Presidents of War by Michael Beschloss, Crown Publishing Group, US $35.00, Pp 740, October 2018, ISBN 978-0307409607
On 9/11/2001, al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked three commercial planes and crashed one of them into Pentagon and the other into the World Trade Tower in New York and the third one crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after its hijackers were foiled in their hope to destroy the US Capitol or White House. It was the most significant attack against the American mainland by foreign nationals since the British invaded Washington in 1814, chasing James and Dolley Madison from the Capital. The al-Qaeda’s attacks on 9/11/2001 pushed America into two wars — in Afghanistan and Iraq. President George W. Bush later recalled that the terrorist attacks made him “something I did not want to be — a wartime President.” Since the start of the Republic, Presidents of the United States have taken the American people into major wars roughly once in a generation. In Presidents of War, Michael Beschloss gives the histories of eight presidents who did so, as well as Thomas Jefferson, who refused, how they became the presidents of war. With the exception of the Civil War, Presidents of War covers major wars waged against foreign adversaries. It does not cover the federal government’s military struggle against Native Americans, which lasted for more than half of the life of the United States. Wars against Afghanistan and Iraq are too recent to be written as history, so they are treated synoptically.
Michael Beschloss says that his goal is to illuminate the motivations of the war-makers. What he has researched is how candid each was with the public, their struggles with Congress, the Courts, and their critics and how they drew strength from spouses, families, and friends, their physical and emotional health, their respect for civil liberties or lack of it and whatever efforts they made to search for lessons from the American past. As a political history of American presidents who sought and waged war, Michael Beschloss suggests some of the most important qualities of leadership that Americans should demand when they choose a candidate for that office. He shows how Presidents of war have dealt with political power under the Constitution.
Michael Beschloss says that the framers of that document in 1787 knew that the British and other European monarchs had abused their absolute authority to make war. He writes, “If a regime was growing unpopular, they sometimes cited or invented a foreign danger in order to launch a war that would unite their people and expand their own power and popular esteem. To reduce the risk of such offenses by an American President, the Founders created a Constitution that gave Congress the sole power to declare war, and divided the responsibility to wage war, and divided the responsibility to wage war between the executive and legislative branches.” As Congressman Abraham Lincoln wrote to his friend William Herndon in 1848, the early Americans resolved that “no one man should hold the power” to take the nation into war.
During the past two centuries, Michael Beschloss argues that presidents have disrupted the Founders’ design, slowly but surely. With the too-frequent acquiescence of Congress, they have seized for themselves the power to launch large conflicts, almost on their own authorities. It is telling that the last time a President asked Congress to declare war was 1942. Were the Founders to come back, they would probably be astonished and chagrined to discover that, in spite of their ardent strivings, the life or death of much of the human race has now come to depend on the character of the single person who happens to be the President of the United States.
Presidents of War is a timely study of nine presidents who initiated wars. President George W. Bush and President Barak Obama are not included but their motives are unlikely to be different than those who preceded them. This well-researched book is released at a time when some commentators are suspecting President Donald Trump may be initiating another war to improve his polls ratings. The book will help its readers guess which way President Trump heading. With his unmatcheable scholarly credentials, Michael Beschloss discusses and analyzes the factors that have led America to war too frequently. He convincingly argues that most wars were unnecessary and America started wars without any compelling reasons. More importantly, Michael Beschloss compellingly argues that these nine or eleven presidents have usurped the powers of the Congress to initiate a war and the Congress must take back the powers bestowed on it by the founding fathers. Presidents of War is a must-read to understand American military history.