“Are we supposed to go to war simply because one man—the president—makes a series of unilateral decisions that put us in a box—a box that makes that war, to a greater degree, inevitable?”
Those were Senator John Kerry’s words as he voted against the resolution to authorize the Persian Gulf War in 1991, but they could just as easily express Geoffrey Perret’s sentiments in Commander in Chief.
At times the book reads more like a Greek tragedy than a history of US foreign policy. Perret describes the United States’ major conflicts since World War II as the results not of calculated strategy or political necessity but of the hubris and insecurities of three men: Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and George W. Bush.
The book is peppered with moments that suggest how the suffering and costs of the Korean, Vietnam, and Iraq wars might have been avoided if certain events had gone differently. The most memorable is embodied in a quote from John F. Kennedy on the eve of his fateful trip to Dallas in November 1963. As Perret tells it, JFK sat down with one of his advisors just before boarding Marine One for Texas. Speaking of Vietnam, Kennedy said: “I want to start a complete and very profound review of how we ever got into this country. . . . I even want to think about whether or not we should be there.”
Perret’s implication: Had Kennedy not been assassinated, thousands of American lives could have been spared. Instead, the author argues, Lyndon Johnson either misused or misinterpreted his predecessor’s policies to escalate a war that another leader might have recognized as “unwinnable.”
Much of the book focuses on the these presidents’ personal deficiencies—from Truman’s reliance on an unknown concoction to settle his nerves to LBJ’s crassness to Bush’s vendetta against Saddam Hussein. All of them, Perret claims, are rash, overly emotional, and insecure; all lean on the advice of those he considers no more equipped to rule than they, people whose chief accomplishments are loyalty and flattering. These three presidents, Perret says, built their cases for war essentially on whim and then misled or lied to the public to garner support, fabricating intelligence and silencing detractors.
Perret’s well-researched book gives a deeply personal look at these commanders in chief, letting them speak through their diaries and quotes from conversations with friends and advisors. The author’s thesis is clear: American policy has allowed presidential power to grow too much, and we have paid for it through these men’s mistakes.
Yet Perret’s fears may be exaggerated. While the push toward war might have begun with these men, in each case many politicians, pundits, and citizens agreed with them. Though Perret warns that we’re dangerously close to a president “declaring the Constitution suspended and ruling by emergency decree” if he or she chooses, he downplays the fact that in each of the wars under discussion, that didn’t happen. With the possible exception of Korea, Congress—however misled it may have been—was a willing participant, and public opinion didn’t turn against the war until it was too late.
While Truman, Johnson, and Bush have expanded the doctrine of the commander in chief to new levels, the situation isn’t yet as dire as Perret would have us believe. The president is still accountable to Congress and the American public and, it seems, will remain so—at least for now.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux