From Lincoln to Obama: 'Elusive Victories' in War

Friday, June 22, 2012

The 2012 election marks the first time in nearly 70 years that neither presidential candidate has served in the military. Since the election of 1944, when Thomas Dewey challenged President Franklin Roosevelt, every mainstream presidential candidate boasted a stint in the armed forces. Even in 1944, President Roosevelt had at least served as assistant secretary of the Navy. But is military experience necessary to be an effective commander-in-chief during wartime? How did military service influence Lincoln in the Civil War, Johnson in Vietnam, or Bush in Iraq and Afghanistan?

These leaders and other wartime presidents have led our troops into a wide range of battles since our country's founding. War has shaped the executive office itself, particularly when it comes to the power available to a wartime President. While the nature of war has changed dramatically since Lincoln led the North to victory in 1865, Presidents from Wilson to Obama have faced similar challenges in wartime. 

Andrew Polsky is a professor of political science at Hunter College. In his new book "Elusive Victories," Polsky illustrates the impact of war on sitting presidents, the most notable example being Abraham Lincoln and the outbreak of the American Civil War. 

"Lincoln has no military experience, and learns on the job," Polsky says. "He learns very well, and does a good job as a wartime president." He at first failed to gain the respect of his generals, but Lincoln realized that the officers under his command had about as much experience with large-scale war as he did. 

"He realized that he would have to actively intervene and steer his generals, and that worked for him in the first part of the war. Later in the war he stepped back and let his generals, like [Ulysses S.] Grant, take on most of the responsibilities for conducting campaigns."  

Polsky also discusses Lincoln's keen sense of political timing. "He spoke plainly to the American people, and he didn't hide from the critics." 

Lincoln's experience differs from that of Lyndon B. Johnson, whose key mistake, Polsky says, was that he lost his freedom of action. He did not manage the ground war in South Vietnam very closely, and failed to stay in tune with how well the conflict was progressing. 

"He was prepared to defer too much to the military on the conduct of the war," Polsky says. "Johnson never had a clear, coherent strategy for the Vietnam War." The historian faults Johnson for not looking closely enough at alternate political and military strategies, instead giving the military too free a rein. 

In preparing for the Iraq War, George W. Bush examined President Johnson's handling of Vietnam and came away with a different conclusion: "George W. Bush looked at Johnson and thought that he had made a mistake in micromanaging the war." Johnson had indeed handpicked bombing targets, but was out of touch with the ground war. President Bush, then, turned matters over to the Department of Defense under Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.  

"Delegation is not necessarily the wrong approach for a president to take, but if you're going to delegate responsibility, you have to also have accountability, and that's something he never demanded of Rumsfeld," Polsky says. "They were not on the same page."  

The historian has mixed feelings towards the wartime policy of President Obama, the custodian of two wars, but agrees with the President's strengthening of ties with Kabul, even as troops are scheduled to withdraw at the end of 2014. "One of the most important things the United States can do as it tries to draw itself out of a war is to establish some kind of long-term security partnership with the government it wants to support." 


Andrew Polsky

Produced by:

Robert Balint and Jillian Weinberger

Comments [3]

Jack Jackson from Central New Jersey

The sequela to your intro is, for me, this...

Barack Obama came of age AFTER the draft had ended. Not really his fault that he did not seek to serve in the military but he did nothing to actively avoid it.

Mitt Romney (born 1947) would have to had sought a deferment in order to avoid the draft.

Though it is true that neither candidate has served in the military, their rationale for not having done so must be vastly different.

Jun. 22 2012 03:31 PM
mike kim iraq war vet from New York

The radio piece is incomplete.

President Lincoln served his country as a citizen soldier. This tradition of military service in america goes back to the American Revolution. Lincoln was involved in the Black Hawk War. He did not do John Wayne macho military duries. But, did John Wayne? That is another story involving the myths of military and combat in the American military tradition.

This country has a long tradition of a citizen soldiery. Many military historians overlook this tradition.

Jun. 22 2012 09:38 AM
Jordan from Boston

What your author-guest fails to point out is that Johnson could hardly have been expected to better manage the war in Vietnam given the fact that the generals and grunts on the ground were falsifying "kills" and generally fabricating outcomes. This was made quite clear in Daniel Ellsberg's Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. He accompanied troops into the field and observed, first hand, how reports were being fabricated to show success where none existed. Reading reports from Iraq and Afghanistan, once can see the same process taking place. The military has an interest in being seen as successful.

Jun. 22 2012 09:20 AM

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