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.

Coming Soon–The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

A prior post announced the forthcoming Kenneth Burns’ documentary “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” about Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt to be shown on National Public Television in the Fall of 2014. Now we have the following schedule and details of the seven two-hour episodes:

Date Title
September 14 “Get Action (1858-1901)”—The early lives of Theodore and Franklin.
September 15 “In the Arena (1901-1910)”—Theodore transforms the office of the presidency while Franklin courts and weds Eleanor.
September 16 “The Fire of Life (1910-1919)”—Theodore leads Progressive crusade that splits his own Republican Party and enables Democrat Woodrow Wilson to become President.
September 17 “The Storm (1920-1933)”—Franklin serves as Governor of New York and becomes Democratic presidential nominee in 1932.
September 18 “The Rising Road (1933-1939)”—Franklin brings same sense of optimism and energy to White House as his cousin Theodore had.
September 19 “The Common Cause (1939-1944)”—Franklin breaks the third-term tradition and tries to persuade reluctant country to enter World War II.
September 20 “A Strong and Active Faith (1944-1962)”—Franklin is determined to see World War II through to victory. Eleanor fights for civil liberties.

In addition, in September the entire documentary will be available on DVD, and Knopf Doubleday will publish an oversized volume of The Roosevelts: An Intimate History containing nearly 800 photographs documenting the lives of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt and (to a much lesser extent) their wives and families. The author, historian Geoffrey C. Ward, argues that “the similarities and not the differences” between Teddy and FDR are compelling. Both bucked the reins of their parties, though the one remained a Republican for most of his political career while the other redefined Democratic Party politics; both were children of privilege whose sense of noblesse oblige included a fundamental sense of fairness. Both surpassed all that was expected of them and transcended class to embrace an American-ness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

PBS’ “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History”

As someone who currently is investigating certain aspects of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency,[1] I was happy to learn that this Fall PBS  will be broadcasting noted documentarian Ken BurnsThe Roosevelts: An Intimate History.

In seven parts totaling 14 hours, the documentary “chronicles the lives of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, three members of the most prominent and influential family in American politics.”

Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt

 

Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt
Franklin Roosevelt
Franklin Roosevelt

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In June I enjoyed watching PBS Previews: The Roosevelts that whetted my appetite for the full series.

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[1] Prior posts have reviewed (a) the election of William McKinley and Theodore as President and Vice President in the election of 1900; (b) Roosevelt’s involvement in that election; and (c) the assassination of President McKinley and the swearing in of Roosevelt as President. Future posts will canvas Roosevelt’s first term (1901-1905) regarding regulation of railroads, his “re-election’ in 1904 and his second term (1905-1909) regarding such regulation.

Refugee and Asylum Law: The Modern Era

As previously indicated, the history of refugees and asylum, in my opinion, may be divided into two major periods: the pre-modern era (before the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948) and the modern era (after that adoption).[1] We now examine that Declaration and its implementation in the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The United Nations Charter, which entered into force on October 24, 1945, created the Economic and Social Council in Chapter X. Under Article 68 of the Charter, this Council was to establish a commission for the promotion of human rights.[2]

In early 1946 this Council created a committee to make recommendations on the structure and functions of such a commission. Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and eight others were appointed to this committee, and she was elected its chair. It recommended that the first project of the new commission should be the writing a bill of human rights. Thereafter, in June 1946, the Council created the U.N. Human Rights Commission and directed it to prepare an international bill of human rights.[3]

In January 1947 the Human Rights Commission held its first meeting and elected Eleanor Roosevelt as its chair.[4]

At the Commission’s June 1947 meeting Great Britain proposed preparing a covenant or treaty of human rights, rather than a declaration full of high-sounding generalities. The U.S., however, favored a broad declaration followed by treaties. The U.S. position appears to have been a strategy to avoid the U.S. Senate ratification process that constitutionally was necessary for ratification of treaties, but was not required for U.S. voting in the U.N. General Assembly. Remember that President Truman was heading into the 1948 presidential election and did not want to provoke a Senate vote he might lose. In any event, the Commission decided to work on both a declaration and covenants.[5]

In December 1948 (only one month after Truman won the presidential election), the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration: 48 in favor (including the U.S.); 0 against; 8 abstentions (the USSR and its allies, South Africa and Saudi Arabia); and 2 absences.[6]

Eleanor Roosevelt & UDHR

The Declaration had two important provisions relevant to refugees and asylum. Its Article 13(2) stated, “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” Article  14(1) went on to say, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” (Emphasis added.)[7]

Even though the Declaration was not a treaty that created legal obligations for subscribing states, its declaring that every individual human being had a right to asylum was a historic departure from the pre-modern era where asylum was a matter of discretion for the protecting state. This provision also set an objective for the treaty on refugees then being formulated. These provisions of the Universal Declaration, in my opinion, also constitute an atonement for the failure of the civilized world in the 1930’s to protect German Jewish refugees.

In any event, ever since its adoption, the Universal Declaration has set the agenda for the subsequent development of international human rights treaties. The Declaration also continues to act as an inspirational and aspirational document throughout the world, as I discovered on my first visit to El Salvador in April 1989.[8]

Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees

 

On July 2, 1951, an international conference in Geneva, Switzerland concluded with the signing of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees by the conference attendees and the opening of the treaty for accession or ratification by nation states.[9] By its Article 43(1) it was to enter into force or become a binding treaty 90 days after the sixth state had acceded or ratified the treaty. That happened on April 22, 1954.[10]

Its preamble noted that the U.N. had “manifested its profound concern for refugees and endeavored to assure refugees the widest possible exercise of . . . fundamental rights and freedoms.” The preamble also stated, “the grant of asylum may place unduly heavy burdens on certain countries, and . . . a satisfactory solution of a problem . . . [of] international scope and nature cannot therefore be achieved without international cooperation.”

This treaty adopted the following definition of “refugee” in Article 1(A)(2) as any person who:

  • “[As a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951] and owing to well- founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

The bracketed phrase [“As a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951”] was the provision that limited the coverage of the Convention to the problems still being faced by many World War II refugees still scattered across Europe. This limiting phrase was eliminated in the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees discussed below.

Excluded from the definition of “refugee” in Article 1(F) was “any person . . . [who] (a) . . . has committed a crime against peace, a war crime or a crime against humanity . . . ; (b) . . . has committed a serious non-political crime outside the country of refuge prior to his admission to that country as a refugee; [and] (c) . . . has been guilty of acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the [U.N.].”[11]

The Convention granted refugees certain rights within a country of refuge as well as imposing on them certain obligations. The Convention further stipulates that, subject to specific exceptions, refugees should not be penalized for their “illegal entry or presence.” This recognizes that the seeking of asylum can require refugees to breach immigration rules. Prohibited penalties might include being charged with immigration or criminal offences relating to the seeking of asylum, or being arbitrarily detained purely on the basis of seeking asylum.

Importantly, the Convention contains various safeguards against the expulsion of refugees. Its Article 33(1) states, “No Contracting State shall expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees

By 1966, it had become apparent that new refugee situations had arisen since the Refugee Convention had been adopted and that all refugees should enjoy equal status. As a result, a new treaty was prepared to eliminate the previously mentioned limitation of the Convention to those refugees created by pre-1951 events. This was the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees that went into force on October 4, 1967.[12]

Parties to the Convention or Protocol

As of April 1, 2011, there were 145 nation states (and the Holy See) that were parties to the Convention and Protocol or the latter, including the U.S. That represents 76.2% of the U.N. members (plus the Holy See).[13]

Conclusion

In subsequent posts we will review (a) the work of the principal U.N. agency concerned with refugees (the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees); (b) U.S. law and procedures for refugees; and (c) U.S. law and procedures for asylum.


[1]  See Post: Refugees and Asylum Law: The Pre-Modern Era (July 7, 2011).

[3] See Mary Ann Glendon, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (New York: Random House 2002)(fascinating history of the development of the Universal Declaration).

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6]  Id.

[8]  See Post: My Pilgrimage to El Salvador, April 1989 (May 25, 2011).

[9] UNHCR, 1951 Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the Status of Refugees and Stateless Persons, http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/search/?page=&comid=3c07a8642&cid=49aea9390&scid=49aea9398.

[10]  UNHCR, Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, http://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10.html; UNHCR, The 1951 Refugee Convention: Questions and Answers (2007), http://www.unhcr.org/3c0f495f4.html.

[11] There are certain other stated exclusions from the definition of “refugee” in Article 1(C), (D), (E).

[12] Id.

[13]  UNHCR, States Parties to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol,        http://www.unhcr.org/3b73b0d63.html. In addition Madagascar and St. Kitts & Nevis are parties only to the Convention with its now outmoded temporal limitations. (Id.)