Beschloss Discusses “Presidents of War” at Westminster Town Hall Forum

On November 13, only one week after the U.S. mid-term election, Michael Beschloss appeared before an overflow crowd at Minneapolis’ Westminster Town Hall Forum to discuss his  recent book, Presidents of War: 1807 to Modern Times.[1] Below are photographs of Beschloss and the Westminster Sanctuary before the arrival of the crowd.

 

 

 

 

The Presidents of War

He made the following brief comments about the eight presidents of war who are covered in his book.

President James Madison and the War of 1812. This was the first and the most unpopular war in U.S. history, climaxed by the British burning of the White House and Madison’s  escaping to Virginia in August 1814. (The book covers this in the Prologue and Chapters Two and Three.)

President James Polk and the Mexican-American War (1846 1848). This war was started by the U.S. on the U.S.false assertion that Mexico had ambushed and killed an American soldier in the new state of Texas. The U.S. won the war and acquired more than 500,000 square miles of Mexican territory extending  west of the Rio Grande River to the Pacific Ocean.(This is covered in Chapters Four and Five.)

President Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War (1860-1865). Lincoln was the best president of war. Initially he was not a crusader and instead an enforcer of the  constitutional ban on secession, which was not a popular message. Later with the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address he made it a moral crusade against slavery and the people began to follow Lincoln. (This is covered in Chapters Six and Seven.)

President William McKinley and the Spanish-American War, 1898.  This was another war started on a false assertion: Spain had blown up the USS Maine in the Havana Harbor, when in fact it was caused by an exploding boiler in the ship. This war resulted in the U.S.’ acquiring the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam from Spain and de facto control of Cuba. (This is covered in Chapters Eight and Nine of the book.)[2]

President Woodrow Wilson and World War I, 1917-1918. In his re-election campaign of 1916, Wilson’s slogan was “He kept us out of war,” but in April 2017 he had Congress declare war after German attacks on U.S. ships. In his well-meaning campaign for the League of Nations, Wilson made a lot of mistakes. (This is covered in Chapters Ten and Eleven.)

President Franklin D. Roosevelt and World War II, 1941-1945. Before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, FDR gave very few speeches about the war in Europe, and there was strong U.S. public opinion against entering the war on the belief that World War I had been a mistake. Immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, however, the Congress declared war against Japan, the last time the U.S. declared war under the Constitution. FDR learned from the war with the exception of treatment of Japanese-Americans.  (this is covered in Chapters Twelve and Thirteen.)

President Truman and  the Korean War (Conflict), 1950-1953.  According to Beschloss, Truman had read and written some history and had said one “could not be president without knowing history” and “every leader must be a reader.”(This is covered in Chapters Fourteen and Fifteen.)

President Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War, 1963-1969. This is another war started on a false U.S. assertion: the Vietnamese had attacked a U.S. ship in the Gulf of Tonkin, which lead to a congressional resolution supporting military action. The White House audio tapes of LBJ’s conversations revealed important information: (a) Senator Richard Russell urged LBJ to get out of the war; (b) Secretary of Defense McNamara urged LBJ to get involved, thereby disproving McNamara’s later denials of same; (c) LBJ came to believe that this was a war the U.S. could not win and could not lose; and (d) LBJ rejected the advice of General Westmoreland to use nuclear weapons in the war.  (This was discussed in Chapters Sixteen and Seventeen of the book.)

Commonalities of the Presidents of War

Beschloss identified two common characterizes of these presidents.

First, they all became more religious during their wars. Lincoln before the Civil War was a sceptic or agnostic, but during the war regularly read the Bible and talked about wars being “oceans of blood” that prompted his  seeking biblical guidance for sending young men to their death. Lyndon Johnson before the war was not a regular church-goer, but during the war, his daughter Lucy Baines Johnson Turpin, who had become a Roman Catholic, regularly and confidentially took LBJ to mass , and Lady Bird Johnson was heard to say he might convert to Catholicism.

Second, they all were married to strong women who gave good advice. In 1942 FDR  was considering internment of Japanese-Americans, and Eleanor warned him strongly not to do so. The subsequent internment caused a major rupture in their marriage.

In response to a question about whether any of the war presidents had military experience, he did not state the obvious: they had not except for Truman in World War I. Instead, he said that President Eisenhower, who is not covered in the book even though he presided over the end of the Korean War, had the “perfect” military experience resulting from his military education and training and command responsibility during World War Ii that provided him with the knowledge of the ends and means, the costs and the unpredictability of war.[3]

 The President of Peace

In response to a question, Beschloss identified only one president of peace:. President Thomas Jefferson in 1807 resisted public pressure to go to war with Great Britain over an attack by its ship (The Leopard) against a U.S. frigate (The Chesapeake) in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Virginia that killed three U.S. sailors and wounded eight others. (This is discussed in Chapter One of the book.)

 Advice to U.S. Citizens

All presidents need wisdom, courage and judgment. They need to be moral leaders.

Citizens, Senators and representatives need to evaluate and criticize presidents on important issues, especially those of war and peace.

In his book’s Epilogue, Beschloss says “the framers of the Constitution had dreamt that war would be a last resort under the political system they had invented. Unlike in Great Britain and other monarchies and dictatorships of old, it would be declared by Congress, not the chief of State.” Yet “the notion of presidential war took hold step by step.” We as citizens need to insist on obeying the Constitution and requiring congressional declarations of war.

Beschloss Biography

Beschloss is an award-winning author of nine books on presidential history. He is the presidential historian for NBC News and a contributor to PBS NewsHour. A graduate of Williams College and Harvard Business School, he has served as a historian for the Smithsonian Institution, as a Senior Associate Member at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, and as a Senior Fellow of the Annenberg Foundation. His books on the presidency include, among others, The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963; The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler’s Germany; and Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789-1989. His latest book, Presidents of War, was published in October. He is the recipient of the Harry S. Truman Public Service Award, the New York State Archives Award, and the Rutgers University Living History Award. He is a trustee of the White House Historical Association and the National Archives Foundation and a former trustee of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

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[1] Westminster Town Hall Forum, Michael Beschloss, Presidents of War: 1807 to Modern Times (Nov. 13, 2018) (the website also includes a livestream of the lecture and Q & A); Black, ‘Presidents of War’: Historian Michael Beschloss on leaders who’ve taken U.S. into battle, MinnPost (Nov. 14, 2018); Barnes & Noble, Presidents of War (2018).

[2] Before 1898, the U.S. had a desire to own or control Cuba that was promoted by by U.S. slaveholders desiring support of Cuban slaveholders, and after U.S. entry in 1898 into the Second Cuban War of Independence (what we call the Spanish-American War) and the U.S. defeat of the Spanish, the U.S. made Cuba a de facto protectorate that lasted until 1934. Since the 1959 overthrow of Batista by the Cuban Revolution, of course, the two countries have had a contentious relationship, including the U.S. Bay of Pigs invasion of  1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 that nearly erupted into war. (See posts listed in the “ U.S.-Cuba History, 1989-2010” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[3] Another U.S. president with wartime experience, including injuries, was John F. Kennedy, who during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 helped to steer the U.S. out of a possible nuclear war with the USSR over its missiles in Cuba. (See posts listed in the “ U.S.-Cuba History, 1989-2010” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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