Synopses & Reviews
On April 4, 1864, Abraham Lincoln made a shocking admission about his presidency during the Civil War. "I claim not to have controlled events," he wrote in a letter, "but confess plainly that events have controlled me." Lincoln's words carry an invaluable lesson for wartime presidents, writes Andrew J. Polsky in this seminal book. As Polsky shows, when commanders-in-chief do
try to control wartime events, more often than not they fail utterly.
In Elusive Victories, Polsky provides a fascinating study of six wartime presidents, drawing larger lessons about the limits of the power of the White House during armed conflict. He examines, in turn, Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, showing how each gravely overestimated his power as commander-in-chief. In each case, these presidents' resources did not match the key challenges that recur from war to war. Both Lincoln and Johnson intervened in military operations, giving orders to specific units; yet both struggled with the rising unpopularity of their conflicts. Both Wilson and Bush entered hostilities with idealistic agendas for the aftermath, yet found themselves helpless to enact them. With insight and clarity, Polsky identifies overarching issues that will inform current and future policymakers. The single most important dynamic, he writes, is the erosion of a president's freedom of action. Each decision propels him down a path from which he cannot turn back. When George W. Bush rejected the idea of invading Iraq with 400,000 troops, he could not send such a force two years later as the insurgency spread. In the final chapter, Polsky examines Barack Obama's options in light of these conclusions, and considers how the experiences of the past might inform the world we face now.
Elusive Victories is the first book to provide a comprehensive account of presidential leadership during wartime, highlighting the key dangers that presidents have ignored at their peril.
"In this provocative and incisive study of six presidents as wartime commanders in chief, Andrew Polsky demonstrates that it is much easier to start a war than to bring it to a successful conclusion." --James M. McPherson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom
"Polsky's cautionary tale is as timely as it is important. Students of presidential politics (not to mention would-be presidents) take note: those presuming to master war all too frequently become war's prisoner." --Andrew J. Bacevich, author of Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War
"[Elusive Victories] should be required reading in the Oval Office, among many other similar, though perhaps less culpable, places." --Open Letters Monthly
"The book is a sobering counterpoint to heroic narratives celebrating martial presidencies and to the scholarly emphasis on how presidential power has expanded with war." -- Washington Post Book Review
"The logic of victory provides Polsky with a template to analyze the wartime leadership of seven wartime presidents. It also provides the structure of his six chapters and has allowed him to write absolute gems of grand strategic analysis...Taken as a whole, it is a very impressive grand strategic analysis of six American wars, well worth reading and studying." --Perspectives on Politics
About the Author
Andrew J. Polsky
is Professor of Political Science at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. A former editor of the journal Polity
, he is the author of The Rise of the Therapeutic State
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Introduction
Chapter 2 The Ideal Wartime Leader: Lincoln Casts a Shadow
Chapter 3 A War to Transform the World: Wilson Misjudges His Powers
Chapter 4 Freedom of Action: Franklin Roosevelt Resists Hard Choices
Chapter 5 Staying the Course: Johnson and Nixon Pay the Political Costs of Military Stalemate
Chapter 6 The Perils of Optimism: George W. Bush with Forseeable Disaster
Chapter 7 Conclusion: Lessons for Obama's War and Beyond