Almost all of America’s 44 presidents have had to deal with military crises, either at home or abroad, during their time in office. Some came to the presidency seasoned in battle, while others had limited, or no, combat experience. A number of forthcoming books about U.S. presidents, some taking advantage of materials that have only recently become available, demonstrate how national leaders with diverse military résumés have met wartime challenges.
The Fatal Optimist
Two major new appraisals of Richard Nixon draw different conclusions from previously unavailable material.
Tim Weiner, a 1998 Pulitzer Prize winner for national reporting who landed the National Book Award for Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (Doubleday, 2007), makes plain his take on the 37th president early on in the recently released One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon (Holt); he writes, “For those who lived under Nixon, it is worse than you may recollect. For those too young to recall, it is worse than you can imagine.”
Weiner’s account takes advantage of tens of thousands of newly unsealed government files from the White House, Pentagon, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and elsewhere, including, as the book notes, records of “secret White House committees that controlled military and intelligence operations under Nixon.” He quotes transcripts of Oval Office audio recordings in which Nixon discusses dropping a nuclear bomb on North Vietnam: “Have you got that ready?” he asks national security adviser Henry Kissinger.
Another eye-opener: Weiner cites a newly released tape of Nixon speaking about quitting the presidency because of mental exhaustion, 15 months before he resigned. As to Nixon’s conduct of the Vietnam War, Weiner says that the president’s lack of trust in others meant that, eventually, “only he knew what his strategies and tactics in Vietnam were: an unwise move for a man who knew nothing about modern warfare, much less unconventional warfare fought against a guerrilla army.”
Newsweek’s Evan Thomas, author of Being Nixon: A Man Divided (Random, July), is far more sympathetic. He says that Nixon “wanted to be upbeat, to be an optimist.” The author may have an uphill battle in getting readers to view Nixon’s efforts at self-improvement as poignant, but the author’s approach—trying to “understand what it was like to actually be Nixon”—provides an atypical context for appraisal.
Thomas says that if you listen to most of the newly released White House tapes, “more than just the famous Watergate tapes or his much-publicized rants—and if you read not just [White House chief-of-staff H.R.] Haldeman’s diary but all his notes from his 24/7 meetings with Nixon—you begin to get a much more interesting, subtle portrait of the man.”
Given these differing interpretations, some readers may want their Nixon history in primary source form. Douglas Brinkley and Luke Nichter follow up 2014’s The Nixon Tapes: 1971–1972 with another annotated and edited volume for HMH, September’s The Nixon Tapes: 1973. In a sample exchange, Nixon says to Charles Colson, who served as his special counsel, “I mean, it was not easy, the Christmas bombing, so forth and so on. But in a way, perhaps it was a good thing. You know what I mean? To the benefit of everything.”
The Fighter Pilot, Haunted by Death
Jon Meacham (Jefferson: The Art of Power, Random, 2012) offers a new take on George H.W. Bush’s record in Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush (Random, Nov.). “President Bush granted me no-strings access to his vice-presidential and presidential diaries,” Meacham says, “a collection of real-time observations about what it was really like to be president. The whole story of our times is in there, in his voice.”
The author says he was struck by “the multilayered emotional life that Bush kept carefully hidden from public view. He cared about history, about our getting it right, and now that he’s passed from the passions of the moment to the larger historical arena, we can see him in full really for the first time.”
Bush was certainly shaped by his wartime experience. Meacham says that the president thought constantly about the two men in his bomber who died when the plane was hit over the Pacific in 1944. “Bush’s combat experience informed how he fought the first Gulf War, insisting on overwhelming force to avoid anything like Vietnam,” he says. “Go over, get the job done, and get home—that was his overarching military vision in terms of the Gulf.” And, the author maintains, “History proved him right.”
The Sixties Kid
Bill Clinton was the first president since F.D.R. never to have served in uniform. Presidential historian Gil Troy, author of 2005’s Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s (Princeton Univ.), turns his gaze on the following decade in The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s (St. Martin’s/Dunne, Oct.). Troy writes that his aim is to get readers to “move beyond the quick smirk, sneer, or cheer, and see both Clintons in all their dimensionality, in the complicating context of the 1990s.” He tackles what he sees as the Clinton conundrum—why did such a talented politician seem to accomplish so little?
As to Clinton’s approach to military issues, Troy says, “Clinton started at a triple disadvantage, as the first president since Franklin D. Roosevelt not to have served, as mired from the start in the gays in the military controversy, and as a Sixties kid who didn’t even know how to salute properly.” When Ronald Reagan met with Bill Clinton in late November 1992 for a courtesy visit, Reagan gave Clinton saluting lessons, but it took some time, and Clinton’s first salutes were awkward—and mocked by many in uniform.
Despite this stormy beginning, and Clinton’s insistence that the U.S. “cannot and must not be the world’s policeman,” Troy says that the president “gradually earned grudging respect from many in the military, especially when he showed tremendous determination during the Kosovo bombing campaign in spring 1999.”
George Washington became president eight years after leading the Continental Army to victory over the British, and before that conflict had served in the British army during the French and Indian War. While his two terms in office were not marred by violent conflict, his relationship with Alexander Hamilton—forged on the battlefields of New York during the Revolutionary War—was instrumental in making the U.S. what it is today, according to historians Stephen F. Knott and Tony Williams.
In Washington & Hamilton: The Alliance That Forged America (Sourcebooks, Sept.), the authors write about how “a wealthy Virginia planter and a brash immigrant from the Caribbean,” worked to “hold the army together,” and “became intimates who shared the horrors of war and the decisions that determined military success.” The bonds they forged under fire, the authors contend, served them in the passionate debates following independence.
Knott says that numerous books have focused on the significance of the relationship between Jefferson and James Madison, and Jefferson and John Adams, but, no one has ever written a book-length treatment of the Washington-Hamilton collaboration. Williams and Knott’s thesis—that Washington and Hamilton built the institutions that led to the United States emerging as a superpower in the 20th century—adds a new angle to the enduring public fascination with the founding fathers.
Flora Fraser approaches Washington’s time as a soldier from another perspective in The Washingtons: George & Martha, “Join’d by Friendship, Crown’d by Love” (Knopf, Nov.). Fraser, author of a well-received biography of a sister of Napoleon, Pauline Bonaparte: Venus of Empire (Knopf, 2009), follows up on John Adams’s question of two centuries ago: “Would Washington ever have been commander of the revolutionary army, or president of the United States, if he had not married the rich widow of Mr. Custis?”
Her answer is no, and, in a narrative that draws extensively on the couple’s correspondence, she looks at Washington’s waging of war, and how the lessons he learned carried over into the presidency. Fraser says that she was surprised to learn that “Martha went to Washington every winter of the long war, when the fighting season was over, sharing with him the various privations—scant food, blizzards, and the dearth of hope—that existed at those camps.”
The Unrelenting Warrior
Unlike Washington, Abraham Lincoln did not assume the presidency with a robust battlefield résumé. Despite this, as Harold Holzer and Norton Garfinkle point out in A Just and Generous Nation: Abraham Lincoln and the Fight for American Opportunity (Basic, Nov.), Lincoln became an effective commander-in-chief by making the most out of his gifts with language. They also argue that it was the defense of equal economic opportunity, not opposition to slavery or preserving the Union, that led him to fight the Civil War.
In the book, Holzer and Garfinkle challenge the common perception that Lincoln was his era’s “least militarized civilian.” Instead, they make the case that he was an “unrelenting warrior, emotionally and politically dedicated to defeating the rebellion, and prepared to commit men and resources in unprecedented numbers to secure the kind of peace worth fighting for.”
Given the unique challenges Lincoln faced and mastered, it’s amazing that he entered the White House knowing, the authors write, “next to nothing about military matters.” They credit his successful management of the war to the intelligence and discipline he used to educate himself, coupled with solid instincts. His engagement only grew as the conflict continued, to the point where his intensive study of strategy and tactics gave him a “clearer sense of direction” than his generals had. While the authors’ revisionist view as to why Lincoln fought is likely to engender controversy, Holzer’s credentials as one of the world’s leading experts on the 16th president will insure that this groundbreaking book gets a lot of attention.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt had even less direct military experience than Lincoln before assuming the presidency: he served Woodrow Wilson as assistant secretary of the navy after working as a Wall Street lawyer and a state senator. Two new titles reconsider his record as a military leader.
In 1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History (Simon & Schuster, Sept.), Jay Winik uses the same novelistic approach as he did in April 1865: The Month That Saved America (Harper, 2001), to draw readers into the high drama of that pivotal period of WWII. He says that Roosevelt was “arguably history’s finest wartime leader. Despite the fact that F.D.R. was a cripple and intensely sick during 1944, he was literally carrying the world on his shoulders.” He points out that it “was F.D.R. who approved the North Africa campaign, and insisted that was the place where an unprepared America should first join the fight—which an aghast Eisenhower, who wanted to invade Europe, considered the ‘blackest day’ in history.”
Winik also says he was surprised by F.D.R.’s “moral blind spot” about the Final Solution. “Roosevelt, when confronted with the ghastly reports of the gassing of the Jews, always made the war essentially about winning, rather than the vast human tragedy unfolding at the death camps.”
Alonzo Hamby, in Man of Destiny: FDR and the Making of the American Century (Basic, Sept.), views F.D.R. as Holzer and Garfinkle do Lincoln—a leader whose grasp of military strategy exceeded that of his commanders. “He did not interfere with tactical matters, but he did have a firmer grip on the grand strategy of World War II than did his military chiefs of staff,” Hamby says. “In particular, he understood that although we had been attacked by Japan, the Pacific theater was a secondary objective, that Nazi Germany was the major threat to the U.S., and that Europe was of prime importance in the war.”
The Supreme Commander
Scholar Irwin F. Gellman focuses on the management and decision-making style of Dwight Eisenhower in The President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon, 1952–1961 (Yale, Aug.). Gellman says, “Eisenhower’s military training made him a brilliant bureaucratic manager. As Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in World War II, Ike not only learned how to interact with epochal figures like Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, and Franklin Roosevelt, but also was able to plan the most complex amphibious invasion in world history”—D-day.
After the war and in the White House, Gellman continues, Eisenhower used the skills he honed in the military to manage the federal bureaucracy, his staff, Congress, lobbyists—and his vice-president.
Below, more on the subject of war and military books.Escapes: War & Military 2015Spy vs. Spy: War & Military 2015Unsung Heroes: War & Military 2015
Lenny Picker is a writer living in New York City.
*This article has been corrected. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Alonzo Hamby wrote The Soldier from Independence. Hamby wrote the foreward; D. M. Giangreco is the author.