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Presidents of war (Michael Beschloss)

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A 19th-century illustration imagining Lincoln issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.CreditCreditRossiter Johnson (v @nytimes)

By Jay Winik (Oct. 11, 2018) The New York Times

PRESIDENTS OF WAR
By Michael Beschloss
Illustrated. 739 pp. Crown. $35.

The most agonizing decisions presidents make are invariably during wartime, especially when battles are lost and body counts pile up. During one of the bloodiest campaigns of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln paced the corridors of the White House, his head bowed, hands behind his back, muttering over and over, “I must have some relief from this terrible anxiety or it will kill me.” It practically did. The Korean War was almost equally taxing for Harry Truman, who in a moment of candor admitted that under the strain, “I lost my temper.” When the normally unshakable Franklin Roosevelt picked up the phone to get briefed on the start of the North African campaign, his hand was shaking. And as the Vietnam War increasingly went awry, so did Lyndon Johnson, who became a broken man; Richard Nixon called him “unbelievable.”

How presidents deal with war is the subject of the historian Michael Beschloss’s latest work, a sweeping overview of presidents leading the United States through almost two centuries of conflict. “Presidents of War” is a marvelous narrative that opens with James Madison, the father of the Constitution and a reluctant warrior during the War of 1812, desperately fleeing for his life, his table still set for dinner, while British troops torched Washington. From there, Beschloss takes us through the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II and Korea. He ends with America’s humiliating loss in Vietnam.

Along the way, we see presidents plotting strategy, maneuvering with Congress (which plays a large role in this book) and conferring with confidants, while their families weigh in on critical decisions. We see presidents leading great public debates — or failing to. And we see presidents exhibiting a myriad of emotions, depressed or elated, pugnacious or regretful, wise or foolish. Beschloss has a thesis about all this, and it’s an important one. Echoing the sentiments of the founders, he posits that the nation should go to war only when there is an “absolute necessity” and only with overwhelming support from Congress and the public.

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