America's 5 Worst Wartime Presidents
No presidential decision is as politically hazardous as the war decision. That’s because voters are quicker and more ferocious in turning on their chief executives when wars go awry than when events become troublesome in other areas of governance. Woe be to the president who finds himself in a war he can’t win and can’t get out of, or finds that the price of war far outweighs the promised benefits, or learns that the rationale for war doesn’t hold up.
Herewith, then, a catalogue of the country’s five worst wartime presidents, men who took their country to war, or continued an inherited war, but couldn’t bring success to the war effort. In four instances, we can see what kind of price they paid, or their parties paid, for their lack of success. In the fifth instance, the case of Barack Obama’s war decisions in Iraq, Afghanistan and surrounding Mideast lands, it’s still an open question what kind of price will be paid.
Of the country’s forty-four chief executives, thirteen were serious war presidents, four through inheritance and the rest through initiation. They are: Madison, Polk, Lincoln, McKinley, Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Truman (by inheritance and initiation), Eisenhower (by inheritance), Lyndon Johnson, Nixon (by inheritance), George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Obama (by inheritance). Of these, the clear failures were Wilson, Truman, Johnson, and George W. Bush. Obama occupies a kind of middle territory, but ultimately he must be placed in the circle of those who couldn’t bring success to their wartime management. (Madison is the subject of ongoing historical debate as to his success or failure as a wartime president, but I consider him, on balance, more of a success than a failure, for reasons outlined in my book, Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.)
Wilson and World War I:
The lesson of Wilson and World War I is that when presidents take the country to war, they must protect the home front as far as possible. Wilson’s war devastated the American home front while also contributing to European chaos that helped spawn World War II.
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In standing for reelection in 1916, Wilson took credit for keeping his country out of the European war. Then, immediately upon winning the election, he sought to get his country into the war. In fairness, he faced a fearsome challenge of neutrality with the British blockade against the Central Powers—designed, as the pugnacious Winston Churchill put it, “to starve the whole population [of Germany]—men, women, and children, old and young, wounded and sound, into submission.” To counter that serious threat, the Germans initiated submarine attacks to stop munitions shipments to Britain and counteract the blockade. Facing this thicket, Wilson unwisely violated the principle of neutrality by observing the British blockade while allowing British merchant ships access to U.S. ports, thus making America complicit in armament shipments to Britain. He also declared that Germany would be held accountable for any U.S. loss of life or property from German submarine attacks as the Germans desperately sought some relief from the blockade and arms shipments to Britain.
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Wilson’s secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, saw that this lopsided approach would lead to war. He warned Wilson, then resigned in protest. But Wilson continued his policy until he got the war he wanted. Events then made a mockery of his gauzy notions about America being “the light which will shine unto all generations and guide the feet of mankind to the goal of justice and liberty and peace.”
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Instead, once he broke the military stalemate on the Continent and fostered the Versailles peace conference, he came up against some powerful nationalist forces, personified by France’s relentless Georges Clemenceau and Britain’s David Lloyd George. Inevitably, his idealism was mocked by the realities of geography, power differentials, cultural passions, and national interest. Many scholars have argued that Germany was crushed under the Allied boot with such harshness that a subsequent war became inevitable. In his book The Kings Depart, historian Richard Watt wrote, “The single name most inextricably bound up with the Treaty of Versailles, and consequently with its failure, was that of Thomas Woodrow Wilson. The dream of a world of happy peoples, each assembled into an entity of its own nationality and living in its own historical geographic location, were now seen to have been imbecilic wishes which could not and would not come true.”
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