Since America became a nation, four of her greatest generals have served two terms as president: George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant and Dwight David Eisenhower.
Not one of these generals led America into a new war.
Washington was heroic in keeping the young republic out of the wars that erupted in Europe after the French Revolution, as were his successors John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
Jackson, arguably America’s greatest soldier — who won the Battle of New Orleans, which preserved the Union, and virtually annexed Florida — resisted until his final days in office recognizing the Republic of Texas, liberated by his great friend and subaltern Sam Houston.
Jackson wanted no war with Mexico.
Eisenhower came to office determined to end the war in Korea. In six months, he succeeded — and kept America out of the raging war in Indochina.
Of the men who led us into our 19th century wars — the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War and the Spanish-American War — only one, William McKinley, was a soldier who had seen combat.
McKinley had enlisted at 17. In 1862, he was with the Union army at Antietam, the bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil.
Though derided as having "the backbone of a chocolate eclair" by the bellicose Theodore Roosevelt, McKinley confided to a friend before going to war with Spain: "I have been through one war. … I have seen the bodies piled up. I do not want to see another."
James Madison, who took us into the War of 1812, which came close to tearing apart the Union; James Polk, who took us to war with Mexico and gave us Texas to the Rio Grande, the Southwest and California; and Abraham Lincoln, who led the nation in its bloodiest war, were politicians. Lincoln had served three months in the Illinois Militia in the Black Hawk War, but he never saw action.
America was led into the world wars by Woodrow Wilson, a professor, and Franklin Roosevelt, a politician. Harry Truman, who took us into Korea, had captained an artillery battery in France in 1918. John F. Kennedy, who led us into Vietnam, had served on a PT boat in the Solomons. George H.W. Bush, who launched Desert Storm, was one of the youngest Navy pilots to fight in the Pacific war.
While Americans this Memorial Day put flags out for all of their war dead, the arguments do not cease over the wisdom of the wars in which they fought and died.
In the grammar and high schools we attended in the 1940s and early 1950s, they were all good wars, all just wars, all necessary wars.
Perhaps that is how it should be taught to America’s children.
Yet, if the Revolution was a great and good cause, men fighting for freedom and nationhood, the War of 1812, where we were a de facto ally of Napoleon, seems a less noble endeavor. For among our motives was seizing Canada while the Mother Country was diverted.
Though deplored today, the Mexican War was not an unjust war.
Far from stealing Mexican territory after our victory, we paid for it, and the Mexicans, five years later, agreed to the Gadsden Purchase and offered to sell us Baja California. The greed was in Mexico City.
As for America’s Civil War, this quarrel will never end. Did not the South have the same right to secede from the Union as the 13 colonies did to secede from England? Did Lincoln have the right to use blockade and invasion to drive Old Dixie down? His predecessor James Buchanan did not think so.
Was the Civil War essential to ending slavery, when many states had already abolished it by legislation and every nation in the hemisphere ended it without a civil war, save for Haiti?
The Spanish-American War, begun over a falsehood — that Spain blew up the USS Maine in Havana harbor — ended with American soldiers and Marines fighting for years to deny Filipinos the freedom for which our fathers fought in the Revolution. Cuba was liberated, but the Philippines, 10,000 miles from Washington, was annexed. That was an imperial war.
In 1917, we declared war on Germany "to make the world safe for democracy." And our major allies were four of the largest empires on earth: the British, French, Russian and Japanese. We deposed the Kaiser, and got Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler and World War II.
As a result of these world wars, all the Western empires fell, and Western Civilization began its inexorable advance to the grave. Impending bankruptcy aside, not one Western nation has a birth rate that will enable its native-born to survive many more generations. We did it to ourselves.
About Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan — and the presidents who fought those wars, LBJ, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush — the divisions are still deep and emotions raw. Today is not the time to re-fight them, but to honor and pray for the patriots who, throughout our history, did their duty, fought and died in them. Requiescant in pace.