Presidents of War by Michael Beschloss (New York: Crown, 2018); 752 pages.
Even with power in the hands of a political philosopher and statesman who understood the rabid nature of war, President James Madison couldn’t help but embroil the young nation in a conflict it wasn’t ready for. Unlike Thomas Jefferson, his predecessor in the White House, Madison wouldn’t ignore the British Empire’s impressment of Americans into her navy, her attacks against American shipping due to her war with Napoleon’s France, and her hand in supposedly provoking Indian raids in the nation’s northwestern frontier.
The young republic, however, didn’t have a navy to speak of or an army of well-trained troops. Neither did Madison have the support of the American public or the Federalists, the party of his opposition. Nevertheless, he asked Congress, where his Democratic-Republicans had the majority in both houses, to declare war on Great Britain and its powerful armada of 600 warships and its army of 500,000 troops. By mid June 1812, Madison’s War, as it would be contemptuously called by critics, had commenced with the hopes of ending Britain’s commercial warfare against U.S. shipping and making Canada part of the United States.
The war Madison pushed for was a disaster that almost doomed the republic. There was talk of Federalist New England’s seceding. The government was bankrupt. Madison asked for a draft to replenish his small army, a request that was defeated by Federalist opposition. The British successfully invaded the capital, torching the White House.
But the United States ultimately prevailed, even as Madison, of all presidents, began the ignoble tradition of presidents’ encroaching on Congress’s war powers and ensnaring the nation in wars of choice. Ironically, the “Father of the Constitution” proved, quite hypocritically, why the president of the United States shouldn’t even be trusted when making a case for war.
That is the moral of the story told by Michael Beschloss in his epic book, Presidents of War. From the War of 1812 through Vietnam, Beschloss demonstrates how correct Madison was when he called war “the true nurse of executive aggrandizement.” Through profiles of war presidents Madison, James Polk, Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson, he shows that no one human being should have the power to take a nation into the slaughterhouse of war, especially a nation predicated on the sovereignty of the individual.
More important, he exposes the dark hearts of many of the men we’re taught to venerate and how they sacrificed the lives of their citizens in pursuit of power, prestige, and empire, often lying to Congress and the people to get the result they wanted, while upending limited government and eviscerating liberty in the process.
The first example of a president lying the nation into war was James Polk, a protegé of the genocidal Andrew Jackson. Like Jackson, Polk was an expansionist who coveted Mexico’s California territories. As Beschloss writes, “If the Mexicans would not sell him that land at a reasonable price, he might just feel compelled to seize it in the course of a war that might happen to break out between the United States and Mexico.” Polk ensured there would be a war by manufacturing it.
In the spring of 1846, Mexican troops ambushed an American patrol in the contested territory between the northern Nueces River, which Mexico claimed was its border with Texas, and the southern Rio Grande, which the United States claimed was its border with Mexico after Texas was admitted into the Union the year before. In a deliberate attempt to goad the Mexicans into attacking, Polk ordered the U.S. Army in 1845 to march to the Rio Grande. The ploy worked.
On May 13, 1846, Congress declared war on Mexico. A little less than two years later, Polk had won his war and with it Texas and the territories of New Mexico and California. Sarcastically summing up the anti-war and anti-imperial opposition to Polk’s empire-building, the Whig National Intelligencer editorialized, “We take nothing by conquest…. Thank God.”
Polk wasn’t the only president to take the United States to war by falsehoods that ended in imperial expansion. After the U.S. Navy ship Maine exploded in Cuba’s Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898 — almost certainly because of a mechanical failure and not a Spanish mine — the calls for war began in earnest. The Spanish were brutal colonizers of the Cuban people, and it was the United States’ duty, according to William McKinley, to save them from their tormentors and establish a free Cuban government. McKinley had publicly affirmed that war with Spain had no imperial ambitions, but that was a lie. In a private memo, he wrote, “While we are conducting war and until its conclusion we must keep all we get; when the war is over we must keep what we want.”
And keep it McKinley did. In little more than six months, the Americans quickly dispatched the Spanish. By the war’s end, the United States would take possession of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam, making the United States an overseas empire to go with much of North America and creating the conditions for future war with Japan, as America extended its sphere of influence far into the Pacific. The failure to relinquish the Philippines, however, led to a brutal war with Filipino resistance fighters that killed more than 4,000 Americans, 20,000 Filipino guerrillas, and hundreds of thousands of civilians, mostly from disease. Despite that, McKinley had the gall to proclaim in 1899, “No imperial designs lurk in the American mind.”
Much like Polk and McKinley, Lyndon Johnson also took American boys into war — in Southeast Asia on the basis of false pretenses. In two separate incidents on August 2 and 4, 1964, supposed confrontations occurred in the Gulf of Tonkin between North Vietnam and U.S. naval forces. The United States claimed it was attacked unprovoked in both incidents. While the August 4 incident is now seen as imaginary, the August 2 incident was not. But it was not unprovoked. Under the secret OPLAN 34A program, U.S. forces had been conducting covert operations against North Vietnam, one coming just a few days before the first Gulf of Tonkin incident.
Nevertheless, the Johnson administration kept the OPLAN 34A secret and whipped up the war furies on the basis of an outright lie. The infamous Gulf of Tonkin Resolution passed both the House and Senate on August 7, with little opposition, and was signed by Johnson on August 10. Democratic Sen. Wayne Morse of Oregon, according to Beschloss, saw the Gulf of Tonkin incident for what it was: “‘another sinking of the Maine’ — a ‘deliberate’ pretext ‘to justify making war against North Vietnam.’”
Afterward, the United States plunged further into the Vietnam quagmire and into open military conflict with North Vietnam. The results were widespread social unrest at home, as the anti-war movement rose up against the war, and possibly millions dead, as the United States rained down more bombs on Southeast Asia than all the belligerents used in Europe during World War II. As the war went south, William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, ordered a secret report into the Gulf of Tonkin incidents, which was withheld from the public until 2010. His conclusion: “We were just plain lied to.”
As war descends on a nation, government trampling on liberty naturally follows.
There was no more perfect example of this truism than was seen during the Civil War. In February 1861, Abraham Lincoln instituted the first federal income tax to pay for the Civil War. A few months later in May, he unilaterally suspended habeas corpus between Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, in violation of the separation of powers, while Congress was out of session. The order, writes Beschloss, allowed “Americans suspected of plots against the federal government, or otherwise abetting the ‘so-called Confederate states,’ to be detained indefinitely, without indictment or hearing in court.”
In September 1863, he extended the suspension of the great writ nationwide until the end of the Civil War, though this time with Congress’s approval. Earlier that year, the Great Emancipator instituted the nation’s first military draft as volunteers for the Union Army dried up. The rich, however, could buy their way out of conscription. Deeply unpopular, the draft led to Lincoln’s government’s arresting and indefinitely detaining draft resisters.
In the military district of Ohio, which included many Western states, Lincoln ordered Gen. Ambrose Burnside to issue General Order Number 38, “an edict,” writes Beschloss, “that anyone suspected of aiding the country’s ‘enemies,’ which — in defiance of the First Amendment — included ‘declaring sympathies’ for the rebels, would be arrested for treason and/or espionage.” Lincoln also approved Gen. William T. Sherman’s march to the sea in November and December of 1864, which embraced the “hard war” philosophy of bringing the conflict’s horrors to the doorstep of the enemy’s civilian population.
Lincoln, of course, wasn’t the only president to reach beyond his constitutional power in a time of war. Three of the more galling examples of this executive war-time tendency came from Presidents Wilson, Roosevelt, and Truman during World War I, World War II, and the Korean War, respectively.
As the United States entered Wilson’s “war to end all wars,” the progressive-minded president was clear he would brook no opposition to the war effort, telling the American people, “If there should be disloyalty, it will be dealt with, with a firm hand of stern repression.” Making good on his word, Wilson pushed Congress to pass the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917 and 1918, which made it a crime to interfere with the war effort, even by talking. In June 1918, Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs was arrested, without even mentioning Wilson or the Great War, under the Sedition Act for a speech arguing war was an inevitable byproduct of capitalism. He received a ten-year sentence, which was eventually commuted by Warren G. Harding in 1921.
Although Beschloss has a soft spot for Franklin Roosevelt, the historian shows him for what he was: an ambitious authoritarian who continually lied to Congress and the American people by telling them he would maintain U.S. neutrality during World War II. Instead, he did everything he could to push the nation into war by pushing Lend-Lease to aid Britain in its war effort against the Nazis, and by imposing an embargo against Japan. The embargo included vital resources, such as oil, gasoline, steel, and iron. According to Beschloss, “Japan relied on the United States for 80 percent of its petroleum.” There was no way Japan could see it for anything else but an act of war. On December 7, 1941, Japan struck Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt had his war.
During this “total war,” Roosevelt was a civil-liberties nightmare. More than a year before Pearl Harbor, he instituted, for the first time in American history, a peacetime draft, a not-so-subtle hint that he was getting the nation ready for war. After Pearl Harbor, the president issued Executive Order 9066, which led to the incarceration of Japanese, German, and Italian Americans and immigrants in U.S. concentration camps for fear those populations were a fifth column. Despite the Supreme Court ruling that warrantless wiretapping was illegal, Roosevelt told FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to continue the practice on his authority. Roosevelt also ordered the IRS to go after his political enemies and asked Hoover to investigate them. Acceding to Roosevelt’s authority as a wartime president, Congress increased marginal income tax rates to 88 percent.
Beschloss, to his credit, acknowledges that without World War II, Roosevelt would have gone down in history as an epic failure. “The war,” writes Beschloss, “ultimately did so much to elevate Roosevelt’s standing that it increased the temptation for later Presidents to escalate their reputations by seeking foreign conflict.”
One of the more naked power grabs a wartime president ever attempted was Harry Truman’s seizure of American steel companies in April 1952 during the undeclared Korean War. Strife between labor and management in the industry led to a breakdown in negotiations over a new labor contract, and the labor unions were threatening to strike, an action that would stop the supply of steel for manufacturing weapons for the Korean conflict. So on April 8, Truman, claiming a national emergency, issued an executive order nationalizing the steel industry.
Fortunately, the reaction was swift and devastating. The press pounced. Politicians, too, with Lyndon Johnson, ironically enough considering his own later wartime deceptions, saying Truman’s executive order “smacks of the practices that lead toward a dictatorship.” On June 2, the Supreme Court ruled Truman’s order unconstitutional. Justice Robert Jackson wrote the majority decision, which sagely warned, according to Beschloss, “that no doctrine could be ‘more sinister and alarming’ than the notion that some future President might be encouraged to send U.S. armed forces into ‘some foreign venture’ in order to expand his personal power over domestic affairs.”
When will our debts come due?
It is depressing that American legislators, and the people they represent, have never fully realized the prudence of James Madison the political philosopher as opposed to James Madison the president. Writing in 1795, Madison reminded students of history, “Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few…. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
With nearly 120 straight years of military conflict abroad, much of it imperial in nature, the United States continues to whistle past the graveyard in defiance of Madison’s wise words. Beschloss’s book is an important reminder that the United States often goes abroad militarily upon the whims, and lies of one man, which the country continues to glorify at its own peril.
Though Beschloss no doubt did not set out to ruin the reputations of so many commander in chief, Presidents of War clearly demonstrates that those men do not deserve our praise but instead our condemnation for their crimes against humanity and the citizens they pledged to serve.
This article was originally published in the February 2020 edition of Future of Freedom Archive.