Home / "give me some leads that don't come out of a phone book" / A Conversation With Andrew Polsky, Author of <i>Elusive Victories</i>, Part II

A Conversation With Andrew Polsky, Author of Elusive Victories, Part II


[Part I]

We pick up our interview with Andy Polsky, whose terrific and timely new book about the American presidency at war, Elusive Victories, is available at fine online booksellers everywhere.

LGM: In our last round, Rob argued in comments that Jefferson Davis is unfairly maligned as a military commander.  A Fabian strategy, he argues, would have fatally undermined the goals of the Confederacy by allowing the north to emancipate slaves in huge areas of Southern territory.  Is it possible that, while it didn’t work, Davis’ general strategy (as opposed to some of his other choices) was the best one?

It takes a brave soul to defend Jefferson Davis as a strategist. But, no, I do not agree that Davis adopted the only viable course for the South.  He had better choices and failed to pursue them.

To begin with, as a general military proposition, a cordon defense is poor strategy—an adversary, especially one with a significant conventional advantage, can always concentrate more troops at a given point and rip open a linear defensive line.  Union forces did this in early 1862 in Tennessee.

The larger issue, though, is why Davis was reluctant to surrender territory.  All the available evidence points NOT to his fear about Union forces emancipating slaves across the South.  Rather, he worried about the loyalty to the Confederacy of white southerners.  He suspected that once Union troops moved into an area, his fellow countrymen would dessert the cause of Southern independence.

As I point out in “Elusive Victories,” the trans-Mississippi West after Vicksburg provides an excellent case study of whether white Southerners would remain faithful to the Richmond government after they were cut off by Union advances.  The record is quite clear:  unless Union armies were present in strength, whites continued to obey local Confederate authorities and support the rebel armies still in the field.  Indeed, these regions were the last to surrender in 1865.  Davis showed too little confidence in his fellow Southerners.

Just to be clear, I am not saying that a pure guerrilla strategy was the best course for the South.  Instead, it would have made sense for the Confederacy to combine irregular warfare and conventional.  By using guerrilla tactics, the South would have compelled Union armies to devote a much larger percentage of their strength to defending extended lines of communications.  The Northern forces would have been drained and demoralized by a protracted campaign among a hostile population.  Note, too, the South had a history of this kind of warfare dating back to the Revolution.  So long as Richmond maintained armies-in-being, capable of fighting conventional battles under favorable circumstances, the combination promised excellent results.

Finally, as to the slaves, the white Southerners showed little fear that emancipation was irreversible.  Up the very last days of the war, they offered peace terms based on a revocation of the Emancipation Proclamation.  (Lincoln briefly entertained such a proposition in summer 1864, at a low point in Union fortunes.)  We need only look to the restoration of white dominance across the South during and after Reconstruction to appreciate that so long as whites enjoyed a near-monopoly on force in the region, they were confident in the ability to reassert supremacy.

LGM: I assume you’re familiar with the recent work on executive power by Eric Posner and Adrian Vermuele.   My basic take, to oversimplify, is that they’re probably right empirically (legislative checks on military affairs, like those proposed by Bruce Ackerman, are unlikely to work in large part because Congress doesn’t really want the responsibility) but are on much shakier grounds normatively when they argue that executive dominance is also probably the best arrangement.   How do you assess these claims?

I see no possibility that Congress will assert itself to check the president when it comes to waging war.  No matter what mechanisms Congress tries to set in place, wars happen amid national security crises (real and manufactured by presidents) in which legislators won’t stand up to a president’s definition of the threat and won’t curb presidential discretion to respond.  I have steered clear of the normative debate because it is an empty, intellectual exercise.  We are stuck with this distribution of power and responsibility.

That said, we should engage the question of whether the system works well.  I argue in my book that presidential assertiveness often serves both the president and the nation badly.  Yes, presidents can drag the United States into war with no effective check.  But the results have often been poor.

If we look at the record of major military conflicts in the postwar era, the argument that executive branch hegemony yields positive results is hard to sustain.  Vietnam and Iraq, conflicts fought at the behest of presidents, proved to be disasters; Afghanistan has been badly managed almost from the outset, with no clear political outcome in mind, too few resources when it might have made a difference, and no coherent strategy during the entire Bush administration.

From the standpoint of presidents themselves, the record is probably worse.  The stalemate in Korea helped destroy Truman’s reputation (though it has since recovered); Vietnam ruined two presidencies (Johnson and Nixon); the 1991 Gulf War, though a military success, could not be leveraged into a second term for George H.W. Bush; and the 2003 invasion of Iraq contributed to the Democratic victory in the 2006 midterm elections and thoroughly undermined the reputation of Bush 43.

We have a system, then, that allows presidents the freedom to become their own worst enemies.  Why anyone would celebrate such a development escapes me.  I don’t see an effective alternative, either.  The best I have to offer is that the system contains a self-correcting mechanism—the American people do recognize when wars go badly, protest enters the mainstream, and the collapse of popular support for military intervention eventually forces the next president to seek an exit strategy.

3) Erik and I recently discussed this post on retrospective voting in presidential elections.  From a foreign and military policy perspective, what elections (if any) do you see as having an underrated effect on the future direction of the country?

What a wonderful, mischievous question!  We could spend weeks going back and forth on this one.

Let me start with a definition of “agency” that I’ve used elsewhere.  We can speak of agency as being exercised if we can imagine another actor who might realistically have held a position at a given point in time might have made different decisions that would have has significantly different consequences.  It makes no sense, then, to speculate on how a Ralph Nader, Dennis Kucinich, or Ron Paul would approach the challenges of presidential leadership because none of them would ever have been elected under any reasonable scenario.

So, to take an obvious example, if Al Gore were president at the time of 9/11 (and many would argue, of course, that he should have been sworn in the previous January, instead of Bush 43), I believe he would have engaged in military action in Afghanistan, but he would not have invaded Iraq in 2003.  Gore would have sent a much larger American force to Afghanistan, too, because he would have had little interest in Rumsfeld-style military transformation.  It is anyone’s guess, of course, whether this would have resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden at an earlier date or prevented the resurgence of the Taliban.  But Iraq would not have been on the table, at least in the short run.

On the other side of the coin, I doubt whether the outcome of the 1964 election altered the likelihood of American intervention in Vietnam.  I suggest in my book that almost any American president, Democrat or Republican, would have regarded the preservation of a non-communist South Vietnam as an essential American interest.  Yes, you could point to a few American political leaders who did not support intervention, but none of them could have been elected president in 1964.  I want to point out that scholars disagree over this point.  Some insist that Johnson exercised significant discretion in his actions.  So this is a point about which we could argue.  And we also can debate whether Barry Goldwater would have waged a different kind of war had he been in the White House.

Given the focus of “Elusive Victories” on wars, I naturally tend to focus on wartime presidents and how other potential chief executives, but it is interesting to speculate about situations in which a particular incumbent avoided war.  Let’s consider Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson.  Eisenhower held office during an extremely dangerous period of the Cold War.  The United State might easily have found itself at war or engaged in a significant military intervention at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 or in the disputes over Quemoy and Matsu.  Because Eisenhower had extraordinary credibility as a wartime military leader, he knew how to call the bluff of his military advisors when they urged military action.  He also had such strong military credentials that he could withstand criticism when he refused to back the French in Indochina.  I doubt strongly that a President Stevenson would have been able to do the same, especially as the Democrats had been subjected to such withering attacks about their alleged loss of China.

In the end, of course, most of the counterfactuals about alternative presidential outcomes can be debated endlessly.  I invite your readers to chime in, and I freely admit in advance that their “what ifs” may at least as persuasive as the few I’ve suggested.

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  • ploeg

    To begin with, as a general military proposition, a cordon defense is poor strategy—an adversary, especially one with a significant conventional advantage, can always concentrate more troops at a given point and rip open a linear defensive line. Union forces did this in early 1862 in Tennessee.

    While true, this does not contradict the statement that alternatives would have been worse. Southerners behind the lines tended to resent the Union occupiers (if not sympathize fully with the Confederates). As for fighting, however, there seems to have been more willingness to fight partisan campaigns against the Confederate government than against the Union government (particularly in western VA, eastern TN, and parts of AL). The organization of partisan activity was certainly outside of the competence of a government that had a hard enough time trying to provide for its armies in the field. And it’s not as if the Union was bereft of effective countermeasures against anybody who tried a partisan strategy (namely Sheridan’s Shenandoah campaign and Sherman’s march through Georgia and the Carolinas), or as if the Union did not already have large numbers of troops devoted to garrison duty to defend supply lines against cavalry raids. It’s also odd that the “trans-Mississippi west after Vicksburg” is held up as a proof of the promise of a partisan strategy, in that the trans-Mississippi west did not receive any strategic focus after the Vicksburg campaign, and in that the trans-Mississippi west folded less than seven weeks after Lee’s surrender. To reiterate, the strategy that was pursued by Davis might have been a poor strategy, but it was probably the best strategy that was available to Davis.

    Up the very last days of the war, they offered peace terms based on a revocation of the Emancipation Proclamation.

    “They” in this case would not seem to include the Confederate government, and Jefferson Davis in particular. There might have been southerners who wished to negotiate peace along such lines (including Vice President Stephens), but for the Confederate government as headed by President Davis, peace talks were merely a tactic to undermine the Union war effort. When it came time to put up or shut up, the Confederate government could not stand down peacefully under any circumstances. And given that the Confederates could not stand down, it was inevitable that the Union would force the Confederates to submit, regardless of who won the election of 1864 (though almost certainly the postwar settlements would have been rather different if McClellan and the Democrats had won). As General Sherman wrote his wife:

    You ask my opinion of McClellan. I have been much amused at similar inquiries of John [Sherman] & Others in answer to a news paragraph that I pledge 99 votes of the hundred to McClellan. Of course this is the invention of some Rumor. I never said such thing. I will vote for nobody because I am not entitled to vote. Of the two, with the inferences to be drawn at home & abroad I would prefer Lincoln, though I Know that McClellan, Clement Vallandigham or even Jeff Davis if President of the U.S. would prosecute the war, and no one with more vigor than the latter.

  • shah8

    That response to Jefferson Davis strategy really was nonresponsive. Adding to ploeg’s comments:

    1) The Confederates had no real ability to supply guerrillas, and trying to manage both the need for irregulars and regulars would have taxed functional bureaucracies, let along the Confederates.

    2) This ignores local resources that the Union might have access to, namely the slaves.

    3) If you lose in such a hard fight, you’ll probably lose bad, and your freedmen are probably quite a bit better armed and organized, with the land and the backing of the Feds, than how it turned out to be.

    Last third. It’s obvious that Al Gore would not have let 9/11 happen. Maybe no real wars happen. Just Bosnia type actions.

  • rea

    While historians tend to focus on the big armies and the big battles, it’s not as if there were no Confederate partisan groups fighting.

  • Doug M.

    There were plenty of Confederate partisan groups, but they tended to be in parts of the South (Northern Virginia, western Missouri) that had fairly modest slave populations — 25% of the total, or less. Areas with large slave populations did /not/ see white guerrilla or partisan actions against Union troops, even when those were areas (central Mississippi, lowlands South Carolina) where pro-Confederate sentiment was particularly fierce.

    The reason for that is fairly obvious: a partisan group can’t function very well when a third or more of the population is sympathetic to the conqueror and actively hostile to the guerrillas.

    Doug M.

    • rea

      And also–guerilla warefare brings about a breakdown of law and order, and that was the last thing the Confederates wanted–they imagined that the slaves would be coming for their womenfolk.

    • Major Kong

      I’m curious how much manpower the Confederates had tied up just keeping an eye on the slaves.

      • ploeg

        Not a whole lot. On the other side of the ledger, white southerners conscripted slaves and free black labor for duty behind the lines (for example, building fortifications). As long as the Confederacy maintained control, they could keep black people working, which freed up whites for other tasks. If the Confederacy relinquished control of an area, the blacks would either become neutral (for fear of punishment if the Confederates came back) or offer their services to the Union troops.

        But yeah, it puts a crimp in your guerrilla war if a sizable chunk of the population is willing and able to rat on you.

  • To pick up on Andy’s point about the 64 elections, this to me is the fundamental difference between Vietnam on one hand and the Mexican, Spanish, Filipino, and Iraqi wars on the other.

    In 1964, invading Vietnam was bipartisan consensus. No one really questioned the need for the U.S. military to defend the South Vietnamese government at all costs.

    That doesn’t excuse LBJ’s actions, the lying, the naplam, etc. But it does put them in context.

    The other wars I named were explicitly partisan wars designed to promote the agenda of a single political party over the well-defined opposition of a large segment of American society. Those wars, each of which lacked a single good reason for the U.S. to get involved and which mostly reflected our desire to violently wrest land and resources from other countries, are far more damnable.

    • rea

      My recollection of 1964 (when I was pretty damn politically aware, for a 9-year-old) is that Goldwater wanted to escalate in Vietnam, and Johnson promised a more cautious approach, then escalated as soon as the election was over.

      • patrick II

        I’m with you on this. And then Humphrey lost in ’68 because he was associated with LBJ’s Vietnam position and Nixon promised a “secret plan” to end the war. People voted against the war twice and we just couldn’t get them to stop it. Which is a large part of why the sixties was the sixties.

        • People did not vote against the war. They might have voted against LBJ’s handling of the war and the fact that the U.S. was losing the war. But they voted for Richard Nixon for christ’s sake. Did anyone actually believe he had a secret plan to end the war?

  • thusbloggedanderson

    The best I have to offer is that the system contains a self-correcting mechanism—the American people do recognize when wars go badly, protest enters the mainstream, and the collapse of popular support for military intervention eventually forces the next president to seek an exit strategy.

    I guess it’s too much to hope for that presidents would learn from history eventually – i.e., see that executive aggression tends to work out badly for presidents, and thus refrain from such aggression out of self-interest.

    • Scott Lemieux

      Yeah, it’s weird that LBJ going from winning one of the most crushing landslides in history to not being able to run for his own party’s nomination didn’t seem to affect presidents going forward at all.

  • Peter Hovde

    To the extent that Davis actually believed that slavery could survive deep incursions into the South, he was delusional. Perhaps he was, and actually had come to believe that his and others’ slaves accepted the slave system. People can, after all, convince themselves of almost anything.

  • wengler

    No navy, no power. Historians seem to underestimate the effect that a country half surrounded by water had no ability to use it for military operations or export.

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