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.
(Recommended: America's 5 Best Wartime Presidents)
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.
(Recommended: 5 Worst U.S. Presidents of All Time)
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.”
(Recommended: 6 Best U.S. Presidents of All Time)
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.”
(Recommended: Does America Trust Barack Obama?)
But in the meantime, the war crushed America’s domestic front. The national economy flipped out of control. Inflation surged into double digits. Gross Domestic Product turned downward, with no growth in 1919, a 2.24 percent decline in 1920, and a further 4.16 decline in Wilson’s final budget year of 1921. Civil liberties were trampled by the notorious attorney general, Mitchell Palmer. Labor upheaval also ensued. Contributing to his appearance of haplessness was a series of strokes that sent him into White House seclusion. By Election Day of 1920, Wilson’s party was so discredited that it lost the White House in a GOP landslide, as well as sixty-three House seats and eleven in the Senate. The country has seen few political repudiations of such magnitude.
Johnson and Vietnam:
LBJ, upon becoming president at the death of John Kennedy, instantly saw the fateful implications in the “damn mess,” as he called Vietnam. He even asked his friend and mentor, Georgia’s Democratic senator Richard Russell, to attack the Vietnam commitment on the Senate floor so he could use the speech as cover for withdrawal. But Russell declined, and Johnson plunged ahead with a policy that took the country’s military commitment from 16,700 military advisers to a full-flung expeditionary force of nearly 540,000 troops in an anti-guerrilla effort that seemed to have no end in sight.
Many historians have argued that this adventure was doomed from the start because even a superpower such as the United States couldn’t hold sway over events in an exotic, far-off land such as Vietnam. Perhaps. But Johnson’s greatest mistake was accepting the military strategy developed by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and his Vietnam commander, General William Westmoreland. They rejected the idea of taking the war to the enemy and embraced a war of attrition, a resolve to kill so many Vietnamese communist that the sponsoring regime in North Vietnam would “cry uncle” and negotiate a settlement. This was folly. In the end, it was America’s “body count” that obliterated domestic support for the war.
This strategic illusion hit the American consciousness with a shattering force with the communist Tet offensive of January 1968, which unleashed 70,000 troops on American command posts and other strategic targets. The American counteroffensive proved devastating, killing some 37,000 communists to just 2,500 Americans killed. But the display of communist capability and resolve after four years of war destroyed America’s appetite for a conflict that now looked hopeless. Johnson, seeing his own presidency also devastated, announced his retirement two months after Tet.
It fell to Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, to extricate America from this quagmire while also trying to preserve America’s ability to sway events in Asia at a time of profound regional change and challenge. It’s a testament to his vision and skill that he managed to lure China out of its angry isolation at the same time he was executing a delicate and dangerous Vietnam retreat amid fearsome political agitations at home.
George W. Bush and Iraq:
Bush encountered just about every trap in the path of presidents who take their country to war. First, he embraced a preventive-war doctrine, which heightened all the other dangers since such a war is more difficult to justify in philosophical terms. Dwight Eisenhower summarily rejected the concept of preventive war and said he would kick out of his office anybody who suggested such a thing.
Next, Bush crafted a war rationale—Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction and ties to terrorist groups—that didn’t hold up once it became possible to test the thesis. This gave war critics at home stores of rhetorical ammunition with which to attack his policies. Additionally, like Wilson, he offered a picture of what his war would accomplish that also proved wispy and chimerical. He sold the war as an initiative to establish a democratic beachhead in the heartland of Islam, thus paving the way for an era of progress and stability in the region. With the possible exception of Woodrow Wilson, no president ever encased his war effort in a cocoon of idealism as frivolous as that.
Eventually, he did manage to bring about a modicum of stability with the so-called Surge, but that consisted in negotiating accommodations with Sunni forces far more than in any serious military success. In the end, he simply announced a timetable for withdrawal with the hope that things would remain relatively stable in the land he had totally upended. Of course, they didn’t. More than that, his destabilization of Iraq proved contagious in the region, and Bush’s war contributed to the rise of passions and conflicts that have unleashed further sectarian turmoil and fostered the rise of the kind of Islamist radicalism that was the true U.S. enemy after 9/11. Like Wilson and Johnson, Bush’s failure devastated his party in subsequent elections as the American people expressed their anger at his folly.