Harry Truman often cited James Polk among his favorite presidents because Polk "regularly told Congress to go to hell on foreign policy matters," writes Michael Beschloss in Presidents of War. Such bravado would have rattled the Founding Fathers, who intended that the power to declare war rest solely with Congress, rather than the president. However, Polk's stance during the Mexican War reflects the beginning of a transformative shift, one adopted by commanders-in-chief during the modern nuclear age.
Presidents of War traces the arc of this fundamental change by focusing on the approaches to war taken by Jefferson, Madison, Polk, Lincoln, McKinley, Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Truman and Lyndon Johnson. Beschloss (The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963) expertly assesses and analyzes each leader's motivations, degree of honesty with the public, level of cooperation with Congress and treatment of civil liberties. As for Congress, Beschloss states, relinquishing the power to engage in war resulted in sending "an unintended message to later presidents that when they ask the House and Senate for war, those commanders-in-chief could be duplicitous, too."
Beschloss's style is to present a complicated dynamic in a well-researched but easy-to-read monograph, and Presidents of War succeeds in this mission. He captures nearly 150 years in a single volume, from Jefferson's attempts to prevent war with France or England up to the Vietnam War, with brief discussion of the Gulf Wars. For each conflict, Beschloss provides an engaging look at how and why the dramatic pendulum swung, and of the leaders who helped change its--and the country's--direction. --William H. Firman Jr., presidential historian and writer