Check your References — War and Politics

As part of Election 101, we are posting exclusive content from The Concise Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History on subjects related to Election 2012.

“War and politics have always been entwined in American history,” writes Michael Sherry in the opening to this article that tackles among other things how war affects the presidency.

The presidency underlines how war and politics constituted each other. War or its apparent threat underwrote the presidency’s expanding powers, both legal and illegal. Major crises, none more so than 9/11, produced presidential claims that constitutional provisions, international laws, and humanitarian norms should be altered, suspended, or reinterpreted. War also brought greater power for individual presidents, though less often lasting glory. Many Americans suspected presidents of using war for political gain, but presidents usually achieved little that endured. Those who secured lasting luster— Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt— died before the emergence of the sour aftermath war usually presents. Woodrow Wilson’s presidency crumbled after World War I; Republicans seized the White House in 1921. Truman and the Democrats barely survived World War II’s aftermath and then succumbed to the Korean War; a Republican, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, became president in 1953. The Vietnam War and their handling of it destroyed the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon (his abuse of war powers shaped the Watergate crisis of 1973– 74). Difficult wars readily damaged presidents, as George W. Bush found in the Iraq War, but even a triumphant Gulf War gave no lasting political traction to his father, defeated in 1992 by Bill Clinton. By the same token, three of the four post- 1945 presidents who served two full terms— Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton— avoided costly war making and remained popular. War was as fickle in its political ramifications as in its conduct and global consequences, often overwhelming the state’s ability to control it and ensnaring presidents.

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The preceding is an excerpt from The Concise Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History, edited by Michael Kazin, Rebecca Edwards, and Adam Rothman. To learn more about this book, please visit Copyright © 2011 by Princeton University Press. No part of this text may be distributed, posted, or reproduced in any form by digital or mechanical means without prior written permission of the publisher.