Book Talk: Presidents at War: Hands On Vs. Hands Off

Andrew J. Polsky says in the Afterword for Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War that his study was born just after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. But it took “a very different turn” as he wrote it. Instead of being just another liberal lament “about excesses of executive authority,” it came to express a view more conservative than he had intended: “a profound sense of the limits of power.”

The George Bush-Dick Cheney debacle in Iraq spurred Polsky, a professor of political science at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, to broaden his historical horizon, and he has chosen seven wartime presidencies from Abraham Lincoln’s to Barack Obama’s for his analysis. The trend he reveals is discouraging: Presidential management of “wartime leadership challenges … appears to be worsening over time.” Polsky keeps a full ledger of pluses and minuses on his belligerent commanders-in-chief, and even the two he admires most — Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt — “made their fair share of miscalculations and missteps.”

Elusive Victories offers a rubric of six “challenges” facing presidents who make war: deciding whether and when to do so; planning militarily, diplomatically and politically for it; clearly identifying the war’s ultimate objectives; assuring that the generals and their strategy serve these objectives; nurturing support for the war diplomatically abroad; and finally, sustaining homeland support through the duration of the conflict. Polsky adds a final non-military responsibility that is seldom addressed: “presidents have done worst in preparing for peace, the most vexing of all wartime tasks,” he says in his final pages.

Polsky is obliged to set his analysis of war powers in the context of some huge conflicts (the Civil War, World Wars I and II) and two local but protracted wars (Vietnam and Iraq/Afghanistan). He has produced remarkably succinct summaries.

The opening chapter about Lincoln behind the military scene will nicely complement the Steven Spielberg-Tony Kushner “Lincoln” film. Polsky finds the same rhetorical and political skills that saved the Emancipation Proclamation made him an effective salesman for the war. His “unparalleled rhetorical talents” were displayed in his public letters (he made few speeches during the war and never addressed Congress).

In his first chapter Polsky sets up the binary of “active direction” versus “objective control” Oval Officers — “hands-on” and “hands-off” in layman’s terms. He concludes that Lincoln began as the former but became the latter when he settled in with

Ulysses S. Grant. His challenge began at the

start of the war: the  Union had “no

professional military

organization” (16,000 in uniform grew to 647,000 in a year). Polsky says it took Lincoln just a year to become “an insightful military planner,” though he faults him for “doing too little and waiting too long to lay the foundations for Reconstruction.” Luckily, his errors as a military leader “pale in comparison to those of Jefferson Davis,” his rival president.

Woodrow Wilson is cast as “the anti-Lincoln,” dithering for three years before declaring war on Germany in April 1917, then happy to leave military leadership to Gen. John Pershing. In his speech to Congress he also sprang on the world a new rationale for war — “the ultimate peace of the world.” With this promise, Polsky says, Wilson “vastly over-reached,” almost assuring an isolationist backlash later on. The promise also put him at odds with his allies in Britain and France, who were fighting to preserve their war-flung empires.

Polsky believes the war had a disastrous effect at home, thanks to Wilson, who supported the persecution of those who opposed it. The erosion of his political capital after peace led to the congressional torpedoing of the League of Nations. This emphasizes, for Polsky, “how problematic presidents find peace-building.”

After equivocating for a few years, Roosevelt RSVP’d to the invitation of Pearl Harbor and entered WW II. He became “a highly effective wartime chief executive.” Like Lincoln, FDR was a hands-on leader in the early stages and later became more laissez-faire. He too was vastly out-manned at first, with 15,000 troops to 2 million Germans. And as with Wilson, his domestic programs suffered in war. Also like Lincoln and Wilson, FDR lucked into the choice of a very able general staff, most notably George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower.

Polsky also praises how Roosevelt learned from the League of Nations demise and shrewdly encouraged bipartisan support for the United Nations, and he admires Roosevelt’s foresight in beginning to plan for peace as soon as he declared war. He also surpassed Winston Churchill because he was “the kind of hands-on leader who often preferred not  to leave his fingerprints on a decision” (he insisted on no minutes at top-level deliberations to allow leeway for later mind-changing).

The chapter on Vietnam begins on two grim notes: It is the only war Polsky covers that was lost, and it brought down two presidents: Lyndon Baines Johnson and Richard Nixon. It did not help that LBJ refused to explain his decision to escalate troop strength, or that he placed so much faith in an old-school general (William Westmore-land) unsuited for a guerrilla war. Polsky accounts his leadership as erratically changing from hands-on to hands-off, and — this is a main theme of Elusive Victories — his decisions often constricting his future freedom of action. From 1965 to 1968 Johnson “was a commander-in-chief in name only.”

Nixon regained some breathing room with his “Peace with Honor” mantra, but he was finally done in by underestimating (like Johnson) “the enemy’s determination.” And his peace-building efforts were “a mixture of secrecy … and cynicism.” Vietnam proved a “dismal chapter in wartime presidential leadership.”

The Iraq War, Polsky notes, is his book’s only war of choice. His “final reckoning”: “The outcome in Iraq exemplifies the consequences of misguided wartime leadership. Bush mishandled nearly all of the tasks a wartime president faces.”

The chapter on Obama is titled “Inheriting a Bad Hand” and is aptly just a dozen pages. That’s because he missed the part of deciding whether to go to war, because the war in Afghanistan (and also in Iraq) is still in medias res, and because Obama began his wartime presidency “with a narrow scope for action.”

Polsky’s conclusion offers four final kernels of wisdom drawn from his research: “exhaust every alternative to military intervention”; “aim low … that is, establish modest goals”; “plan backward [from] the desired political outcome”; and, finally, “recognize that freedom of action declines … the inescapable dynamic of wartime leadership … is the loss of control or discretion.”

Oh, and one other scary thing. At the end Polsky, who thinks the War Powers Resolution of 1973 has proved a failure, reminds us: “No effective check on presidential power to engage the nation in military conflict seems in the offing.”

By Gary Schmidgall

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