The renowned historian explores America’s wars through its presidents.
In another masterful work of research, NBC News presidential historian Beschloss (Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789-1989, 2007, etc.) demonstrates his erudite grasp of the history of the executive branch. The Founders gave Congress the power to “declare” (not make) war; the executive has power only to repel attacks. The author begins with the War of 1812 and notes that it was the most unpopular war ever, including Vietnam. As Beschloss writes, “the 1812 conflict proved to be the first major test of this constitutional system for waging war. The Mexican-American War, under James Polk, began after the Thornton Affair in 1846, when American troops actually provoked an attack. That gave Polk the excuse to pursue Manifest Destiny and seize land all the way to the Pacific Ocean; he also expanded slavery. Again, this went against the Founders’ wish to end the monarchical habit of waging war for secret reasons under false pretenses. In all American wars, opponents have been marginalized as unpatriotic, but Lincoln and the Civil War were different. He wouldn’t ask Congress for a declaration of war because he would never accept the legality of secession. He did, however, wait patiently for the attack on Fort Sumter, and his extraordinary authority was affirmed by Congress and the courts. The Spanish-American War was triggered by the explosion of the Maine in Havana Harbor. While he didn’t necessarily want Cuba, it gave President William McKinley the chance to annex Hawaii and, in a clear case of mission creep, the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. On another tack, Woodrow Wilson did all he could to avoid war. Beschloss goes on to skillfully cover World War II and Vietnam. As he clearly shows throughout this illuminating narrative, during every war, the president has received extraordinary powers; some used it well, while others abused it.
The author’s highly readable style and ability to pinpoint the most relevant facts make this a perfect book for any student of American history and its presidents.