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Presidents of War
Cover of Presidents of War
Presidents of War
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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • From a preeminent presidential historian comes a "superb and important" (The New York Times Book Review) saga of America's wartime chief executives

"Fascinating and heartbreaking . . . timely . . . Beschloss's broad scope lets you draw important crosscutting lessons about presidential leadership."—Bill Gates

Widely acclaimed and ten years in the making, Michael Beschloss's Presidents of War is an intimate and irresistibly readable chronicle of the Chief Executives who took the United States into conflict and mobilized it for victory. From the War of 1812 to Vietnam, we see these leaders considering the difficult decision to send hundreds of thousands of Americans to their deaths; struggling with Congress, the courts, the press, and antiwar protesters; seeking comfort from their spouses and friends; and dropping to their knees in prayer. Through Beschloss's interviews with surviving participants and findings in original letters and once-classified national security documents, we come to understand how these Presidents were able to withstand the pressures of war—or were broken by them.

Presidents of War combines this sense of immediacy with the overarching context of two centuries of American history, traveling from the time of our Founders, who tried to constrain presidential power, to our modern day, when a single leader has the potential to launch nuclear weapons that can destroy much of the human race.

Praise for Presidents of War

"A marvelous narrative. . . . As Beschloss explains, the greatest wartime presidents successfully leaven military action with moral concerns. . . . Beschloss's writing is clean and concise, and he admirably draws upon new documents. Some of the more titillating tidbits in the book are in the footnotes. . . . There are fascinating nuggets on virtually every page of Presidents of War. It is a superb and important book, superbly rendered."—Jay Winik, The New York Times Book Review
"Sparkle and bite. . . . Valuable and engrossing study of how our chief executives have discharged the most significant of all their duties. . . . Excellent. . . . A fluent narrative that covers two centuries of national conflict." —Richard Snow, The Wall Street Journal
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • From a preeminent presidential historian comes a "superb and important" (The New York Times Book Review) saga of America's wartime chief executives

"Fascinating and heartbreaking . . . timely . . . Beschloss's broad scope lets you draw important crosscutting lessons about presidential leadership."—Bill Gates

Widely acclaimed and ten years in the making, Michael Beschloss's Presidents of War is an intimate and irresistibly readable chronicle of the Chief Executives who took the United States into conflict and mobilized it for victory. From the War of 1812 to Vietnam, we see these leaders considering the difficult decision to send hundreds of thousands of Americans to their deaths; struggling with Congress, the courts, the press, and antiwar protesters; seeking comfort from their spouses and friends; and dropping to their knees in prayer. Through Beschloss's interviews with surviving participants and findings in original letters and once-classified national security documents, we come to understand how these Presidents were able to withstand the pressures of war—or were broken by them.

Presidents of War combines this sense of immediacy with the overarching context of two centuries of American history, traveling from the time of our Founders, who tried to constrain presidential power, to our modern day, when a single leader has the potential to launch nuclear weapons that can destroy much of the human race.

Praise for Presidents of War

"A marvelous narrative. . . . As Beschloss explains, the greatest wartime presidents successfully leaven military action with moral concerns. . . . Beschloss's writing is clean and concise, and he admirably draws upon new documents. Some of the more titillating tidbits in the book are in the footnotes. . . . There are fascinating nuggets on virtually every page of Presidents of War. It is a superb and important book, superbly rendered."—Jay Winik, The New York Times Book Review
"Sparkle and bite. . . . Valuable and engrossing study of how our chief executives have discharged the most significant of all their duties. . . . Excellent. . . . A fluent narrative that covers two centuries of national conflict." —Richard Snow, The Wall Street Journal
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Excerpts-
  • From the cover Prologue

    The Fugitive

    And so it had come to this. Horrified as he stood on a height above the Potomac, James Madison, the fourth President of the United States—and now, some wondered, the last?—watched his beloved Washington City as it seemed to vanish into a crimson-orange swirl of fire. It was after midnight on Wednesday, August 24, 1814, and Madison was a fugitive, escaping the Capital—first by ferry, then by galloping horse—for the dark wilderness of Virginia.

    Still wearing formal knee breeches and buckled shoes, the sixty- three-year-old Madison knew that the invader-incendiaries from Great Britain were out for his capture and arrest, which might force him to be hanged. But he kept dismounting his horse to stare, with those intelligent blue eyes that "sparkled like stars," at the inferno across the Potomac. He could not help himself. As a student of the Bible since col- lege, Madison knew that God had warned Lot's wife not to look back at burning Sodom or else become a pillar of salt. Nevertheless the beleaguered President—who stood about five feet, four inches, and weighed perhaps a hundred pounds—kept gazing at the flaming, otherworldly spectacle, the nadir of the War of 1812, which many Americans bitterly called "Mr. Madison's War."

    Earlier that day, Madison's popular, shrewd, vivacious wife, Dolley, had stayed behind at the Executive Mansion while James was out reviewing the forces charged with Washington's defense. She asked her husband's enslaved body servant Paul Jennings (who once lauded the President as a man who would not "strike a slave") to bring out ale and cider in anticipation of a three o'clock White House dinner they were planning for Cabinet secretaries, "military gentlemen," and their wives.[1] Dolley hoped that if Washingtonians learned that the President's lady was keeping a normal schedule, they would feel more sanguine about the danger of the approaching British marauders. But she received a worried, scribbled plea from her nearby sister Anna: "Tell me for gods sake where you are. . . . We can hear nothing but what is horrible here."

    From the Mansion, Dolley peered anxiously through a spyglass with "unwearied anxiety." As she wrote her other sister, Lucy, she was thinking, "Mr. Madison comes not; may God protect him!" Recoiling from the distant booms of British cannon, Dolley refused to flee until "my dear husband" was safe in her arms. But in preparation, she quickly packed letters, books, valuables, a demijohn of wine, and clothes. Determined to prevent the British from grabbing the life-sized portrait of George Washington, an irresistible battle trophy, she called out, "Save that picture! . . . If not possible, destroy it!" She ordered the painting removed from its gilded frame and taken by wagon to a "humble but safe roof," thus ensuring her place in American history. (The Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and other treasures had already been slipped into plain linen sacks and taken to a Virginia gristmill.)

    Then the Madisons' freedman servant James Smith, waving his hat, cantered up with a message from the President: "Clear out! General Armstrong has ordered a retreat!"[2] Stuffing flatware into her handbag, Dolley and Sukey, her enslaved personal maid, were helped into carriages, which rushed them and their traveling companions across the Potomac to the wilds of northern Virginia, where she and James had agreed to meet. But Dolley was told that the President could not be found, and she cowered in agony and tears. Part of her fear stemmed from the fact that the British invaders were not her husband's only en- emies. Furious at the invasion of their...
About the Author-
  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS is the author of many bestselling books on American history, most recently Jacqueline Kennedy, The Conquerors, and Presidential Courage. He is the NBC News Presidential Historian and a board member of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    September 3, 2018
    Presidential historian Beschloss (Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789–1989) offers a sweeping history of American presidents seeking and waging war from the War of 1812—the first major conflict conducted by the executive office under the Constitution—through the conclusion of the Vietnam War. He provides insight into the motivations of American leaders; presidents’ battles with other branches of government; their degree of respect for civil liberties; and the role of personality, emotion, and the general political climate as American commanders-in-chief executed the power of the country’s military forces. Beschloss reviews the historical record from an American-expansionist yet not necessarily prowar perspective; he writes, for example, that President Polk “deserves credit for adding almost a million square miles to the United States,” referring to the U.S. conquest of much of Mexico during the Mexican–American War, but that “a major, bloody war... should have been his last resort,” in keeping with the founders’ intentions. With ample detail and enticing storytelling, this readable work will be enjoyed by students and American history buffs. Agent: Esther Newberg, Curtis Brown.

  • AudioFile Magazine This impressive, and impressively long, audiobook features stories of U.S. presidents who have brought the nation into war. Those decisions were never easy, even after Pearl Harbor, and the author's point is that each chief executive had to parry pressure from Congress, the press, and public opinion in order to successfully navigate each conflict. Narrator Fred Sanders approaches this work as history rather than as a robust war book, using his understated tone and deliberate pacing to tell the story. While Sanders's raspy, unassuming delivery doesn't always grab our attention, he respects Beschloss's words, allowing them to carry the load. R.I.G. � AudioFile 2018, Portland, Maine
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Michael Beschloss
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