America's 5 Best Wartime Presidents

Let the debate begin...

Having recently explored the war decisions of the five worst wartime presidents of American history, we turn now to the country’s five greatest war presidents. Their success, like the failure of their counterparts at the bottom of the spectrum, offers lessons of presidential leadership worthy of notice and even study.

As noted earlier, of the country’s forty-four presidents, thirteen were serious war presidents—Madison, Polk, Lincoln, McKinley, Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Nixon, George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Obama. Of these, Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon and Obama inherited wars, while the rest (plus Truman again) initiated them. In all instances, their handling of the conflicts played a key role in the voters’ contemporaneous assessments as well as in history’s subsequent judgment.

The elements of success can be framed through a series of questions. For presidents who initiated wars, some pertinent questions are these:

- Did the president muster popular support for his war before leading the country into conflict?

- Did he maintain popular support throughout the war?

- Did his rationale for war hold up through the conflict and following the peace?

- Did he accomplish his stated wartime goals?

- Did his war prove beneficial to the nation strategically, economically, internally, or in terms of its standing in the world?

- For presidents who inherited wars, the central question is: Did the president improve the inherited situation either through enhanced military action or through deft negotiations—or both?

These are not yes-or-no questions but rather reveal gradations of assessment. For example, H. W. Bush’s First Gulf War benefited his country strategically, but only marginally in comparison to the beneficial outcomes of the wars of Polk, McKinley and FDR, all of which transformed America’s place in the world in powerful ways.

In the end, though, the big question can be simply put: Did the president lead the nation to victory in his war, and how significant was the victory to the nation’s standing and future?

Through the prism of such questions, we can say that the five greatest U.S. wartime presidents were (in order of greatness) Franklin Roosevelt, Lincoln, McKinley, Polk and Nixon.

FDR and World War II:

With war raging in Europe and with Japan pushing further and further into China, Roosevelt knew America would get drawn into the vortex, notwithstanding widespread political opposition to such a development. Thus, he turned his attention away from domestic matters and prepared his country for the coming conflagration. He built up the U.S. military, fostered weapons programs, installed aggressive new leadership in the armed services, and pushed through Congress legislation for the country’s first peacetime military draft. In dealing with his military leaders, he also curtailed the natural managerial manipulation that had characterized his relationships with subordinates on the domestic front; he possessed the wisdom to know that matters of war required a more forthright style.

Once war came, the president spoke candidly to the American people about the magnitude of the coming challenge and its geopolitical stakes. He predicted a “long war” and a “hard war.” The enemy was aligned, he declared, against “the whole human race.” Such declarations inspired the country and fortified it for the president’s planned “total war.” He then presided over what was probably the greatest surge of military construction in history.

He managed an excellent military team that stayed largely intact through the conflict, and he concentrated on broad strategic matters while delegating tactical aspects to his commanders. But he wasn’t afraid to countermand his generals and admirals when he thought he knew best. Historian Kent Robert Greenfield once identified twenty-two Roosevelt decisions rendered “against the advice, or over the protests, of his military advisers.” He also catalogued thirteen major military decisions instigated by FDR on his own, including the firing of General Joseph Stilwell and the selection of North Africa as the site of the war’s first Allied offensive. He also cleverly kept his troops out of the European theater until after Stalin’s Russia had roughed up the German war machine to such an extent that U.S. casualties were significantly curtailed from what they would have been with an earlier invasion on the Continent.

When it was over, the world was a new place, with American power at the center of the global sphere. The American Century had begun, largely through the vision and leadership of the man in the White House.

Lincoln and the Civil War:

We tend to forget—and probably don’t wish to acknowledge—just how close Lincoln came to losing his 1865 reelection bid because of the lingering carnage of the Civil War and the president’s apparent haplessness in the struggle. The president himself fully anticipated defeat, which he acknowledged in a private note to himself in late August of the campaign year. Then the war quickly took a new turn highly favorable to the Union. General William Sherman took Atlanta, while General Phillip Sheridan gained dominance over the Shenandoah Valley, the Confederates’ crucial supply source. Then the last rebel ramming vessel, the Albemarle, was sunk, ending rebel resistance to the Union’s naval blockade. These victories in the field dramatically altered the political landscape at home, paving the way for Lincoln’s reelection and place in history.