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Michael Beschloss chronicles American ‘Presidents of War’

When it came to involving the nascent republic in military conflict, one of the founding fathers’ biggest fears was that American presidents would be reckless and aggressive to suit their own agendas. Judy Woodruff sits down with presidential historian Michael Beschloss, author of the new book "Presidents of War," to discuss the history of executive war decisions and why they’re problematic.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    On our Bookshelf tonight, presidential historian Michael Beschloss sat down with Judy Woodruff recently to discuss his latest book, called "Presidents of War."

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Michael Beschloss, welcome.

    The book is "Presidents of War: The Epic Story from 1807 to Modern Times."

    Now, we notice it's "Presidents of War" and not at war. There's a reason for that.

  •  Michael Beschloss:

    There is, because a lot of this is presidents deciding to go to war, and not always the way you think.

    I tried to tell this story in a new way, from beginning to end. And there are a lot of times when presidents got us into wars that were not necessary and were based on false reasons. For instance, James Polk contrived an attacked by the Mexicans against us, mainly because he wanted a big war against Mexico to expand the country to the Pacific.

    Or William McKinley in the 1890s, the American ship the Maine was sunk off Havana. We went into this big war against Spain. Turns out it was a boiler accident, wasn't the Spanish.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Why was the decision to go to war, the handling of war so important to you in understanding these presidents?

  • Michael Beschloss:

    That was what the founders were worried about more than anything else when they wrote the Constitution.

    They were worried that presidents would become almost like the kings of Europe who would contrive fake wars when they were unpopular, because it would unite the country and make them a lot more popular than they had been before. So the idea of the Constitution was that presidents would have almost nothing to do with the declaring of war.

    And you look at 200 years later, presidents nowadays can get us into wars almost single-handedly.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what — how were they able to do that? Because you're right. The founders tried to make it hard to do. But they found a way to get around that.

  • Michael Beschloss:

    Presidents basically now will ask for wars and not even go to Congress.

    For instance, the Constitution says you have to get a war declaration. Last time Congress ever declared war was 1942. We have been in a couple wars since then.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You point out the characteristics of presidents who made those decisions wisely. But was different about the presidents who didn't handle those decisions well?

  • Michael Beschloss:

    There's been a lot of lying in American history, I regret to report, especially by presidents.

    Lyndon Johnson, who was so wonderful on civil rights and Medicare, for instance, 1964, there was a reported attack in the Gulf of Tonkin. Johnson went to Congress, said we needed a resolution that will give me authority to respond.

    And found out a couple weeks later that there was no attack at all. Nevertheless, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon waged this tragic war in Vietnam for a decade based on an incident that never occurred.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So are there qualities of character that set presidents apart who made the decision wisely? How much difference does that make?

  • Michael Beschloss:

    Character is exactly what singles out the best of war presidents.

    Abraham Lincoln, for instance, when there were so many Americans being killed from the North, ordered a cemetery built near his summer house to make sure that he would see the coffins being lowered into graves. It was painful to him. But he didn't want to be separated from the consequences of these terrible decisions he was making.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You make news with a number of — result of this incredible research you have done over time, Michael, but — and one of those disclosures that's gotten attention most recently is that — is letting us know that Lyndon Johnson prevented nuclear weapons from being placed in Vietnam.

    We didn't know about this before your work.

  • Michael Beschloss:

    Right.

    I never thought I would get a Sunday New York Times page one story writing this old history book. But LBJ in 1968 had been asked by his commander in Vietnam, William Westmoreland, to move tactical nuclear weapons into South Vietnam for possible use in case the Americans lost a battle.

    And Johnson, who had made some terribly mistaken decisions in Vietnam, to his eternal credit, said, not at all. Shut down the planning. Take those documents, put them in a safe.

    And they were in a safe for about a half-century, which is how I got some of them for the first time, able to write about them later on, Lyndon Johnson's great deed in Vietnam that we really didn't know about. He kept that war from possibly going nuclear. Could have involved Russia and China. Could have involved the fate of the Earth over this civil war in Vietnam.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One of the most memorable observations you make you write about at the first of the book, and at the end, is you said, if the founding fathers came back today, what would they think? They would be thunderstruck to discover the life or death of most of the human race has come to depend on the character of the one person who occupies the American presidency.

    That's sobering.

  • Michael Beschloss:

    And that's true. That's the choice we make. The president of the United States can make a decision about firing nuclear weapons that conceivably could kill a majority of the people on Earth.

    That's the kind of power that's gone to one individual. The founders were terrified of something like that. They wrote — they tried to write a Constitution that wouldn't depend on the president being someone of great judgment and character, because, as you remember, they all felt that not all human beings are angels.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What are the qualities Americans look for in a president who's going to — if there's a decision to go to war, it's the — it's a decision that's been carefully thought through and is truly in the best interest of the American people?

  • Michael Beschloss:

    You have to make sure that if a president asks us for war, and a president will yet again, hopefully not soon, it has to be for something that's absolutely essential for our national interest.

    The American people have to support it, united, and there can't be any lies told about the cause.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, I have to ask this. Since the United States hasn't been seen as winning a war since World War II, what does that say about either the American character, American leadership, the American military? Did you draw any conclusions about that?

  • Michael Beschloss:

    The American military, American soldiers are first-rate, they are courageous. We have seen so many examples of wonderful performance on the battlefield.

    It's our leaders who have let us down. And they have let us down by ignoring the lesson of the founders, which was, you want great decisions on war, make sure a president goes to Congress if he wants war, it's debated, they ask him how long is it going to take, what's your plan, what's the worst that can happen, so that if war then comes after a war declaration, Congress and president have done it together, the American people understand it.

    And, therefore, if there's a war that goes on for a period of time, people are likely to support it. That doesn't happen anymore.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Michael Beschloss. "Presidents of War," it is a remarkable book.

    Thank you.

  • Michael Beschloss:

    Thank you so much, Judy.

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