor, John Adams, had recently concluded to end the Quasi-War with France. In those days, instead of the Defense Department, the country was served by the Department of the Navy and the Department of War, which represented the Army. Jefferson feared a larger, more complex military organization might pull the country into an unwise war. “Jefferson hated war,” Beschloss writes, “which, to him, would introduce more federal spending, centralize political power and strengthen the ‘monied classes,’ all prospects that he abhorred.” As history now shows, Jefferson was right to fear what Eisenhower would later call the military-industrial complex.

During his first term, Jefferson did pursue the First Barbary Coast War to protect merchant ships “to the shores of Tripoli,” mentioned in “The Marines’ Hymn.” Congress did not declare war, but authorized the president, in vigorous language unimaginable today, to “protect our commerce and chastise their insolence—by sinking, burning or destroying their ships and vessels wherever you shall find them.”

Crisis struck in 1807 at the beginning of Jefferson’s second term with the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair. On June 22, the HMS Leopard defeated and captured the USS Chesapeake in an encounter off the coast of Norfolk. The British imprisoned four American sailors who had deserted after being impressed into the Royal Navy, and later hanged one. Demands for war arose in America. At that point Jefferson could have easily gotten a declaration of war from Congress. “Never since the Battle of Lexington have I seen this country in such a state of exasperation as at present, and even that did not produce such unanimity,” Jefferson said. He settled instead for the Embargo Act, which kept British ships out of American waters, while the American economy suffered under restricted trade. But at least he avoided war. Beschloss argues Jefferson should get more credit for his skillful management of the crisis.

President Madison, whose dramatic flight across the Potomac actually starts the book, was not so prudent in the management of his crisis with the British during the War of 1812. After midnight on Aug. 24, 1814, “the fourth President of the United States—and now, some wondered, the last?—watched his beloved Washington City as it seemed to vanish into a crimson-orange swirl of fire,” Beschloss writes. Madison’s generals advised him to get out before he could be captured by the Redcoats and taken back to London for execution. Madison feared he would never again see his beloved Dolley, who had also fled but to a different part of Virginia. Beschloss recounts the local population’s lack of enthusiasm in harboring the wartime First Lady. “One would-be hostess raged at her, ‘If that’s you, come down and go out!,’” Beschloss writes. “‘Your husband has got mine out fighting and, damn you, you shan’t stay in my house!’”

The causes of the War of 1812 were varied. But they included British limits on American shipping to France during the Napoleonic wars, continued impressment of American sailors into service on British ships, and American designs on Canadian territory. Beschloss deems the war the most unpopular one in American history, and Madison a great Founding Father, but terrible president. Ironically it was Madison who, when helping craft the Constitution, insisted on restricting presidential war powers because the European kings often started wars to “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels,” as Shakespeare’s Henry IV put it. About the only good thing to come from the War of 1812 was the rise of Andrew Jackson as a great leader in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815—after the Treaty of Ghent had ended the war. Its worst effect was to inspire other presidents, namely James K. Polk, to gin up their own glorious conflicts.

President Polk drew inspiration from the heroics of the War of 1812, even carrying a cane carved with scenes from its memorable battles. One carving depicted the Battle of Fort McHenry, when on Sept. 13 and 14, 1814, Americans bravely repulsed the British attack. The event had inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the lyrics to what later became “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In Beschloss’s estimation, Polk, eager for his own martial glory, tricked the U.S. into war with Mexico in 1845, grabbing a million square miles of territory and thereby making the U.S. a continental nation.

The Mexican-American War was not a fair fight. In the three decades since the War of 1812, America had become a mighty nation with a highly trained military that easily routed their amateurish Mexican opponents. The war drew criticism from many rising American leaders, including Abraham Lincoln, then a young congressman, and Ulysses S. Grant, a young wartime officer. Grant wrote in his 1879 memoirs that the Mexican-American war was “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” Grant also judged that it had set the stage for the more brutal intranational carnage to come. “The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war,” he wrote. Its battle-experienced veterans would soon butcher one another.

Beschloss looks favorably on Lincoln as a politician, especially his rhetorical ability to sell the Civil War to the people of the Union. In one example, Lincoln considered Maj. Robert Anderson a loser for surrendering Fort Sumter to the Confederates and avoided him. But Anderson took the fort’s battered flag to a cheering crowd of 100,000 in New York City for a rally. Abe quickly realized Anderson’s public-relations value and exploited it with a public invitation to the White House. Beschloss sharply criticizes later presidents Wilson and Johnson for lacking the same ability to gain public support for military campaigns.

President McKinley’s Spanish-American War in 1898 was launched after a boiler accident sunk the USS Maine. The U.S. exploited the unfortunate mishap to justify an attack on the tottering Spanish Empire. McKinley directed the effort to convince Congress to declare war. The president’s actions led to what later became known as “mission creep.” Beschloss writes that for McKinley “a war that was accelerated by the desire to punish the Spanish for the Maine disaster, drive them out of Cuba, and grant the Cubans their independence became—without his consulting the Congress or the American people—a struggle for an American empire, including new aims such as Christianizing the Filipinos.”

But Beschloss reserves most of his ire for the twice narrowly elected Woodrow Wilson. He notes an interesting fact: Wilson was elected by women voters. The 19th Amendment giving women a constitutional right to vote had not yet been passed and ratified. But in 27 states, women could already vote. Women voters in those states provided Wilson’s margin of victory in 1916. They believed he would protect their sons, husbands, and brothers under his campaign slogan, “He kept us out of war.” Instead, Wilson led the U.S. into World War I, in which 116,516 Americans eventually died and an estimated 320,000 returned home sick or wounded.

“The Archangel Woodrow,” as H. L. Mencken mockingly called him due to his aloofness, spent most of the war sequestered in the White House. Wilson did almost nothing to explain the necessity of U.S. participation in the war. After the war, he arrogantly insisted on going to the Paris Peace Conference to negotiate in person, making him the first president to leave the Americas while in office. Before he left, Illinois Republican Sen. Lawrence Yates Sherman “threatened to push a Senate resolution saying that if Wilson dared to leave the country, his job would be pronounced vacant and Vice President Thomas Marshall sworn in as the new President,” Beschloss writes. Alas.

Beschloss speculates that if Wilson had sent diplomats to negotiate, while remaining home to sell his Fourteen Points vision, one of which was the creation of the League of Nations, the Senate might have ratified the Versailles Treaty. Instead, in 1919 the newly elected Republican Majority Leader Henry Cabot Lodge objected that the League was a usurpation of American sovereignty. In any case, the result of Wilson’s war was neither a “war to end war,” nor a “just peace,” nor keeping the world “safe for democracy,” but rather the rise of Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler, followed by an even worse global war.

Franklin Roosevelt, as undersecretary of the Navy in the First World War, saw Wilson’s mistakes firsthand and avoided most of them while prosecuting World War II. Although loyal to his predecessor in public during the first war, he criticized Wilson in private with his cousin, former President Teddy Roosevelt.

Beschloss reckons FDR made relatively few mistakes in the course of the war. But two linger in our historical memory: the internment of Japanese Americans and the failture to bomb the rail lines to the Nazi extermination camps. Beschloss writes little of how Stalin was able to secure an upper hand in his dealings with FDR. The closest we get is his description of Stalin’s hardnosed negotiating at the Yalta Conference in 1945, also attended by Churchill: 

When the Big Three met, Stalin tried to maximize Soviet influence in the new United Nations by demanding seats for all sixteen Soviet republics…. Roosevelt countered by requesting similar treatment for all forty-eight American states. Stalin finally settled for three delegates, including the Ukraine and Byelorussia.

Overall, Roosevelt’s war leadership led to a “quantum increase in presidential power,” capped off by the development of the atomic bomb, which gave future presidents the power to incinerate large swaths of the planet. Beschloss believes Truman was justified in bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the war, even though he does not believe Truman did so to scare Stalin, the contentious position of Gar Alperovitz and other critics.

But Beschloss criticizes Truman’s actions during the Korean War, beginning with his refusal to secure a congression al declaration of war, or even just a serious war resolution. The president cited his police authority under the new United Nations. In truth, Truman didn’t want a debate in Congress just before the 1950 midterm election. That set a precedent for the even worse disaster to come under Lyndon Johnson.

As the publisher of LBJ’s chilling White House tapes, Beschloss here summarizes their content: 

When Johnson told [Secretary of Defense] McNamara in February 1965 that he saw no way to win the conflict, he should have listened to his own excellent political instincts—and to Senator Russell, who uncannily warned him that a Vietnam war would consume ten years and 50 thousand American lives, provoke mass protest, and end in defeat.

LBJ’s wife, Lady Bird, kept an audio diary. On July 8, 1965, as he was escalating the war by raising troop levels to 189,000, she recorded her husband thus: 

[H]e said . . . ‘Vietnam is getting worse every day. I have the choice to go in with great casualty lists or to get out with disgrace. It’s like being in an airplane and I have to choose between crashing the plane or jumping out. I do not have a parachute.’

What kind of monster continues a major war he believes he can’t win? Lyndon Baines Johnson, with the help of Robert McNamara and all the other “Best and Brightest.”

Despite the author’s liberal bias and his gratuitous public criticisms of our current president, I would recommend President Trump to read this book before any others. Although I remain a big supporter of the president, I share Pat Buchanan’s criticism of his continuation of wars he promised he would end. Presidents of War provides the necessary examples of how past wars have damaged the country. There is a time for war and a time for peace, Ecclesiastes tells us. This is a time for peace.


[Presidents of War, by Michael Beschloss (New York: Crown) 752 pp., $35.00]