Review

Why U.S. Presidents Really Go to War

As a new book shows, it’s not always about strategy.

By , a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.
Lyndon B. Johnson is surrounded by soldiers in this black-and-white photo as he visits U.S. troops in Vietnam. Johnson smiles as he shakes hands with a service member wearing uniform. He is flanked by security officers in dark suits.
Lyndon B. Johnson is surrounded by soldiers in this black-and-white photo as he visits U.S. troops in Vietnam. Johnson smiles as he shakes hands with a service member wearing uniform. He is flanked by security officers in dark suits.
Then-U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson shakes the hands of soldiers as he visits troops in Vietnam in 1966. Interim Archives/Getty Images

If there is one constant in U.S. political history, it is that presidents frequently make oversights, miscalculations, and even egregious mistakes in handling national security. Vietnam remains the ultimate case in point: a striking example of a talented and successful politician—in this case, President Lyndon B. Johnson—recklessly sending hundreds of thousands of service members into combat.

If there is one constant in U.S. political history, it is that presidents frequently make oversights, miscalculations, and even egregious mistakes in handling national security. Vietnam remains the ultimate case in point: a striking example of a talented and successful politician—in this case, President Lyndon B. Johnson—recklessly sending hundreds of thousands of service members into combat.

Historians and social scientists have spilled a great deal of ink trying to explain what has led U.S. presidents to misuse their power as commander in chief. For many generations of academics, the answer to the question of what went wrong in Vietnam and other failed wars lay in the ideological orthodoxies that blinded elected officials to the facts on the ground. In both Vietnam and Korea, historians argued, the “domino theory” was to blame, as it predicted that if one small country fell to communism, others would follow.

New Left historians in the 1960s and 1970s reached very different conclusions. In their work, ideology had little to do with it; rather than seeking to protect democracy abroad, administrations instead went to war to please interest groups, appease congressional committees, feed the budgets of defense contractors, or secure territorial control and valuable natural resources. As the scope of the executive branch grew, they argued, presidents and national security officials were granted too much unchecked power to do as they pleased, leading to poor wartime decision-making.

Over the past decade, however, academics have started to turn their attention away from ideology or material interests to examine the importance of another factor altogether: electoral politics. A new book by political scientist Andrew Payne, War on the Ballot: How the Election Cycle Shapes Presidential Decision-Making in War, is a welcome addition to the work of this small cohort of scholars—including Fredrik Logevall, Campbell Craig, Jeremi Suri, and me—who have attempted to develop a history of the U.S. presidency where commanders in chief constantly wrestle with the domestic political implications of their decisions overseas.

“It is an inconvenient truth,” Payne writes, “rarely admitted, that leaders habitually take electoral considerations into account when making decisions about military and diplomatic strategy in war.” For every military brass or State Department expert in the situation room advising the president on the best path forward for U.S. troops, another advisor is warning about the impact these policies might have on the next election.

As former President Richard Nixon candidly acknowledged, when it comes to determining the best course of action in wartime, “winning an election is terribly important.” In a democracy, it is virtually impossible for politics to stop at the water’s edge—and despite past blunders, that may not be such a bad thing.


President Nixon is flanked by charts balanced on easels as he sits at a desk and gives a televised speech from the White House in this black-and-white photograph
President Nixon is flanked by charts balanced on easels as he sits at a desk and gives a televised speech from the White House in this black-and-white photograph

Then-President Richard Nixon is flanked by charts in a televised speech from the White House, during which he announced that he would withdraw additional U.S. troops from Vietnam, in this photo from 1971.Bettmann/Getty Images Archive

In War on the Ballot, Payne provides a systematic assessment of the intertwined nature of elections and foreign-policy making over the course of a presidency. He outlines five ways that U.S. elections can affect presidential wartime decision-making: delay (postponing military action until an election takes place); dampening (watering down good strategic action until the vote); spur (accelerating military activity to appear tough on defense ahead of an election); hangover (being swayed to break or fulfill campaign pledges on war based on electoral results) and spoiler (when elections interfere with or disrupt bargaining strategies).

The first three, Payne writes, tend to occur between the midterms and reelection campaigns, and the latter two in the lame-duck period when presidents are more concerned about their legacies. Importantly, Payne argues that we have to consider the different kinds of election cycles—midterms versus presidential, election versus reelection, anticipatory versus post-mortem, and more.

Some readers will find these categories somewhat formulaic and jargony. Moreover, like any social scientific typology, Payne’s road map to presidential decision-making is too neat. Presidents can be contradictory. Often, they make decisions in an ad-hoc manner, motivated by shifting considerations amid the instability and unpredictability of war rather than a clear strategy. Some actions fit into multiple categories. Distinguishing between the national interest and political interest is not always easy. Payne’s book builds on the kind of rational actor model that animates political science but is often much cleaner than reality.

Nonetheless, Payne’s framework is useful in thinking about the ways that democratic politics shape different points in a presidency. And his work really shines in the detail. He provides three insightful case studies, using archival material, recently released documents, and interviews to show that presidents had their minds on the hustings as they determined whether and how to deploy troops in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. In each case, electoral self-interest triumphed over the national strategic interest.

A man wearing a U.S. Navy uniform hat holds up the front page of a newspaper, which announces the U.S. military intervention in Korea. A stack of more newspapers sits on the table in front of him.
A man wearing a U.S. Navy uniform hat holds up the front page of a newspaper, which announces the U.S. military intervention in Korea. A stack of more newspapers sits on the table in front of him.

A man sells newspapers, displaying a front page announcing the U.S. military intervention in Korea, in Paris on June 28, 1950. AFP via Getty Images

We learn, for instance, how President Harry Truman allowed Washington’s hawks to accelerate the country’s involvement in Korea due to fears over appearing weak ahead of the 1950 midterms. The 1952 election also pushed Republican presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower toward an increasingly aggressive stance on Korea as he sought to placate the hard-line anti-communists in his party—though he intentionally remained vague enough to leave himself room to change course upon taking office. After winning the presidency, Eisenhower pursued an armistice despite his campaign rhetoric.

The chapter on Vietnam delves into how Johnson held back on acting on the domino theory and “Americanizing” the war with U.S. troops until after the 1964 election—with the notable exception of requesting the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August 1964 after an alleged attack gave him cover to act tough. Then Johnson intensified U.S. involvement after he defeated Sen. Barry Goldwater in a landslide victory. Since he was freed from electoral concerns, Johnson could have decided to withdraw or pursue neutralization, as Vice President Hubert Humphrey urged him to do, but instead he concluded that escalation was essential to preserve his legislative coalition. His efforts to secure a peace during the lame-duck period after he decided not to run for reelection were subverted by the 1968 election cycle, especially the infamous efforts made by then-presidential candidate Richard Nixon’s campaign to subvert negotiations.

Then-President George W. Bush speaks from the White House, sitting at his desk in the Oval Office. The American flag stands behind him, and behind that, the windows are dark. It is nighttime.
Then-President George W. Bush speaks from the White House, sitting at his desk in the Oval Office. The American flag stands behind him, and behind that, the windows are dark. It is nighttime.

Then-President George W. Bush speaks from the White House in Washington, D.C., to announce that the U.S. military had struck at “targets of opportunity” in Iraq on March 19, 2003. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Several decades later, President George W. Bush resisted increasing the U.S. troop presence in Iraq until after the 2006 midterm election for fear that doing so might influence voters; in his memoir, he admitted that he waited so that his decision would not seem political. Nor would he fire Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld until after the midterms. Two years later, when Barack Obama ran for president, he promised to remove troops from Iraq, but he slowed down after winning the election and confronting his own fears about the midterms. Obama then accelerated the drawdown as his reelection campaign approached, understanding that many Democrats would evaluate whether he had gone through with his commitment.

There are missteps and missed opportunities in Payne’s book. For example, Payne defines political considerations as being primarily about elections, as opposed to passing legislation and preserving congressional coalitions that are essential to protecting domestic and national security policies. And although Payne demonstrates how policy ambitions influenced Johnson’s resistance to withdrawing troops in 1965, he doesn’t devote much attention to how such considerations affected Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, Bush, or Obama.

Payne would also have done well to offer more analysis of the news media—a curious absence, given that it serves as a key intermediary between presidents and the electorate in the dissemination of information (and misinformation) about war and diplomacy in the lead-up to a vote. Polling matters, but so too do the reporters who translate and analyze the data. The kinds of rational calculations that Payne emphasizes are not always possible given that voters don’t always know what is happening overseas.

During much of the period examined in the book, notions of press objectivity offered presidents considerable room to maneuver in keeping information away from the public. Early in the Vietnam War, for example, reporters often failed to interrogate the official statements they received in military briefings and went on to share that information without critical analysis. Even today, many voters have little knowledge about Washington’s role in key parts of the globe, especially as news outlets move on from hotpots where conflict rages on to cover other issues such as the latest political scandal.

Finally, Payne devotes too little attention to Congress. As political scientists have shown, Congress retains immense power to influence voter opinion and focus public attention on certain aspects of foreign policy through investigations and public statements, such as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s aggressive push this summer to promote initiatives that counteract China’s growing economic power. Legislators also control the purse strings, which remain a powerful consideration for presidents as they contemplate wartime strategy.

Still, the question at the heart of Payne’s book is one we must all grapple with: Does democracy produce better or worse results when it comes to war overseas?

Although Payne does not have a clear-cut answer, his book points to a long history in which presidential concern about elections has resulted in “suboptimal” foreign-policy decisions—especially when it comes to asymmetric warfare. “[P]owerful democracies are peculiarly bad at fighting small wars,” he writes. “U.S. participation in these ‘limited’ conflicts [such as Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq] has been characterized by long, protracted struggles that sap morale and ultimately result in a draw at best, if not outright defeat.”

It’s a grim conclusion—made more dispiriting by the fact that Payne does not really offer any compelling solutions to the serious problems he identifies.


Anti- Vietnam War protesters mill about on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., crowded around the Reflecting Pool with picket signs and banners. The Washington Monument looms in the background.
Anti- Vietnam War protesters mill about on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., crowded around the Reflecting Pool with picket signs and banners. The Washington Monument looms in the background.

Vietnam war protesters demonstrate on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on October 21, 1967. AFP via Getty Images

The problems created by democratic pressure won’t disappear. Yet this is a feature, not a bug, in the U.S. political system. We would not want to support a politics where presidents are freed from the electorate. This is part of what separates the United States from nondemocratic nations. It has also been one of the most powerful forces in pulling presidents away from their most disastrous decisions, such as the electoral and grassroots pressure in the late 1960s and early 1970s that was essential to bringing U.S. involvement in Vietnam to an end.

What the United States can do is work to bolster its democracy so that the president receives accurate signals of where the electorate stands, and the public can ensure accountability for any commander in chief who moves in harmful directions. That entails ensuring that voting rights are respected, that the Electoral College is not open to manipulation, and that congressional procedures don’t perpetually favor anti-majoritarian opinion and hyperpartisan calculations. In short, Washington must get its own house in order. It is one thing to have presidents constantly balancing expert-driven strategic advice and democratic pressures, but quite another when those democratic pressures are stunted and incomplete.

Democracy isn’t always pretty, but it’s the best system that exists. When the processes work, the nation’s most powerful official can’t afford to take their eye off what voters are thinking. In turn, members of the electorate have opportunities to register their opinions, replace leaders with ones they feel can do better, and have a stake in wartime decisions made at the highest levels of power.

The fact that presidents can’t escape the electoral cage, even when conducting wars overseas, is a good thing. It remains our best check against the imperial and autocratic tendencies latent in any position of power. While that check can lead to all sorts of bad decisions and skew deliberations away from strategic concerns, it keeps Washington’s leaders grounded on main street rather than in the Pentagon.

Over time, this still offers our best insurance against commanders in chief who will take troops unnecessarily in harm’s way and face no pushback for doing so.

Books are independently selected by FP editors. FP earns an affiliate commission on anything purchased through links to Amazon.com on this page.

Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 25 books, including Arsenal of Democracy, The Fierce Urgency of Now, Burning Down the House, and Myth America. Twitter: @julianzelizer

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