The American Presidency at War
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Abraham Lincoln was an extraordinary wartime leader. He led the country through its most trying ordeal, a civil war that spanned nearly his entire presidency and took a greater toll in American lives than all the other conflicts with which this book will deal put together. At several points during the struggle, he faced the prospect of both military and electoral defeat, either of which would have spelled the end of the nation. His decisions and determination led to a triumph that also ended the brutal system of chattel slavery. The republic took the first tentative steps toward the “new birth of freedom” that he articulated as the ultimate goal of the terrible sacrifices the war imposed. Our martyred sixteenth president accordingly, and appropriately, has been elevated to a kind of secular sainthood.
Lincoln’s performance still calls for critical reappraisal. Even his admirers acknowledge its flaws. This should be no surprise: Lincoln may have been extraordinary, but even he could not escape the impossible leadership demands and inherent conflicts that all wartime presidents face. It is unreasonable to hold them to a standard of perfection. We should instead weigh their full record, recognizing the challenges they met as they guided a nation through military conflict, challenges that grew in magnitude with the scale of the war.
Lincoln struggled to master the multiple responsibilities of the political leader of a nation at war. As James McPherson, Eric Foner, and other historians have observed, Lincoln’s political objectives evolved over the course of the Civil War as the nature of the conflict changed, and one of his signature achievements was to reshape political goals accordingly. Lincoln chose to play a hands-on role in directing the war. Eliot Cohen, unsurprisingly, depicts him as the paragon of effective wartime political leadership, the model to which any president commanding a conflict should aspire. But there is more to the story. Lincoln established an overall strategy for pursuing victory and kept his military subordinates focused on that strategy. In the end, victory depended less on his active direction than on the strategic course he established when he embraced emancipation. Moreover, he took a back seat during the final campaigns. It is not clear, then, that he can serve Cohen’s prescriptive purpose. Interestingly, the Civil War provides us with a second example of an active politico-military chief executive, Lincoln’s Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis. A comparison of the two presidents is revealing: Davis demonstrated that a political leader’s close involvement in military matters is no guarantee of success.
Further, wartime political leadership involves more than military matters, and we therefore need to extend analysis of Lincoln beyond the military realm. Two other leadership tasks stand out: maintaining popular support for the war effort and planning for peace. Both require as much active direction as military affairs. Here Lincoln’s record is mixed. He did well in meeting the political challenge of keeping up Union morale, which was severely tested time and again. Given the depth of partisan strife in the North, this was an impressive achievement, though I will show that he was aided not just by his own skills but by the resources of the Republican Party.
Reproduced with permission by Oxford University Press © Andrew J. Polsky 2012
Review by Geoffrey Wawro
This is a smart, well-argued book that eschews cheerleading and hagiography to examine closely the constraints of presidential power.
The title sums up the author’s thesis: that real victory in war is fiendishly hard to achieve. Wars rarely go as scripted, and then sprawl across administrations. Even after the peace, they leave unresolved problems lying around like unexploded grenades. Polsky begins with a brisk theoretical contrast of Samuel P. Huntington and Eliot Cohen. In his 1957 The Soldier and the State, Huntington recommended that statesmen hand off war to soldiers until the close of military operations, at which point statesmen would resume control. Cohen’s Supreme Command (2002) argued the opposite course; indeed it became a neo-con bible. Taking stock of military failures like McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign or the early British defeats in North Africa, Cohen argued that statesmen like Churchill and Lincoln prove the necessity of constant civilian management of military affairs. Another of Cohen’s subjects—Clemenceau, who sparred with Foch—famously quipped that “war is too serious a business to be left to the generals.”
Polsky challenges both views, by demystifying the “great men” of history. He judges Lincoln’s record mixed, not brilliant. The 16th president tolerated too many politically appointed generals—Republican hacks and “War Democrats” like McClellan and Buell—even at the cost of military effectiveness. He then handed the war off to the soldiers once he found fighting generals like Grant, Sherman and Sheridan. Lincoln’s disastrous choice of Andrew Johnson as vice president pointed again to constraints—the need to keep Democrats happy—which made post-war Reconstruction so much more fraught and difficult.
Each chapter is a marvelous dissection of presidential strategy and leadership. Woodrow Wilson, like Bush 43 later, made the mistake of seeking too much “transformative change.” Wilson wanted “a world safe for democracy”; Bush wanted “a New Middle East.” None of this froth was attainable, but Polsky paints the paradox of American power: voters will not get excited about narrow goals; they need a big civilizing mission. But if the mission falters or is too costly—as has been the case in just about every conflict except World War II—voters and congressmen abandon ship, leaving the president weak and friendless.
FDR cuts a generally impressive figure, but Polsky contrasts him unfavorably with Lincoln. Among Honest Abe’s great strengths was his candor at all times and tight control of the executive branch. FDR was too permissive, letting, for example, junior officials force a breach with Japan at the very moment FDR was crafting a “Germany First” strategy. This was strategic nonsense that made the war thornier than it needed to be. Whereas Lincoln told the American people what was happening and what to expect, FDR was devious, never forcefully making the case for rearmament, belligerency and the draft until Pearl Harbor removed all political risk. That has tarnished his legacy, for there is ample evidence that he manipulated events to prod an isolationist America into the Second World War. That was a necessary evil, but it set a dangerous precedent in a democratic republic.
Hardcover Book : 456 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press ( June 01, 2012 )
Item #: 13-588001
Product Dimensions: 6.125 x 9.25 x 1.14inches
Product Weight: 23.0 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)