“All wartime presidents have preserved our democracy largely through self-restraint, and I don’t see any of that in President Trump.”
That’s historian Michael Beschloss’s stunning observation. For his new book Presidents of War, he spent a decade looking at America’s wartime commanders in chief — how they handled the decision to send US troops into combat, how they navigated the politics surrounding war, and how the war changed them personally.
I called up Beschloss to find out what he’s learned about the way America’s presidents go to war and what that tells us about how Trump might do it if a major fight breaks out.
What he told me was sobering. He said that every single one of America’s wartime presidents abused his power. “If you are worried about a president with authoritarian tendencies grabbing too much power, you look at a president in wartime,” Beschloss told me. “People will accept a lot of violations of their civil liberties in wartime.”
He also said that no president in American history scares him more than Donald Trump does. “He’s in a category of his own,” Beschloss told me during our interview, because Trump has shown no willingness to learn from history and little empathy — two key ingredients that make great wartime presidents who don’t eradicate most democratic norms.
A transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.
You spent 10 years looking into how American presidents, starting with Thomas Jefferson onward, have dealt with war. What stuck out to you the most?
The biggest one is that presidents take the nation to war in a way that’s exactly the opposite of what the founders wanted. In other words, the founders thought the surest route to dictatorship or monarchy would be to allow presidents to wage wars on their own.
They knew that the kings and dictators of Europe, when they grew unpopular, would fabricate a reason to go to war. That would unite the people and make the monarch popular.
So much of our system was designed to be the opposite of the British system. In writing the Constitution, they made an enormous effort — and James Madison felt very strongly about this — to make sure that presidents could not take the nation into major wars on their own, by requiring a war declaration from Congress.
But then Madison takes the United States into a rather unnecessary war.
Yes, and that’s one of the most poignant and painful ironies: that Madison, a wonderful founder, was a really terrible war president. He basically broke the lock the founders had put on the door to keep presidents from taking us into wars on their own.
He got us into the War of 1812 — a war that was not essential for our national security and that was also probably the first war we ever lost, although some people think that distinction belongs to Vietnam.
It seems like a big issue you highlight is that Americans don’t have a great concept of their own history, and that there’s a perennial effort in American politics to make the public forget the horrors of the last war.
If it turns out badly.
One example of that: World War I was thought by a majority of Americans to have been a terrible failure. That almost prevented Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) from taking us into the war against Hitler. He was really limited by the fact that people said, “There was an earlier president, Woodrow Wilson, who took us into this terrible foreign war, and now FDR is trying to do it again.”
And both political parties made a huge effort to ensure the Korean War was forgotten as soon as possible. Had there been a bigger memory of Korea, Americans would have been a lot more skeptical about Lyndon Johnson’s effort to take us into Vietnam.
But the other problem is presidents creating fake incidents — or taking advantage of real ones — that took us into major wars. William McKinley didn’t fabricate the sinking of the USS Maine, but he was perfectly happy to capitalize on the mistaken belief that the Spanish sank it to get us into the Spanish-American War — when we now know it was probably a boiler accident.
And Lyndon Johnson used the Gulf of Tonkin incident where a US ship said it was ambushed. Johnson said that had been an unprovoked attack — but he knew perfectly well it was not unprovoked, because we were provoking the North Vietnamese all over the place around there.
On the night that he bombed North Vietnam in August of 1964, and asked Congress for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to give him authorization to fight in Vietnam, he thought that there had also been a second attack. But then he found out that there hadn’t actually been a second attack — yet he never went back to Congress and said, “You can negate the resolution since this didn’t happen.”
The result was that for almost a decade, Johnson and Nixon waged the Vietnam War based on this flimsy resolution, which was itself based on an incident that did not happen the way Johnson said it did.
So if we’re looking at this through the lens of the idealism of what the founders expected, they would be horrified by almost all of it.
Why has Congress let presidents get away with this over and over again?
Congress has behaved like lap dogs, especially in the last two decades. The founders believed that if members of Congress were patriotic, they would check the executive branch, and they would be at the throat of the president, making sure that he was doing everything to their satisfaction.
You know, the whole original idea of this country is vigorous checks and balances and that you’re being most patriotic when you criticize. Benjamin Franklin said, “Critics are our friends; they show us our faults.”
Too often now, members of Congress think that, especially in matters of war and peace, they’re being patriotic by sealing their lips and letting the president do what he wants.
You looked at the private writings and heard the personal recordings of many of these presidents. Were there any similarities among them in how they privately thought about war, or what war did to them?
First, a lot of them had emotional and physical breakdowns. Woodrow Wilson had a stroke. LBJ became extremely suspicious, and paranoid, and angry. So one lesson there is that when you have a war that goes on for any length of time, the president you get by the end is not the president you had at the beginning.
Second, almost all of them get more religious. Abraham Lincoln, when he was young, was an atheist or agnostic. By the end of the Civil War, an old friend came to him and was shocked to see him reading a Bible, and Lincoln said, “I can’t see how you could go through this experience and not become more religious.”
Lady Bird Johnson thought that LBJ at one point was going to become a Catholic, because he was so distraught. He went with his daughter Luci, who was a Catholic convert, to Mass, and got comfort from it.
Third, most war presidents were people of great empathy. For example, Lincoln was told there had to be a new National Cemetery, and Lincoln said, “Build it next to my summer house, so I see the graves being dug every day. It’s going to be very painful for me, but I want to make sure that I see the results of the terrible decisions I’m making.” That’s the kind of empathy you want.
Fourth, these people were all married to strong women who were mostly very good influences on them. Eleanor Roosevelt in 1942 tells FDR, “I hope that you will not consider interning the Japanese Americans.” Then suddenly he does it, and she is furious, and her friends felt that her marriage was never the same after that.
Finally, each abused their power. If you are worried about a president with authoritarian tendencies grabbing too much power, you look at a president in wartime. The quickest way he can do it is to take the nation into a war. Presidents in wartime can declare martial law. And people will accept a lot of violations of their civil liberties in wartime.
Should we expect presidents — including the current one — to keep taking the nation to war without approval from Congress?
No, because the people can elect presidents who don’t grab for too much power.
One sure thing about Donald Trump is that he will grab for as much power as is available to him. Therefore, particularly in his case, he has to be checked by the Supreme Court, Congress, and a free and vigorous media. Let’s hope that happens.
But do you see that as a singular danger with Trump? Because other presidents did these things, too.
My point is that the door is open, especially if you have a president who dominates both houses [of Congress], and possibly even if he only dominates one.
What the whole history of this shows is that presidents fabricate incidents that are counterfeit to get us into war. They can get us into war to improve their own popularity, and they know that’s a very quick way of getting your numbers up and winning elections.
Donald Trump himself, in 2011, tweeted repeatedly that Barack Obama would get us into a war to get reelected. Now, I think that’s a very dangerous thing in the mind of a president to connect war with winning elections.
Having studied all the wartime presidents, where does President Trump fit in?
He’s in a category of his own. Remember what I was saying before about how the wartime presidents had empathy? I have yet to see a big piece of evidence that Trump has very much empathy at all, and that makes me very anxious. I think it’s essential in a president, and it’s really essential in a war president.
One thing that makes great war presidents is they know history. If you study history, you understand democracy, and you love democracy. If you don’t know about American history, you’re not going to realize that democracy is extremely perishable. All wartime presidents have preserved our democracy largely through self-restraint, and I don’t see any of that in Trump.