“Presidents of War” By Michael Beschloss

“Presidents of War”
By Michael Beschloss
739 pp., Crown Publishing Group
$35 (Hardcover)

Reviewed by Quentin Levin

Michael Beschloss’s intricate history of presidential leadership during wars from 1812 to Vietnam provides a potent antidote to simple conclusions of hindsight, and an uncritical view of presidential war power. Front-line news coverage brought the horrors of battle to the fore, but Beschloss’s narrative throws open the curtains that obscure the politics, leadership, and emotion which fuel the Commander-in-Chief during war. These factors, and the evolving nature of modern threats, Beschloss contends, invite presidents to expand their war powers beyond the limits envisioned by the Founding Fathers. Many of America’s most crucial conflicts—as they are now viewed–were neither inevitable, nor certain victories. Instead, they were shaped by the chief executives flexing their presidential war powers.

Beschloss measures the merit of the historical cases he presents against the standard he believes was set by “the framers of that document [the Constitution]” (Beschloss, p. vii). James Madison and the others feared presidents, like Kings, would curtail civil liberties and launch wars for personal aggrandizement. They granted Congress the power to declare war, believing a collective body would be less likely to initiate it for personal gain. War was to be saved for extraordinary circumstances with the “overwhelming support of the American people” (Beschloss, p. 60). This standard is rapidly established in the preface, largely without quoting primary evidence. Are there sufficient primary sources to prove whether a politically diverse group like the Framers had a single vision for the presidency?

His first historical case, the War of 1812, foreshadows the dangers of a partisan rush to war the underestimates the enemy’s power. Beschloss rejects the common notion that the War of 1812 was simply another revolutionary struggle against an aggressive British Empire. He argues it should have been a “cautionary tale” to avert future executive-led wars (Beschloss, p. 95). Madison miscalculated the intentions of the British and the military power of his fledgling republic. Unbeknownst to Madison, the very day the U.S. declared war, Britain ended “the central reason for that conflict”: its policy of inspecting U.S. ships (Beschloss, p. 62). Madison’s decision to invade Canada left Washington undefended and the Capitol and the Executive Mansion in flames. Sickened by anxiety and lacking battlefield experience, Beschloss argues a better leader would have built up the military before lurching “toward a war for which his country was ill prepared” (Beschloss, p. 60).

Although Congress did declare war, Beschloss argues the War of 1812 set a doubly dangerous precedent for future presidents. First, “every Federalist” (the other major party) opposed the war, which was not “an absolute last resort” (Beschloss, pp. 59-60). Second, Madison—not Congress—led the charge to war. Beschloss should have spelled out the significance of this dynamic. The checks and balances that the Framers hoped would keep powers separated between the various branches of government failed because partisan loyalties to President Madison overrode the Congress’s commitment to protecting its constitutional prerogatives.

In Beschloss’s view, President James K. Polk exploited this weakness when he misled Congress and backed the Mexican-American War for political purposes. Polk was committed to Texan statehood because he hoped “to win [Andrew] Jackson’s support for the presidency” (Beschloss, p. 103). He also “[manufactured] false pretexts for wars” for secret motives (Beschloss, p. 150). Polk deployed troops to Mexico without Congressional authorization. Then, he convinced Congress that Mexico invaded the U.S. by attacking those troops. Even as he sought a declaration of war, Polk prevented Congress from pursuing an informed, non-partisan vote by stonewalling investigations and concealing his ambition to capture California (Beschloss, pp. 107; 123).

Polk’s deception created a precedent that, nonetheless, weakened Congress’s control during wartime. For example, although he was transparent in his request for Congress to declare war on Spain, President McKinley disguised his imperial ambitions in the Philippines, just as Polk did with California (Beschloss, p. 281). This set of case studies suggests that when Congress lets the president take the lead in war, the goal of the mission steadily expands. Congress declaring war is an insufficient check if it cannot monitor and guide the execution of that war, Beschloss suggests.

A second set of case studies illustrates how modern presidents “proved that the Constitution’s demand for congressional war declaration could be ignored” (Beschloss, p. 585). Some presidents bypassed and stonewalled Congress altogether, only to repeat the fatal mistakes of their exuberant predecessors. President Truman went to war in Korea without congressional authorization (Beschloss, p. 400). He even attempted to nationalize domestic steel plants and considered using nuclear weapons (Beschloss, p. 483).

During Vietnam, President Johnson “drew on history, but his history was badly flawed” (Beschloss, p. 577). He wanted to avoid the domestic backlash of another war like Korea, but he merely undermined the war effort, and increased resentment when he “concealed the start of the war” and failed to place the country on war-footing by raising taxes and calling up the reserves (Beschloss, pp. 496; 536; 578). Like McKinley, Johnson stretched Congressional authorization into a blank-check for a ground war—based on an attack that may not have occurred as the government described (Beschloss, p. 517). Ironically, despite his embrace of executive power, Johnson, like Truman, found himself liable for the outcome and unable to reverse course. Johnson was morally “appalled” that General Westmorland proposed using nuclear weapons to avoid defeat—showing the degree to which the situation had spun out of his control (Beschloss, p. 555), and took a political toll on Johnson, who declined to run for re-election; in a fortuitous episode that would also reveal Johnson’s paranoia, Beschloss documents President Johnson’s final conversation with Senator Robert Kennedy:

Kennedy told Johnson that he was “a brave and dedicated man.” The president made him repeat the statement, which caused Kennedy to wonder whether Johnson as secretly taping their conversation . . . As it happened, Johnson had indeed tried to make a covert recording of the conversation. He was angry when his aide Larry Temple later reported that the device had failed: their technicians speculated that Kennedy had carried a scrambler (Beschloss, p. 563).

By contrast, a final set of case studies highlights the leaders who met their challenges while largely enacting the Framers’ vision. Despite mixed records on civil liberties, Presidents Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt provided steady leadership during the two world wars.

Beschloss primarily presents Lincoln as the man who halted an undemocratic march toward imperial presidential war power. Although he unilaterally launched the Union war effort and suspended legal rights for rebels, Beschloss argues Lincoln “did so within the democratic process” (Beschloss, p. 236). Lincoln openly submitted his unprecedented actions to scrutiny by Congress and the courts, which largely “affirmed him” (Beschloss, p. 236). This conclusion, however, sidesteps the unanimous Supreme Court ruling in Ex parte Milligan that President Lincoln violated the Constitution by imposing martial law in states far removed from the rebellion.¹

One of the most compelling sections of the book is how Beschloss, through primary source evidence, provides a complex, humanizing view of Lincoln as a pragmatist under pressure. Beschloss contends that Lincoln’s overarching goal was to stop secession, and that emancipation was a means to that end. Indeed, to “keep from estranging the border states, the President resolved to defer his proclamation until the Union had enjoyed a major military victory” (Beschloss, p. 204). Despite his pragmatism, Lincoln was not cold and calculating. It was “tormenting” for him to know that he would “be the executioner of immense numbers of Americans on both sides” (Beschloss, p. 195). Despite suffering from depression, he even attended the funerals of fallen soldiers (Beschloss, p. 211). Ultimately, religion guided Lincoln through his stark moral and emotional tribulations, driving drove him to transform the war into a struggle for emancipation:

“God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. . . . He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. . . . Yet the contest proceeds.” Lincoln was expressing his suspicion that by withholding victory from both sides and prolonging the war, God must wish the conflict to end not simply with the reunion of North and South but with emancipation (Beschloss, p. 206).

This book suggests that Americans should choose leaders with the empathy and Constitutional reverence of Lincoln. Sadly, the case studies in Presidents of War demonstrate Lincoln is the exception. Most presidents, “step by step, have disrupted the Founders’ design” by leading the charge to war, even when it enjoyed partisan support and was not the last resort (Beschloss, p. viii).

According to Beschloss, there are perhaps two reasons why presidential power continues to expand. First, he argues the Framers wrongly assumed “that all future presidents would be people of sagacity, self-restraint, honesty, experience, character, and profound respect for democratic ideals” (Beschloss, p. 586). Second, circumstances have changed. The “always imminent” threat of terrorist, cyber, and nuclear attacks mean there is no longer “time to seek concurrence from Congress” (Beschloss, p. 585). A terrorist attack “might someday even be fabricated” to rally the people behind a presidential war effort (Beschloss, p. 586).

However, this conclusion illustrates why Beschloss’s account, understandably, is an incomplete history. First, the Framers created a system of Constitutional checks and balances because they thought malevolent men might become president. As James Madison wrote:

If Men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.²

Second, the Framers may not have anticipated the specific technologies that menace our country today, but they envisioned exigent threats. The threats Beschloss describes would constitute attacks on the U.S., and he admits in the Lincoln section that the Framers gave the president the power to respond to attacks without “a war declaration by Congress” (Beschloss, p. 236). Presidents have long claimed that changing circumstances justified new power. Beschloss overlooks presidential military campaigns against Native Americans, during which presidents restricted civil liberties, permitted military atrocities, and engaged in war without Congressional authorization because they claimed they were fighting an adversary that was not a foreign state.rebellion.³

Overall, Beschloss presents a compelling and comprehensive narrative of the expansion of presidential control of war powers—and the leadership qualities that great power demands. Several of Beschloss’s insights have been made in academic works. For example, Chris Edelson has documented the growth of presidential war power beyond the Framers’ wishes, while Nina Tannenwald has written of the dynamics that deterred Truman and Johnson from using nuclear weapons. The unique contribution of Beschloss’s work is that he democratizes this information, provides readable prose, scores of pages of historical background, and stunning detail in hundreds of footnotes—from President Polk’s draft disqualifying urinary stones, to President Wilson’s machinations over separation of powers; these provide deep insights into the minds of the leaders he profiles. I highly recommend Beschloss’s history of the troubled turns inherent in presidential war powers, and the better angels who guided our country through its darkest hours.

Quentin Levin is a college student majoring in Government who is passionate about history.


[1] “Ex Parte Milligan,” Encyclopedia Britannica.
[2] James Madison, “Federalist 51, The Federalist Papers,” Library of Congress, .
[3] Adam Mendel, “The First AUMF, the Northwest Indian War, 1790-1795, and the War on Terror,” Journal of Constitutional Law, vol 18., no.4, https://scholarship.law.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1605&context=jcl.