Andrew Polsky’s terrific new book Elusive Victories is a detailed history of presidents at war that confronts a crucial paradox: the unilateral authority of presidents to initiate military conflicts has increases, but the flexibility to make subsequent decisions (including, crucially, the ability to reverse an unwise decision to go to war in a timely manner) has not followed. (He also has a new blog devoted to presidential politics.) Given the ongoing importance of Polsky’s argument, I thought I would invite him for a conversation about its implications. Today, we’ll start with the overarching thesis of the book and his chapter on Lincoln. Part II will be next, so if there any questions you want asked, feel free to put them in the comment section:
LGM: In the core argument of your book, I see some interesting parallels with Stephen Skowronek’s classic The Politics Presidents Make. Skowronek argued that while contemporary presidents have access to a much greater array of resources than 19th century presidents had, even the more recent “reconstructive” presidents like FDR and Reagan don’t have anything like the ability to alter the country’s basic political framework that Jefferson and Jackson had. Your book complicates the well-known increase in the president’s unilateral power to initiate military operations by arguing that this increase in brute power has not been accompanied by a commensurate power to achieve either military or political objectives associated with warmaking. Do you see parallels between your book and Skowronek’s argument?
Yes, absolutely, I see strong parallels. That isn’t a coincidence – Skowronek’s work has long shaped mine. He describes three “logics” operating to shape presidential opportunities, and the first two – the constitutional and modernizing patterns – operate on wartime presidents much as they do on the presidency as a whole. Indeed, they may be more empowering during international crises and military conflicts.
Skowronek also identifies a recurring logic to presidential leadership, grounded in the vitality of a dominant partisan political order and a president’s relation to that order. This “political time”, as he refers to it, defines the opportunity structure in which a president is situated. I also describe a recurrent pattern that might be called “war time.” Presidents begin a conflict with broad authority and a wide scope for discretionary action, a situation that resembles Skowronek’s “reconstructive” presidents that you mention. Over the course of a conflict, their ability to shape events declines sharply, so they better resemble some of the presidents he identifies as occupying impossible leadership situations. George W. Bush in Iraq in 2007 starts to look a lot like Herbert Hoover in 1931.
LGM: You argue that Lincoln’s superiority as a military leader over Jefferson Davis had a major impact on the Union victory — can you explain to our readers what these advantages were? One thing that struck me reading the chapter is that even though Lincoln was very effective, the fog of war comes through as well. Not only did Lincoln made mistakes, decisions that were perfectly reasonable at the time ended up not working — it’s hard to believe any president would have foreseen in 1861 that Grant would be a vastly more effective general than McClellan, given the latter’s apparently superior credentials.
AP: On paper, Jefferson Davis should have been the superior wartime leader – he had the ideal background, including combat experience and familiarity with military organization from his time as Secretary of War. In the event, though, he proved far too conventional in his military thinking and failed to capitalize on the South’s significant advantages, notably its vast territory that invited a flexible defense rather than trying to hold a territorial line.
You are absolutely correct that both presidents started the war with no knowledge of the turns it would take. Its scale, time, and cost were beyond almost anyone’s comprehension in April 1861. Mistakes were inevitable, on both sides. Lincoln’s gifts included flexibility and a capacity (usually) to learn from his mistakes. Yes, the McClellan choice made very good sense in 1861. But Lincoln was prepared to shed a general if he failed, especially if he was a Democrat by mid-1862. Davis remained wedded to the same senior generals he picked in 1861 and stuck with commanders long after they had been found wanting, and his choices of replacements were often even worse. Of his initial top commanders, only Lee deserved continued confidence.
LGM: Another way of looking at the Grant/McClellan problem is that Lincoln’s decisions turned out to be perversely perfect. In a sense, McClellan was exactly what was needed in 1861/2, because to achieve political objectives that could justify the Civil War the Union had to win, but not win before moderate Republicans came to believe that radical objectives were politically and militarily essential. Do you think there’s anything to Mark Graber’s argument that we have tended to underestimate the contingency of the Union victory, and hence tend to be too optimistic about the ability of war to secure human rights or other attractive political benefits? Can we see the problems that confronted LBJ and George W. Bush even in the successful wartime leadership of the Great Emancipator?
I share the view of most historians that Union victory was anything but foreordained. The stronger side, measured by resources, often fails to prevail in a war – look at the United States in Vietnam. At several points during the Civil War, the Union seemed close to defeat, plunging Lincoln into despair. So, although McClellan’s incompetence contributed to emancipation (by letting public opinion in the North swing in favor of a war against the South’s “peculiar institution”), Lincoln surely would have traded that for some battlefield victories in summer 1862.
Wars are poor instruments for securing human rights or other desired political benefits because these results are extraordinarily difficult to assure by military means. I group political outcomes such as emancipation or building a stable democracy under the heading of “peace building.” It has been an area in which presidents have performed poorly in most conflicts. I try to unpack the heading “contingency” to specify the common reasons for a lack of success in securing the kind of postwar order a president seeks. These include failure to start planning early enough, a resurgence of congressional assertiveness at the end of a war, allies pursuing their own agendas, and the desire of the American people to return to peacetime concerns.
Lincoln and FDR came closer to achieving their peace building objectives than have most presidents. Yet I maintain that each still failed in important respects. It may not have been possible for anyone to have done better in their circumstances. And here’s the sobering thought: both were exceptional wartime leaders. In most wars, we find ourselves led by mere mortals.