Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


‘Presidents of War’: Historian Michael Beschloss on leaders who’ve taken U.S. into battle

One of his first points yesterday was that every war president has become more religious after making the decision to shed blood.

Michael Beschloss
Michael Beschloss speaking to forum attendees on Tuesday.
Courtesy of the Westminster Town Hall Forum

Michael Beschloss had me right off the top. In his opening remarks Tuesday, to an audience at the great Westminster Town Hall Forum, about his latest book, “Presidents of War.” It’s an overview of U.S. presidents who have taken us into war. The Beschloss remark that grabbed me was: “I think we have gotten into too many wars in American history.”

So do I. But Beschloss decided to study all the presidents who have made the decision to lead our nation into war (not counting George W. Bush and the Iraq war, because it’s too recent for historical perspective, Beschloss said) to see what he could figure out about how that decision gets made by presidents.

One of his first points yesterday was that every war president has become more religious after making the decision to shed blood. Abe Lincoln, who had been something between agnostic and atheist as a young man, took to reading the bible during the Civil War. He told friends that the responsibility for sending thousands of young men to their death had inspired him to seek biblical guidance.

Beschloss also noted that all the war presidents were “married to strong women,” some of whom influenced their husband’s war thinking, and some of whose marriages suffered. Eleanor Roosevelt, for example, urged her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt, during World War II not to intern Japanese-Americans in barbed-wire encampments. FDR did it anyway. Friends said that the Roosevelt marriage was never the same after their disagreement on that matter, Beschloss said.

Article continues after advertisement

President must be a ‘moral leader’

Beschloss struggled with the morality of war, and rendered some judgments, including a conclusion that the most important quality for a war leader was that the president must be a “moral leader.”

“If a president ever has the sad duty of taking us into war for necessary reasons, we have to make certain he does it as a moral leader,” said Beschloss. “And Lincoln is the best example of that.”

In fact, Lincoln’s justification for fighting the Civil War evolved, Beschloss said, from a legal to a moral one. Lincoln was not an abolitionist before the war, although he considered slavery wrong. The original justification for the war was to prevent the secession of the Southern states.

But, by the end, Lincoln spoke of the war as “a moral crusade to abolish the sin of slavery,” which, Beschloss said, turned the cause of the war from “a technical, legal war” over whether states had the right secede into a necessary purging of slavery from our country.

“That was American moral leadership at its finest,” said Beschloss. “I wish we had it today.”

I go to a lot of the Westminster Town Halls (MinnPost, by the way, is among the sponsors of the series, but I have held the lecture series in high regard since long before MinnPost existed), and many of them do not fill the hall. But Beschloss filled it, and some attendees ended up listening to it from the overflow room. Without any evidence, I attribute the big turnout in part to the Trump moment, and Minnesotans’ desire, when others go low, to “go high,” as Michelle Obama used to urge (and the former first lady was talking about Trump without using his name).

Qualms about current leadership

Beschloss, likewise, didn’t mention Donald Trump during his prepared remarks, and only once, in passing, during the Q and A. But “I wish we had [American moral leadership] today” was one of several moments during the talk when his qualms about the current occupant of the Oval Office seemed to come through. Likewise, Beschloss said, without mentioning the name of the current occupant of the Oval Office, “I never, ever, heard a president refer to the press as the ‘enemy of the people.’” But, of course, he has heard of it now, from the unnamed current occupant.

In fact, during the Q and A that followed Beschloss’ opening remarks, he was asked explicitly for his impressions of Trump. He begged off, saying that he is a historian and has learned that, reasonably often, documents and other evidence that become public after a president has left office change our view.

Article continues after advertisement

Beschloss also gave an example of something that came out after a president had left office, which changed his view. Beschloss seems to have generally admired Lyndon Johnson, whom he referred to as “that big-hearted man.”

When the assassination of John F. Kennedy made LBJ president, he inherited the mess in Vietnam and the growing U.S. combat role. Years after LBJ’s presidency was over, tapes surfaced of LBJ talking to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. In a February, 1965 tape, McNamara pressed LBJ to commit more troops to Vietnam. And Johnson replied (Beschloss may have been paraphrasing): “I don’t see anything worse than losing [the Vietnam War], and I don’t see that we can win.”

Beschloss added: “I don’t understand how that big-hearted man could have sent all those people off to fight a war that he didn’t think could be won.”

While he seemed reluctant to take a hard line against LBJ and some other war presidents, Beschloss was more explicit in rendering a negative judgment against another president, one who is often portrayed favorably in history, namely Woodrow Wilson, the president who took the United States into World War I in 1917.

Beschloss noted that Wilson was re-elected in 1916 on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War,” meaning World War I, which had raged in Europe since 1914. But less than a year into his second term, Wilson led the United into World War I (and, Beschloss implied, expected to do so even as he ran as a peace candidate).

In fact, Beschloss said, American unhappiness with the results of World War I made it much harder for FDR to overcome isolationist sentiment and get the country into World War II (“in which,” he said, “we saved the world.”)