Presidents under Fire: Commanders in Chief in Victory and Defeat

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Of all the responsibilities of a president, none is greater than his role as commander in chief of the armed forces. Whether the setting is Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, or Bosnia, the president must make agonizing decisions about whether and when to put Americans in harm's way. Some presidents have risen to greatness as commanders in chief. Others have gone down in history as failures because of their military defeats. What makes a successful commander in chief? Drawing on original research in presidential ...
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Overview

Of all the responsibilities of a president, none is greater than his role as commander in chief of the armed forces. Whether the setting is Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, or Bosnia, the president must make agonizing decisions about whether and when to put Americans in harm's way. Some presidents have risen to greatness as commanders in chief. Others have gone down in history as failures because of their military defeats. What makes a successful commander in chief? Drawing on original research in presidential archives, James Arnold offers four provocative case studies of American presidents tested in the crucible of war. Since the days of the Revolution, Americans have been ambivalent about the power of the military, presenting a perennial challenge to presidents. George Washington had to face critics and doubters in the Continental Congress as well as the mighty British Army. As president, he saw his forces suffer embarrassing defeats in conflicts with frontier Indians before a final and decisive victory. James Polk, a president with no military experience, oversaw a stunning triumph in the Mexican War, helped by his ruthless manipulation of public opinion. But Lyndon Johnson, for all his political skills, saw his presidency broken by the war in Vietnam and his inability to marshal support at home. Most fascinating, perhaps, is the case of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America. Unlike his opponent Abraham Lincoln, Davis had been a war hero and a renowned Secretary of War. Yet Davis failed as commander in chief and doomed the Confederacy to defeat. Focusing on key battles from Trenton to Ia Drang, Arnold combines political analysis with gripping narratives of combat. The result is a compelling history of how presidents weigh political pressures against military realities - and how their decisions play out for the men and women in the line of fire.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Arnold ( The First Domino: Eisenhower, the Military, and America's Intervention in Vietnam ) here offers four case studies of American presidents as commanders in chief while the country was at war. He suggests that there is no single blueprint for success. For example, George Washington led America in the 1792-1794 war against the Indians of the Northwest Territories, until the Battle of Fallen Timbers brought the new nation victory. In 1848, James K. Polk won a war of conquest against Mexico, despite his initial lack of interest and expertise in military affairs. Jefferson Davis kept the Confederacy fighting against a better-armed enemy until the South's capital at Richmond was occupied. Lyndon Johnson is ranked at the bottom of Arnold's list because he failed to define a coherent Vietnam strategy. LBJ sought to ``micromanage'' the war without possessing the skills, which resulted in a loss of credibility with his military chiefs and the American people. Arnold strongly makes his point that a president at war must maintain public and political support, and retain the respect of the military. Photos not seen by PW. (July)
Library Journal
This intriguing volume examines how four American presidents led their nation in wartime. Each faced enemy armies on the battlefield and hostile critics at home. Though he displayed less strategic ability as president than he had as general, George Washington turned a series of setbacks into ultimate triumph in the war with frontier Indians. James K. Polk, the first president to direct a war fought on foreign soil, is depicted as ``the nation's most successful war leader, yet he is all but forgotten.'' Jefferson Davis, West Point graduate and innovative Secretary of War, became ``the first American commander in chief to fail in war.'' In recent decades, Lyndon B. Johnson ``lacked the courage to resist starting a war. Later he lacked the courage to cut his losses and withdraw.'' Arnold, author of eight previous books on military history (e.g., Crisis on the Danube, LJ 7/ 90), writes persuasively and compellingly. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries.-Thomas H. Appleton Jr., Kentucky Historical Soc., Frankfort
Jay Freeman
From the time of our Revolution, Americans have maintained a schizophrenic attitude toward our commanders in chief; we demand and applaud decisive, bold action, yet our political institutions and political culture often serve to frustrate such actions. Arnold, a renowned military historian, provides four case studies to illustrate that point convincingly. George Washington spent a surprisingly large amount of his time jostling with the Continental Congress, whose members seemed reflexively suspicious of his requests for more men, guns, and authority. James Polk prosecuted the nation's most unpopular war before Vietnam, and his conduct during the Mexican War led to frequent villification from Congress and from the public at large. Despite the early military successes of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis endured nonstop criticism from Confederate legislators; the doctrine of state sovereignty, so vital to rebel sentiments, was particularly irksome in denying Davis freedom of action in the military sphere. Of course, the attacks on Lyndon Johnson are familiar to most Americans over the age of 40. Arnold has a breezy style that avoids overreliance on military jargon. He eloquently portrays the dilemma of reconciling a domestic society with the military--an inherently authoritarian institution.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780517588635
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/7/1994
  • Edition description: 1st ed
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.43 (w) x 9.49 (h) x 1.23 (d)

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