Copyright 2003, H-Net, all rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit is given to the author and the list.

Gary R. Hess. Presidential Decisions for War: Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf. The American Moment Series. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. xiv + 262 pp. Bibliographic essay index. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-8018-6515-8; $18.95 (paper), ISBN 0-8018-6516-6.

Reviewed by Melvin Small, History Department, Wayne State University.
Published by H-Diplo (March, 2003)

Required Reading for President Bush

If he has not already looked at Gary R. Hess's gracefully written, thoughtful, and thought-provoking volume about how three of his predecessors dealt with their wars, President Bush (or at least Condoleeza Rice) better get cracking. Hess, a Distinguished Research Professor in the History Department at Bowling Green State University and former president of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, examines how Presidents Truman, Johnson, and George Bush senior brought the United States into war and also how they conducted their wars in his important, somewhat mistitled, Presidential Decisions for War. In the first of two chapters he devotes to each of the three presidents, he methodically studies the war-entry decision, paying careful attention to the president's background and experience, his advisors, the decision-making apparatus, and the domestic and international environment. Those chapters are followed by a comparable analysis of leadership during war with the subtitles, for Truman, "Decision by Indecision," for Johnson "The Strategy of Wishful Thinking," and for Bush, "The Imperatives of Coalition Warfare," offering clear indications of the author's evaluations. Although he judges Truman and Johnson rather harshly, he explores all options and sympathizes with their difficulties and limitations as he takes us through their major decision points.

Hess, who has spent much of his career writing about American involvement in contemporary wars (The United States at War, 1941-1945 [2000] and Vietnam and the United States: Origins and Legacy of War [1990] among other books), has ranged far and wide through the relevant memoirs and secondary literature, including the latest material from communist archives, to present a compelling series of arguments. Joining Arnold Offner, he takes Truman down a notch or two through an assessment of his "reactive decision making" and his "impulsiveness" (p. 73). Hess finds Truman poorly served by his advisors and lacking insight into the nuances of international affairs. Among his major errors was the failure to work with Congress to develop support for the war once it appeared that it was not going to end quickly, an unwillingness or inability to rally the public, too much deference to his military advisors, and above all, a failure to define political goals at the outset that might have led to a decision to stop at the 38th parallel.

Johnson, not surprisingly, comes in for more critical scrutiny related both to his July 1965 decision to escalate the war on the ground and for his conduct of the war in general. Failing to learn the lessons of Korea, he, like Truman, never established the requisite congressional support, was unable to develop a strong popular base for the intervention, did not understand the political dimension of the war either at home or in Vietnam, and received virtually no support for his efforts from U.S. allies. The situation appears even more tragic considering his lament, "I don't think its worth fighting for, and I don't think we can get out" (p. 84). Of course, to be fair, as the war dragged on inconclusively, Johnson could not go to the country to rally support because, if he had somehow made the war vital to national security, then Americans might have demanded to move from limited war to total war.

According to Hess, George Bush seemed to have learned a good deal from the Korean and Vietnam wars. He consulted frequently with Congress and even asked for a resolution supporting his policies, rallied the public to his side, managed skillfully to put together an unlikely group of coalition partners, and decided on an end game as he practiced a "careful realpolitik" (p. 219). And, unlike Truman and Johnson, he apparently spent some time evaluating the assumptions behind his decision to contest the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. But it was still a near thing for him, as the vote for war support in the Senate was the closest in U.S. history on such matters. Moreover, who knows what would have happened had the diplomatically clumsy Saddam Hussein played his own cards more skillfully. After all, through much of the fall of 1990, the Russians, the French, and most Arab nations did everything possible to restrain the Americans. History does repeat itself.

In a fine concluding chapter, Hess points out that all three presidents went to war because of the threat to the international order, the lessons they thought they had learned in the 1930s about appeasing aggressors, and the need to maintain the credibility of the United States. Only recently, pundits and former officials supporting the current President Bush have contended that their nation must go to war in the absence of a surrender by Saddam Hussein because, once the White House sent troops to the Gulf, American credibility was at stake. Credibility can be related to national security in the sense that if a nation allows its bluff to be called, its enemies around the world will be emboldened to pose even more dangerous challenges. But often, as was the case in all three of the wars under consideration, credibility became an issue only after the presidents took actions or made bellicose statements that may have been ill advised in terms of real national security interests.

Some, like this reviewer, might have preferred to see Hess spend a bit more space on domestic politics as a key variable in presidential decision making. For example, the telegenic Siege of the Pentagon in October 1967 was one of the considerations that led Lyndon Johnson to begin a light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel public relations blitz featuring General William Westmoreland and Ambassador Ellworth Bunker that backfired when Americans saw Viet Cong sappers inside their embassy compound only two months later. Nonetheless, Presidential Decisions for War is an illuminating examination of U.S. involvement in war by a sophisticated observer of modern American diplomacy.

Document compiled by Dr S D Stein
Last update 01/03/04 05:05:04
S D Stein

Book Reviews Index Page
Holocaust Index Page
Genocide Index Page
Faculty of Humanities, Languages and Social Science