How Commanders-in-Chief conducted themselves during conflict as seen in 'Presidents of War'

Michael Beschloss, author of 'Presidents of War,' discusses how presidents including Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson bore the burden of leading America during a time of warfare.

'Presidents of War' is by Michael Beschloss.

The American presidents who sent soldiers into major wars didn't bear arms themselves. Their lives were not on the line in faraway trenches or fields or forests. But some bore a deep burden that left them scarred for the rest of their lives.

From Lincoln's agony amid "blood flowing all about me" to LBJ's emotional collapse, their stories unfold in historian Michael Beschloss's remarkable new book "Presidents of War: The Epic Story from 1807 to Modern Times."

Beschloss also explores their wartime decisions and their legacies, such as what he considers to be a dangerous expansion of presidential power. 

Beschloss, who's interviewed several presidents and their wives, spoke to the Monitor about the lessons we can learn from these commanders in chief.

Q: What makes a great war president?

A: At their best, they're moral leaders. 

Lincoln is ineffective for the first year or two of the Civil War. He keeps on talking about it as a legalistic uniting of North and South, and he shies away from saying this is a moral struggle against the evil of slavery. 

Once he talks about it in that way, it frees something in him, and he becomes a much more formidable leader. 

On the other side, Lyndon Johnson is never able to be a moral leader because he knows he'd be championing a [Vietnamese] regime that is selfish and corrupt. Every time he tries to give a Rooseveltian speech about why we're in Vietnam, he is almost tongue-tied.

Q: How do these presidents handle war on a personal level?

A: A number have physical and emotional breakdowns. 

LBJ gets more and more paranoid and combative with critics he sees as his enemies. Woodrow Wilson, frustrated by his losing battle for the League of Nations, has a stroke. FDR gets to the point where he isn't remembering documents he had just signed. 

Presidents also get more religious. Even Abraham Lincoln, who at the least was an agnostic as a young man. He becomes an intense Bible reader as he faces the strain of leading the North through the Civil War. He said he couldn't imagine anyone could go through an experience like this and not become religious. 

Lady Bird told me she would not have been been surprised if he [her husband, LBJ] converted to Catholicism like his daughter Luci, who had converted at the age of 16. 

Q: What else unites them?

A: Empathy. At their best, they have a strong connection with those they are sending to war. They never forgot their decisions caused a lot of Americans to die. 

Told there has to be a new national cemetery, Lincoln asks that it be built near his summer home so he could see the Union graves dug all the time. He doesn't want to be disconnected from that experience.

Q: Who's underrated as a wartime president?

A: William McKinley [who presided over the Spanish-American war]. 

I'm hard on him sending us to war as revenge for the sinking of the Maine. But of all the people who might have been president at the time, he's probably the most cautious in getting involved in the war fever. If Theodore Roosevelt had been president, we would have been at war in 24 hours. Instead, McKinley says let's have a report first and not rush. 

Q: Who's overrated as a war president? 

A: James Madison is wonderful as a founder and architect of the constitution. But he is the one who – most ironically – takes the nation into its first major war [the War of 1812], a war that is deeply unpopular among the people and Congress and not necessary. 
He feels strongly that America should only wage wars that are necessary to survive, but he gets us involved in this war of choice. From my point of view, it's a war we lost.

Q: You're also critical of President James Polk, who led the nation through the Mexican War. What did he do wrong? 

A: He lied and cheated, and he staged a fake border incident.

The founders thought we would be a shining city on a hill. They did not imagine so many of our presidents would lie us into war, and that was true among too many of them. 

Q: You write that Congress has abdicated its responsibility to challenge the president during wartime. What do you mean? 

A: Nowadays, if a president wants a war, he doesn't ask for a declaration of war. Presidents don't want to get in an acrimonious debate that might embarrass them. Instead, they ask Congress for resolutions, which are a weasel way of circumventing the Constitution's requirements for war declarations. 

I don't think presidents will go back to asking for war declarations. President Truman didn't do it in 1950, and he set a terrible example that all future presidents have followed.

Q: Is there a reason to hope that things will change?

A: The American system always has this amazing capacity to revive. If we have a war where people think the president was allowed to run wild, the next time Congress will likely be more tough.

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