Presidents of War


Presidents of War (by Michael Beschloss) is a fresh, intimate look at a procession of American leaders as they took the nation into conflict and mobilized their country for victory. It brings us into the room as they make the most difficult decisions that face any President, at times sending hundreds of thousands of American men and women to their deaths.

From James Madison and the War of 1812 to recent times, we see them struggling with Congress, the courts, the press, their own advisers and antiwar protesters; seeking comfort from their spouses, families and friends, and dropping to their knees in prayer. We come to understand how these Presidents were able to withstand the pressures of war—both physically and emotionally—or were broken by them.

Beschloss’s interviews with surviving participants and his findings in original letters, diaries, once-classified national security documents, and other sources help him to tell this story in a way it has not been told before. Presidents of War combines the sense of being there with the overarching context of two centuries of American history. This SDG will show how far we have traveled 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.

Weekly Topics

1. The War of 1812 - James Madison Chapters 1,2,3

James Madison was president when the U.S. next challenged Great Britain in 1812. The British did not graciously accept American independence after the Revolutionary War. Britain was seizing American sailors and doing its best to interrupt American trade. The War of 1812 has been called the "Second War of Independence." It lasted until 1815.

2.The Mexican-American War- James K . Polk Chapters 4, 5

The U.S. clashed with Mexico in 1846 when Mexico resisted James K. Polk's vision of a "manifest destiny" for America. War was declared as part of America's effort to forge westward. The first battle took place on the Rio Grande. By 1848, America had taken possession of a huge swath of land including the modern-day states of Utah, Nevada, California, New Mexico and Arizona.

3. The Civil War - Abraham Lincoln Chapters 6, 7

From 1861 until 1865. Abraham Lincoln was president. Lincoln's opposition to slavery was well known and seven southern states promptly seceded from the union when he was elected., The Civil War broke out as Lincoln took steps to bring them back into the fold – and to emancipate their slaves in the process.

4. The Spanish American War - William McKinley Chapters 8, 9

This was a brief one, lasting less than a year in 1898. Tensions first began escalating between the U.S. and Spain in 1895 as Cuba fought back against Spain's dominance and the U.S. supported its efforts. Spain declared war against America on April 24, 1898. McKinley responded by declaring war as well on April 25. The whole thing was over by December, with Spain relinquishing Cuba, and ceding the territories of Guam and Puerto Rico to the U.S.

5. World War I - Woodrow Wilson Chapters 10, 11

World War I broke out in 1914. It pitted the Central Powers – Germany, Bulgaria, Austria, Hungary and the Ottoman Empire – against the formidable Allied Powers of the U.S., Great Britain, Japan, Italy, Romania, France, and Russia. United States entered World War I by declaring war on Germany in 1917.

6. World War II - Franklin Roosevelt Chapters 12, 13

Raging from 1939 until 1945, World War II actually monopolized the time and attention of two presidents. It began when Hitler invaded Poland and France and Great Britain declared war on Germany two days later. Soon more than 30 countries were involved, with Japan – among several other countries – joining forces with Germany. Roosevelt was president when the U.S. entered the war in 1941.

7. The Korean War - Harry Truman Chapters 14,15

The Korean War broke out in 1950 when North Korean soldiers invaded other Soviet-backed Korean territories in June. The U.S. got involved to support South Korea in August. Before Harry Truman left office, he had his conflict with General Douglas MacArthur over how to end the war.

8. The Vietnam War - Lyndon Johnson Chapters 16, 17

It's been called the most unpopular war in American history, and four presidents inherited its nightmare. It lasted 15 years from 1960 through 1975. Eisenhower was president when the war began, and Jack Kennedy inherited it during his abbreviated term in office.

9. The Persian Gulf War/The Iraq War- George W. Bush (41) and Barack Obama

This one landed in Bush's lap in 1990 when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and thumbed his nose at the United Nations Security Council when it instructed him to withdraw his forces. Operation Desert Storm raged for 42 days until a cease fire in February 1991. Peace or something like it settled over the Persian Gulf until 2003 when Iraq again prompted hostilities in the region. The U.S., aided by Great Britain, successfully invaded Iraq (George W. Bush), then insurgents took exception to this state of affairs and hostilities broke out again. The conflict didn't resolve until Barack Obama's presidency.

10. The Afghanistan War/Syrian War - George W. Bush/Barack Obama/ Donald Trump.

The attacks of September 11, 2001 surprised many Americans. The decision a month later to wage a war in Afghanistan, to end the ability of the government to offer safe haven to Al Qaeda, may have seemed equally surprising. Barack Obama sent American troops to Syria in 2015 as part of a coalition against the Islamic State, or ISIS. The main role of the U.S. has been fighting Islamic State. It began an air campaign against the group in 2014 and then the U.S. sent in ground troops the next year to assist Kurdish forces fighting the jihadists. President Donald Trump inherited the war and now has ordered the withdrawal of the U.S. troops in Syria,


Core Book – Presidents of War by Michael Beschloss

While there is a core book, we can also rely on substantive internet articles