Presidents at War: Presidential Decisions on War and Peace


We all remember where we were on 9/11. We shall never forget. The arm-chair critics declared that the United States defeated in Vietnam did not have the will to win. The American people would be unwilling to sacrifice their children to defend their homeland. The Soviet Union [was] bogged down in Afghanistan for ten years, withdrew and collapsed. The United States would be involved in an unwinnable war that would drag on for decades.

A year ago I spoke before you that "George W. Bush Walks in the Footsteps of Greatness!" I was not wrong. He has achieved the greatest military victory of any American president. Two months after 9/11, Bush launched a counter-attack against our adversaries. In less than three weeks, the Taliban regime that ruled Afghanistan collapsed. The first phase of the war was accomplished with only a single American casualty -- a CIA agent killed in a prison uprising! Unprecedented for any nation in history! The critics and the Taliban discovered that George Walker Bush like his father was no wimp. Osama Bin Ladin like Saddam Husein learned that the good guys win! George Walker Bush is winning so far and has saved lives. We shall discuss some of the previous presidential successors and their decisions that have involved war and peace.

John Adams and Jimmy Carter

John Adams and Jimmy Carter could have been reelected presidents if they had made war. They chose negotiation over fighting.. They sacrificed popularity and winning reelection to do the right thing.

Just before the American Revolutionary War started, John Adams' toughest legal case involved defending five British soldiers. They were charged with killing American civilians as part of the infamous "Boston Massacre." The jury consisted of American colonists who were not sympathetic to the British. John Adams showed that the Americans had provoked the British soldiers with snowballs full of rocks. The jury decided that the British soldiers were guilty of the excessive use of force. The soldiers were branded on their thumbs with the letter "m" for manslaughter instead of being hanged. Adams chose to do the right thing by defending the British soldiers even though this made him unpopular.

Adams never fought in a war as a soldier but he put his life on the line in advocating the independence of the Thirteen Colonies. Adams convinced the First Continental Congress to appoint George Washington as the nation's first military leader and the Second Continental Congress to declare our national its independence. Adams then served our third national government, the Articles of Confederation, as one of the negotiators at the Paris Peace Conference that saw our nation gain independence.

As our second president, John Adams found the nation teetering on the edge of war with France in 1798. American and French naval ships fired upon each other in an undeclared conflict. When Adams sent diplomats to negotiate with the French Directory, they reported that the French negotiators demanded bribes. A new slogan emerged, "Millions for defense, not one cent for tribute." Adams built up the navy. He called upon Washington as our most experienced military commander to head the army. People wanted war.

John Adams flouted the warmongers in his own cabinet. They saw war as the best means for Adams to win reelection. Adams was engaged in a bitter contest against Thomas Jefferson, his former friend, now his political adversary. Adams, like Washington, knew that our young country could not survive a war so soon after securing its independence. Adams waited and waited and waited the French out. Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in France. He directed French energies at conquering Europe instead of threatening the United States. The danger of war abated, Adams kept the peace, and saved lives.

Two centuries later, Jimmy Carter would be faced with a similar dilemma: war or peace. Jimmy Carter graduated from the United States Naval Academy. He served in the Pacific theater toward the end of World War II. Jimmy Carter felt cock-sure of himself when Admiral Rickover interviewed him for service in the new nuclear submarine fleet. Carter had graduated 56th in a class of 800 from the United States Naval Academy. Admiral Rickover asked him one question: "Did you do your best?" Carter pondered. He said, "I have to come clean. I did not do always do my best." Carter decided to do his best after that as an officer in the navy, the head of the family peanut business, and the governor of the State of Georgia. When Carter ran for the president of the United States, he wrote a book entitled, Why not the Best? Because Carter did his best, he became the president of the United States.

Toward the end of his administration, Iranian students seized our embassy personnel as hostages. They demanded the return of the former shah of Iran. Carter refused to hand over the former ruler who had been our loyal ally for decades. For 444 days our embassy personal were held hostage by the students with the support of the Islamic Revolutionary government of Iran. Many members of this audience can remember how high feelings ran against Iranians and Iran. Inflation and unemployment had made Carter a very unpopular president. He was perceived as unable to make decisions. A helicopter rescue effort ending in failure did not improve his reputation. Carter negotiated and negotiated but nothing seemed to work. How easy it would have been for Carter to have gained popularity and to win reelection by having Congress declare war. Finally, the hostages were released when his successor Ronald Reagan took the presidential oath of office. The danger of war abated, Carter kept the peace, and saved lives.

Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy

Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy went to the brink of war in the Caribbean to defend the principles of the Monroe Doctrine -- to keep European intervention out of the New World. Theodore Roosevelt's heroic actions in the Spanish-American War helped him become governor of the State of New York and then vice president of the United States before an assassin's bullet propelled him into the highest office in the land.

Roosevelt preached preparedness: "'Don't bluster. Don't flourish a revolver, and never draw unless you intend to shoot,". As the Assistant Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt quoted George Washington to the 1898 graduating class of the United States Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He advised, "To be prepared for war is the most effectual means to promote peace." No wars took place on Roosevelt's watch as president.

When the Spanish-American War broke out, Roosevelt created a volunteer regiment that represented a rainbow of Americans ranging from Harvard students to American Indians and cowboys. The charge up San Juan Hill made him America's foremost war hero. He also had a dozen extra eyeglasses to make sure that he could always see the enemy.

Theodore Roosevelt, as a volunteer soldier felt it was his obligation to speak out,because the professional soldiers were afraid to jeopardize their careers. He charged bad food and bad sanitation cost more American lives than Spanish bullets. In retaliation, the War Department bureaucrats sabotaged efforts to get him the nation's highest medal, the Congressional Medal of Honor. Only eighty-two years after his death, did he receive the decoration he deserved. That medal is now at the White House.

In 1902, Germany, France and Great Britain decided to use force to collect money that Venezuela owed their citizens. They threatened to blockade Venezuela and seize its ports. Roosevelt ordered the American fleet to "visit" key Caribbean ports as a means of pressuring these Great Powers to back off. The Great Powers blinked. They agreed to a peaceful settlement of the debts owed their citizens. This success represented Roosevelt's favorite quotation in action, an African proverb,: "Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far." Roosevelt successfully mediated an end to the Russo-Japanese War in 1906. As a result, he became the first American to receive a Nobel Prize -- the award for peace. Roosevelt kept the peace and saved lives.

More than half a century later, John F. Kennedy faced another threat in the Caribbean. Even before the United States entered World War II in 1941, Jack Kennedy, son of one of America's wealthiest men, had enlisted in the navy. Although he was physically unfit because of a bad back and one leg that was shorter than another, he used his political influence to join naval intelligence. Then Jack did an end-run to be stationed in the Solomon Islands in charge of a PT boat, the 109, where he could get some action. He got more than he bargained for.

Suddenly a Japanese destroyer sliced the small boat into two. Jack and his crew were left clinging to the wreckage. For the first time, Jack was on his own. He knew what to do. He led the crew swimming to a small island, over three miles away. Jack himself towed an injured man with a strap held in his teeth. Once they reached safety, Jack got his men rescued. Jack demonstrated his coolness, calmness, and composure during a crisis. When a youngster asked him how he became a war hero, Jack quipped, "It was strictly involuntary. They sank my boat." His war experiences made him one with his constituents, veterans and Gold Star Mothers, when he ran for Congress in Boston in 1946.

John F. Kennedy did something rare for any politician. He admitted a mistake. When Kennedy became President, he approved a plan to overthrow Fidel Castro, the Communist dictator of Cuba. As a result of half measures, the Bay of Pigs invasion ended as a fiasco. Kennedy confessed his error and acknowledged his responsibility. "Victory has many fathers; defeat is an orphan."

The Soviets drew the wrong lesson from this. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev sneaked Soviet missiles into Cuba aimed at our soft underbelly where we had no early warning system and no missile defense in place. Kennedy blockaded Cuba to prevent more Soviet missiles from coming in. Kennedy took the nation to the brink of nuclear war and the other side blinked. The United States agreed to withdraw its missiles from Turkey, which it already planned to do so, in exchange for the Soviets withdrawing their missiles from Cuba. Kennedy had vividly demonstrated the promise he had made to the word at his Inaugural Address: "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend oppose any foe in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty…" A hot line was also set up to prevent misunderstandings that could lead to nuclear war. Kennedy kept the peace and saved lives.

George Washington and Abraham Lincoln

George Washington and Abraham Lincoln -- our greatest presidents -- faced the greatest challenges of any president -- from inside the nation -- domestic rebellion. Washington had established the supremacy of civilian leadership over the military. He had modeled himself after Cincinattus. This Roman general preferred to return to his farm instead of staying in power. As the greatest hero of the French and Indian War, Washington wrote a report. He declared, " There is something charming to the sound of bullets." King George III in read the report. He commented that if Washington had been hit by a bullet, his attitude would have been quite different.

When the American Revolutionary War began, as we have previously noted, John Adams suggested that George Washington's as the most experienced military man in the Thirteen Colonies should be in charge of the new national army, the Continental Army. Washington promoted himself for the position by wearing his old officer's uniform from the French and Indian War. Throughout his military career, Washington always leading the charge into the front lines. Though bullets pierced his coat and horses were shot out from underneath him, his luck held. Washington was never wounded. As Patton once noted, a good general needs luck; and fortunate for the nation in the making, Washington had luck in abundance.

The Patriots lost many battles during the American Revolution. Toward the end of 1776, George Washington knew he had to do something. He had less than 3,000 soldiers under his command. Their period of service would come to an end in less than two weeks. Washington crossed the Delaware River in a snow-storm on Christmas night, 1776. At dawn, he surprised the Hessian troops at Trenton, New Jersey. Still recovering from their Christmas merry-making, they surrendered. Washington had won the first real Patriot victory of the American Revolutionary War. Now Americans had hope they could win. Washington also promptly resigned the office of "Dictator of America" that Congress had given him in that desperate hour. Washington kept the army together, exhausted the British will to fight and won the war. A few months later, Washington bade farewell to his officers at Fraunces Tavern in New York City, and then resigned from of the army. Like his hero Cincinnatus, Washington returned to his farm.

Washington was called to launch a new national government under the Constitution we have today. April 15 is fast approaching. The problem then as now nobody liked to pay taxes. In 1794, the farmers in the Pennsylvania backwoods did not feel like paying taxes on whiskey. This excise tax had been passed by the federal government to raise revenue for the new nation. Like British tax collectors, the American tax collectors were tarred and feathered. Washington summoned the militias of five states and federal troops that he lead to person against the Pennsylvania rebels. He commanded such an overwhelming show of force that the most of the would be Whiskey rebels fled. The few that remained were arrested, tried and convicted. Shortly afterwards, Washington pardoned the rebels to avoid creating any martyrs. As president, Washington served the nation, kept the peace, saved lives and preserved the Union.

Abraham Lincoln made the most difficult decision of any president. He started the Civil War when he decided that fighting was the only means to preserve the Union. Lincoln's political career had been launched when he had been elected captain of his militia company during an Indian war. This gave him self-confidence that he could become a leader of men. This launched his political career. When Lincoln was elected to Congress, he protested against the actions of President James Polk in starting the Mexican-American War.

Abraham Lincoln had the courage to inspire the nation and even change his war aims. Although the Civil War started out as a war to preserve the Union, Lincoln expanded it to include the emancipation of the slaves. At Gettysburg, he declared: "we here have highly resolved that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth." Lincoln inspired the American people that it was worth the price of bloodshed to save the nation. As president, Lincoln could not keep the peace nor save lives but he served the nation preserved the Union.

Woodrow Wilson and George Herbert Bush

Both Presidents Woodrow Wilson and George Herbert Bush, the president's father, won the war but lost the peace. Woodrow Wilson, unlike any other American president, knew from personal experience what it means to lose a war. His family had suffered the hardships that southerners experienced in fighting the Civil War and then growing up in a battered, tattered South. Wilson was an idealist who refused to compromise whether as a college professor, a football coach, president of Princeton University, Governor of the State of New Jersey and then as president of the United States.

Woodrow Wilson declared America entered World War I with the purest of motives to make the "world safe for democracy" and to end all war He issued the Fourteen Points in which he hoped a just peace and an international organization to promote peace would lead to a permanent state of tranquility in the world.

Although Woodrow Wilson had written the best book a best selling book on American government and Congress, he refused to follow his own book's advice to compromise. When Wilson returned home from the European peace conferences, he made joining the league into a partisan issue. Wilson alienated Henry Cabot Lodge, a long-time champion of an international peace-keeping organization. Lodge wanted to insert a restriction protecting American sovereignty. Wilson who had been willing to compromise abroad to get what he wanted was unwilling to compromise at home. Wilson's stubbornness at compromise may have been magnified by a series of small strokes that he might had experienced before the major strokes that crippled him in 1919.

Wilson had told a group of friends outside his home on Armistice Day in 1923: "I am not one of those who have the least anxiety about the triumph of the principles I have stood for… That we shall prevail is as sure as that God reigns." Wilson won the war that saved lives in the short-run but did not get the peace that would have saved even more lives in the long term

George Herbert Bush, a son of privilege, volunteered to serve his country during World War II, even before completing his college education at Yale University. Bush, one of the youngest naval aviators of World War II, received the Distinguished Flying Cross after completing a mission even though his airplane had been shot down. Blessed with a silver spoon in his mouth, Bush proceeded to make a fortune of his own in the Texas oil fields. Then he began a career of public service that included representing Houston in Congress, director of the CIA, the ambassador to China, and the ambassador to the United Nations before tapped to become vice president under Ronald Reagan.

In 1991, President in his own right, his greatest test came when Saddam Husein invaded Kuwait to create a monopoly of oil in the Middle East under his control. The Iraqi dictator refused to heed Bush's ultimatum to withdraw. Vowing to free Kuwait, Bush rallied the American people, Congress, United Nations, and the world. Bush created a coalition in which virtually every nation of the world was either an ally or a neutral. Even the Soviet Union denounced its own client Iraq as a threat to world peace. After weeks of air and missile bombardment, the one-hundred-hour land battle dubbed Desert Storm routed Iraq's million-man army with only a few causalities.

Bush, taking the advice of his cabinet, decided not to pursue the fleeing Iraqi troops [into Iraq] to overthrow Saddam Husein. To this day, Husein threatens and blusters at America while giving support and comfort to terrorists and to our enemies. Some authorities have speculated that if Husein had been ousted from power, Osaka Bin Laden might have realized that the United States meant business. The sins of the father were visited upon his son. Bush won the war and saved lives but lost the peace for the best of intentions.

In Conclusion,

George W. Bush walks in the steps of greatness. In his inaugural address, Bush expounded, "America has never been united by blood or birth or soil. We are bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds." He stayed the course by refusing to be distracted on how to win the war against terror. Bush has warned our enemies, "America remains engaged in the world, by history and by choice, shaping a balance of power that favors freedom." George W. Bush has moved forward to educate the public, reach out to his opponents, fight our adversaries, and to communicate what he believes in. If Bush follows in the footsteps of his presidential predecessors, he shall win the war, save lives, and win the peace.