A Path to Greatness?

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“Presidential Greatness as an Attribute of Warmaking” by David Gray Adler, in Presidential Studies Quarterly (Sept. 2003), Center for the Study of the Presidency, 1020 19th St., N.W., Ste. 250, Washington, D.C. 20036.

Theodore Roosevelt always lamented that World War I started after he had left office, believing that he’d been robbed of a president’s only opportunity for greatness, a war. “If Lincoln had lived in times of peace, no one would know his name now,” he declared in 1910. Of course, Roosevelt went down as one of the greats anyway, showing that presidents don’t need a war (or perfect judgment) to win a place in history, writes Adler, a political scientist at Idaho State University.

Others, notably John F. Kennedy, have shared TR’s view. The Founding Fathers feared that dreams of glory might prompt the chief executive to wage war, which is why they vested the war-making power in Con­gress. As James Madison wrote, “The strongest passions and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast, ambition, avarice, vanity, the honorable or venial love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace.”

Seven presidents of the dozen often rated by historians as “great” or “near-great” held office while the nation was at war, according to Adler. But four of these—John Adams, James Polk, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson—did not owe their standing to their actions as commander in chief. Indeed, Truman and Johnson achieved greatness despite their wartime leadership. Adams was “a consistent voice for moderation” and let Congress make “crucial decisions” during the quasi-war with France in 1798. Polk owes his standing not to his “manipulation of the Mexican-American War, for which he was widely criticized and properly censured by the House of Repre­sentatives,” says Adler, but more likely to “his aggressive policy of ‘Manifest Destiny’ and his territorial expansion of the United States.” Of the top wartime presidents, says Adler, only Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt “may be justly characterized as great by virtue of their leadership in war.”

As for presidents who simply deploy troops hither and yon, as many chief executives have done, they seem as likely to wind up with the dirty dozen presidents at the bottom (Warren Harding et al.) as with the admired dozen at the top.

Truman’s claim of “a unilateral executive privilege to wage war” has left “a deeply troubling legacy,” in Adler’s view. But if the parchment barrier the Framers erected against chief executives seeking greatness through martial glory no longer appears adequate, he concludes, history provides presidents with another one, if only they will heed it: the lesson that war is seldom the path to presidential greatness.

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