The subtitle emblazoned on the cover of Michael Beschloss’s new chronicle of American presidents in times of war promises an “epic story.” In some ways, it’s a fair description. Beschloss sweeps across more than 160 years, delving into presidential decision-making in eight wars from the early 19th century to Vietnam. Along the way, he paints rich portraits of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and other larger-than-life leaders whose choices determined the fates of millions and redirected the flow of history.
On the whole, though, “epic” seems the wrong word. Instead of persistently covering themselves in glory, presidents stand out in Beschloss’s account for the opportunism, pettiness, and even dishonesty with which they often ad-libbed their way through the nation’s most trying times. From James Madison to Lyndon Johnson, commanders in chief seem just as apt to bungle or abuse power as to wield it with wisdom.
The overall effect, to the book’s enormous credit, is to lend flesh and blood to leaders too often held up as god-like sages or denigrated as heartless villains. The subtitle might have promised a “human’’ story.
A renowned popular historian who has penned numerous impressive works of presidential history, Beschloss often sympathizes with his subjects. He vividly recounts the painful dilemmas they confronted, the physical and psychic tolls they endured, and their methods for coping. The sickly and insecure Madison, we learn in some of the most poignant passages, relied on his devoted wife, Dolly, during the War of 1812, just as LBJ leaned on Lady Bird to withstand the traumas of Vietnam more than a century and a half later.
At other times, Beschloss censures presidents for foibles that sometimes led to disaster. He draws on deep research and a keen eye for detail in lamenting, for example, Woodrow Wilson’s stubborn refusal to compromise with Republican critics on the peace deal negotiated after World War I. The decision killed any chance of realizing his goal of crafting a more peaceful international order. We see as well how Madison shamelessly scapegoated his commanders in the War of 1812, more than a century before Roosevelt would do the same during World War II. The final chapters show how overconfidence and self-delusion led Harry Truman and Johnson into quagmires in Korea and Vietnam.
But Beschloss reserves his sharpest criticism for moments when presidents betrayed the Constitution by suppressing civil liberties or monopolizing authority over war and peace, depriving Congress of its rightful role. By thus encroaching, he argues, “Presidents, step by step, have disrupted the Founders’ design.”
Beschloss is hardly the first to decry the rise of the “imperial presidency,” as Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. long ago labeled the rise of executive authority over that of other branches of government. But Beschloss makes the case in impressive detail and with uncommon attention to the early years of American history.
The trend, he argues, goes back at least to 1812, when Madison, a key architect of our checks and balances, goaded Congress into declaring war and concealed his knowledge of the sacrifices that might be required. Far worse, writes Beschloss, was President Polk, who mostly ignored Congress while provoking war with Mexico in 1846 and then engineering the addition of vast conquered territories to the United States.
Lincoln gets higher marks for his performance during the Civil War but only because he chose to use his powers — probably the most absolute wielded by any president in wartime — with wisdom and restraint. Later leaders, Beschloss complains, often did not. Roosevelt, for instance, skirted congressional oversight when he could and committed one of the worst violations of civil liberties in American history by interning people of Japanese heritage. In the 1960s, Johnson manipulated alleged North Vietnamese attacks on US warships in the Gulf of Tonkin to secure congressional authorization for war and used the FBI and CIA to crack down on political opponents.
Beschloss disappoints only by declining to carry his story closer to the present. He surely has a point in suggesting that America’s wars since Vietnam are too recent to be fairly and fully analyzed as history. Yet the patterns that he describes in earlier eras hold clear relevance to our most recent wars: the Gulf War in 1991 and others in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 21st century.
Providing only perfunctory summaries of those conflicts in an oddly brief conclusion, Beschloss misses his chance to put the accumulation of executive power by George W. Bush and Barack Obama in historical perspective. President Trump’s decision-making gets no mention at all. These are curious omissions in view of Beschloss’s long experience as a commentator on contemporary politics for NBC and PBS.
Beschloss also fails to tie together his assessments of all eight wars by offering clear overall judgments about the traits that have made for effective leadership. He offers few generalizations about how effective wartime presidents have managed party politics, interacted with their military commanders, or engaged with allies. Nor does he reckon fully with a more basic question: What sort of personality makes for the best wartime leader?
Beschloss can easily be forgiven, though, for not addressing every angle and even for stopping short of bold conclusions. His most impressive achievements, after all, lie in his exceptional storytelling and his ability to take us into the unique world of each president he examines. If readers are on their own to draw out some of the implications, it’s a price worth paying.
Crown, 695 pp., $35
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