War can bolster a president's reputation. But it can also cripple the White House
Theodore Roosevelt doubted that he would be remembered as a great president because, unlike Abraham Lincoln, he did not lead the nation in wartime. But if he could have seen the consequences of war on the Wilson, Truman, and Johnson presidencies, he might in fact have been relieved that he presided over America at a time of relative peace.
Woodrow Wilson led a largely united nation into war in April 1917 against Germany and Austria-Hungary--autocratic regimes that he characterized as antagonistic to democracy and individual freedom. The president rallied the country with promises of postwar arrangements that would forestall future wars. But the peacemaking at Versailles in 1918-1919 fell well short of Wilson's idealistic hopes. The U.S. Senate refused to endorse the peace treaty or join the League of Nations, which Wilson himself had proposed as a vehicle to resolve conflicts. His failure as a peacemaker and the massive stroke he suffered in the fall of 1919 made Wilson's last 18 months in the White House a shambles.
The Korean War proved disastrous for Truman. His decision in June 1950 to combat North Korean aggression won widespread approval. But after U.S. forces crossed the 38th parallel in October in hopes of unifying the Korean peninsula under a pro-Western regime, the Chinese entered the conflict, with devastating consequences for Gen. Douglas MacArthur's prediction that the boys would be home by Christmas. The ensuing stalemate, with U.S. deaths rising into the tens of thousands, drove the president's approval ratings down into the low 30s. Truman left office in 1953 pursued by gibes that "to err is Truman."
A loss for LBJ. In the 1960s, the Vietnam War wrecked Lyndon Johnson's presidency. After one of the greatest landslide victories in presidential history, Johnson escalated America's role in the conflict, provoking an outpouring of opposition. The war put his Great Society on hold and defeated his ambition to become the longest-serving president in U.S. history after FDR.
Why did three of America's most astute 20th-century political leaders allow themselves to be so badly undermined by unwise decisions? In each case, they failed to understand that any extended war, costing a significant number of lives, would shatter a consensus for fighting. Likewise, unfulfilled postwar hopes would provoke recriminations over wartime sacrifices and destroy a president's credibility and capacity to lead.
However committed America was to defeating the Central European powers in 1917, during the 1920s and '30s the country came to regret its participation. In 1937, 70 percent of Americans described World War I as a mistake forced upon us by bankers, munitions makers, and a naive president with unrealizable goals.
Truman mistakenly believed that an invasion of North Korea would not draw China into the fighting. He further erred by accepting MacArthur's prediction that fighting would wrap up within three months of crossing the 38th parallel. By 1951, 62 percent of the country had soured on the Korean conflict. Truman could neither put across his Fair Deal nor help his party maintain its 20-year hold on the White House.
Johnson's commitment to save South Vietnam from a Communist takeover led to an even worse political fate than Truman's. Where victory in the Cold War eventually rescued Truman's standing, Johnson's reputation as a war leader has not been redeemed.
Like his three predecessors, George W. Bush now struggles with a faltering consensus for "staying the course" in Iraq. False assumptions about the need to fight, unrealized expectations about the war's length and cost, and grave doubts about "victory" are playing havoc with Bush's approval ratings and, more important, with his ability to govern effectively. Bush can recover only if a reasonably functional Iraq emerges--or if he withdraws troops under the fig leaf of Iraq's ability to manage its own affairs. Unless things turn in a constructive direction, Bush will join Wilson, Truman, and Johnson as presidents who have learned hard lessons about the cost of a less than fully successful war.
Presidential historian Robert Dallek, author of books on FDR, JFK, LBJ, and Reagan, is now writing on Nixon and Kissinger.
This story appears in the January 30, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.