A war has the power to shape a president's stature among the public like almost no other event can. But history shows us that first impressions can change as the years go by.
On April 12, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln had been on the job for just six weeks when Southern troops attack Ft. Sumter in South Carolina the Confederate states are fighting to leave the Union. "He does not believe that the states have the power to secede the Union legally," says Colleen Shogan, Assistant Professor of Government and Public Affairs at George Mason University. "But Lincoln is always three steps ahead of everyone else. That's sort of Lincoln's gift. He waits until the Confederates fire upon Fort Sumter."
It becomes the bloodiest conflict on U.S. soil. 550,000 die in the five years of civil war, and Lincoln's reputation is stained as well. According to presidential historian Robert Dallek, "he wasn't seen as a great leader by any stretch of the imagination. He's called the original baboon, he's described as the worst president in American history, as a catastrophe."
Half a century later, a reluctant Woodrow Wilson faces the decision of going to war. The sinking of the Lusitania by Germany in 1915 sets the stage for the U.S. to be drawn into World War I two years later. Wilson calls it the "war to end all wars," and promises that it will "make the world safe for democracy." But 116,000 Americans die. While Wilson helps win the war, the peace is lost. The Treaty of Versailles fails, and so does Wilson's global vision of a League of Nations.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt's defining moment is also prompted by events at sea those of December 7, 1941. After the heavy cost paid during World War I, Americans were hesitant to get involved in another world war. But the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor instantly rallies public opinion. FDR sets the groundwork for defeating Hitler in Europe, even though he doesn't live to see the victory.
That victory came on Harry Truman's watch, who, with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, also ends the war against the Japanese. But later in Truman's term, a new kind of enemy emerges communism.
In June 1950, North Korea attacks South Korea. According to Dallek, Truman "decides that this is a heck of a lot like 1938 when the British and French appeased Hitler." With the backing of the infant United Nations, Truman leads the U.S. into the country's first undeclared war. But by 1953 almost 37,000 American troops are dead. With no victory in sight, Truman chooses not to run for re-election. Dwight D. Eisenhower wins the presidency by promising to bring the troops home.
From this point on, the enemies become more abstract, and harder to fight. In Vietnam, several different administrations are sucked in. But Lyndon Johnson takes on the challenge of trying to win an unwinnable conflict and fails. "People march up and down outside the White House shouting, 'Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?'," says Dallek. With his popularity plummeting, Johnson decides in 1968 not to run again.
Like Eisenhower, Richard Nixon wins the presidency vowing to end the war. But it rages on for five more years, with the U.S. finally pulling out of Vietnam in 1973.
For George Herbert Walker Bush, the Persian Gulf conflict in 1991 is a relatively quick war. Responding to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, Bush garners global support. "He actually goes to the telephone," says Shogan. "He calls up world leaders, fellow presidents, fellow prime ministers, and rallies an international coalition. There is an international force that liberates Kuwait."
Twelve years later, it is the remnants of that conflict that take America to war in Iraq again.
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