Presidents of War | Michael R. Beschloss

Summary of: Presidents of War: The Epic Story, from 1807 to Modern Times
By: Michael R. Beschloss


In ‘Presidents of War: The Epic Story, from 1807 to Modern Times’, Michael R. Beschloss takes us on a journey examining the decisions and actions of various U.S. presidents during times of war. Delving into the complicated histories of conflicts like the Chesapeake Affair, the War of 1812, Civil War, Spanish-American war, World War One, and Vietnam War, Beschloss investigates the motivations, political savvy, and constitutional challenges faced by the leaders who navigated these tumultuous periods. The book summary provided showcases how each president approached their wartime challenges, their successes or failures, and the impact of their decisions on the nation and its people.

Jefferson’s Diplomatic Genius

In 1807, American frigate USS Chesapeake was intercepted by the British vessel HMS Leopard, almost leading to war between the two countries. Thomas Jefferson, America’s 3rd president, knew the United States was unprepared for another war and used his diplomatic genius to keep his country out of the conflict. Although he faced public pressure and anti-British sentiment, he dispatched an envoy to London and demanded the sailors’ return, an apology, and reparation. While waiting for the British reply, he prepared the military in case diplomacy failed and reminded aggressive politicians that only Congress had the power to declare war. His efforts paid off when Britain agreed to his terms, and war was avoided. Jefferson’s wise decision is a model that modern presidents can learn from.

The War of 1812

This book summary highlights how the War of 1812 between the United States and the British could have been avoided if James Madison had shown the same restraint as his predecessor, Thomas Jefferson. The United States had two legitimate grievances against Britain – impressment of US sailors and restrictions imposed on American ships trading with France. However, these issues could have been resolved diplomatically. The combative Senator from Kentucky, Henry Clay, agitated for war with Britain to avenge American honor and to seize disputed territory from Canada. Political pressure against Madison increased after the War Hawks developed a pro-war political faction in Congress. Madison sought a promise from the British to end impressment, but they rebuffed him, so he asked Congress for a declaration of war. The United States started the war disastrously, with a failed invasion of Canada and the seizure of Washington by British troops. The United States eventually won the war because of British preoccupation with the Napoleonic Wars.

James Polk’s Manifest Destiny

With a veteran politician’s election to presidency, the United States fell into its most shameful and self-serving wartime episode with Mexico. President James Polk believed in manifest destiny, the American destiny to expand throughout North America, which included a white settlement of Mexico. To get his way, Polk manufactured a war and manufactured a pretext to showcase Mexico as the aggressor. The war lasted for two bloody years before the US annexed over one million square miles of Mexican territory, claiming thousands of lives. This summary highlights Polk’s immoral motives and how he manipulated the situation to achieve them.

Lincoln’s Leadership

When Abraham Lincoln was elected as the President in 1861 and declared his opposition to slavery, southern states seceded and formed the Confederate States of America. Despite Lincoln’s diplomatic efforts to resolve the dispute, the South declared war. He refused to declare war as he did not want to recognize the Confederacy as a separate nation. However, he prepared his side for the war, imposing a naval blockade on southern states and adding eight regiments to the US Army. While he was the great wartime leader, he also abused civil liberties by suspending the habeas corpus and declaring martial law in Maryland. Nonetheless, through his speeches and letters, he constantly kept in touch with the public and boosted their morale. Eventually, Lincoln expanded the aims of the Civil War to include the abolition of slavery, which turned a government attempting to crush a rebellion into a moral war – an achievement not repeated for decades.

The Spanish-American War and McKinley’s Ambitions

In 1895, a rebellion broke out in Cuba against Spanish colonial rule, causing a humanitarian crisis. The US initially hesitated to intervene, but an explosion on the USS Maine, which was blamed on Spain, caused public outcry and led to Congress approving military intervention. The war began and ended three months later with the US emerging victoriously and becoming a world power. The ironic truth that the Maine was sunk by onboard fire was only revealed years later. Although President McKinley started the war with the intention of giving Cuba its independence, his ambitions quickly expanded to include the seizure of territories like Guam, Hawaii, and the Philippines. Driven by the desire for an American empire, he pursued such territorial ambitions reluctantly and with a flawed logic that claimed it was America’s duty to “civilize” people in those territories. His actions ultimately paved the way for American dominance but at the cost of other nations’ sovereignty.

The Downfall of President Wilson

President Wilson of the United States initially maintained a policy of neutrality during World War One, even after German aggression resulted in American civilian casualties. However, with growing pro-war sentiment in the US, Wilson was re-elected with the promise of keeping the US out of the conflict. But when Germany offered assistance to Mexico in a communication intercepted by the British, the US declared war on Germany in 1917. Wilson, a notorious hard and self-righteous leader, instituted a loyalty test for government employees and remained coldly silent as thousands of Americans died during the war. After the war, instead of showing gratitude to the American people, Wilson celebrated in opulent victory parades and did not include any senior Republicans on his peace delegation. He also failed to reassure the public about the newly created League of Nations, which was ultimately unpopular and never joined by the US.

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