Commander in Chief: How Truman, Johnson, and Bush Turned a Presidential Power into a Threat to America's Future

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9780374102173: Commander in Chief: How Truman, Johnson, and Bush Turned a Presidential Power into a Threat to America's Future

This is a story of ever-expanding presidential powers in an age of unwinnable wars. Harry Truman and Korea, Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam, George W. Bush and Iraq: three presidents, three ever broader interpretations of the commander in chief clause of the Constitution, three unwinnable wars, and three presidential secrets. Award-winning presidential biographer and military historian Geoffrey Perret places these men and events in the larger context of the post-World War II world to establish their collective legacy: a presidency so powerful it undermines the checks and balances built into the Constitution, thereby creating a permanent threat to the Constitution itself.
 
In choosing to fight in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, Truman, Johnson, and Bush alike took counsel of their fears, ignored the advice of the professional military and major allies, and were influenced by facts kept from public view. Convinced that an ever-more powerful commander in chief was the key to victory, they misread the moment. Since World War II wars have become tests of stamina rather than strength, and more likely than not they sow the seeds of future wars. Yet recent American presidents have chosen to place their country in the forefront of fighting them. In the course of doing so, however, they gave away the secret of American power—for all its might, the United States can be defeated by chaos and anarchy.

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About the Author:

Geoffrey Perret is the award-winning author of twelve previous books, including Ulysses S. Grant, Eisenhower, and Lincoln’s War. He has been a consultant for PBS, C-Span, and the History Channel.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

Too Much Too Soon

ON AUGUST 18, 1944, HARRY S. TRUMAN LOOKED DEATH IN THE face, over lunch. This sunny afternoon, seated beneath his favorite tree, Truman was taking lunch with the president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and although Truman at sixty brimmed with life, a deathly pallor darkened the sixty-two-year-old Roosevelt’s famous face.

Senator Truman had arrived believing that the purpose of the lunch was to discuss his role as vice presidential nominee in the forthcoming election. And Roosevelt had evidently sought to please him by dining in the shade of what Truman called "the Andrew Jackson tree"—a splendid magnolia at the top of the South Lawn planted more than a hundred years earlier by his political hero.

Roosevelt told him there was a big experiment under way that could help win the war, but did not offer details. Truman chose not to press him for any. Instead, they turned their discussion to the upcoming campaign. It soon became clear, though, that Roosevelt did not expect Truman to do much, or even to add much to the ticket.1

There seemed to be only one thing Roosevelt wanted to convey, and that was a warning: "Harry, don’t fly! You can’t tell when you will have to take over this job." FDR’s shaking hands made the same point: when Roosevelt tried to pour milk into his tea, most of it went into the saucer. His voice had lost its confident timbre, and he seemed to find even a brief conversation exhausting. When Truman returned to his office, he told his old friend Harry Vaughan, "Physically, he’s going to pieces." And a few days later, when an old friend remarked that Roosevelt looked so ill that Truman might soon succeed him, Truman replied, "And it scares hell out of me."2

A month earlier, Truman had no intention of being on the ticket and had arrived at the Democratic convention in Chicago pledged to support James Byrnes of South Carolina for the vice presidency.

The current vice president, Henry Wallace, was too liberal for southern voters and too intellectual for the big-city bosses who dominated the party machine. Byrnes saw himself as the compromise candidate, but Roosevelt saw something else—Truman. As the chairman of a much-admired Senate committee dedicated to preventing corruption in wartime appropriations, Truman had won a national reputation.

He was also popular with other senators. Woodrow Wilson’s dream at the end of World War I for a League of Nations that would enforce the peace had died in the Senate. Truman looked as though he might be just the man to see that Roosevelt’s dreams for a new world body— the United Nations—did not die there too.3

The second day of the convention, the Democratic Party chairman, Robert Hannegan, got Truman together in a hotel room with some of the most powerful people in the party. We want you to be Roosevelt’s running mate, they told him. And I don’t want it, he told them. He was like a nail: the harder they hammered him, the deeper he dug in. Truman loved being a senator. There was not the remotest desire there to be president, still less to step into a dead man’s shoes.

Hannegan finally put a call through to Roosevelt, in San Diego. The president was on his way to meet with MacArthur in Hawaii. Hannegan held up the telephone so that Truman could follow the conversation. "Bob, have you got that guy lined up yet on that vice presidency?" said Roosevelt.

"No," said Hannegan. "He’s the contrariest goddam Missouri mule I ever saw."

The response came in those singular, patrician tones the whole country knew well: "You can tell him from me that if he wants to split the Democratic Party in the middle of a war and maybe lose that war, that’s up to him."4

The threat of a split and the prospect of the Republican challenger, Thomas Dewey, replacing a giant such as Roosevelt was too serious to ignore. Truman agreed to run, provided Byrnes released him from his pledge, as Byrnes did.

"The week at Chicago was the most miserable I’ve ever spent, trying to prevent my own nomination to be vice president," he later told a family friend, Emmy Southern. "I was afraid of what would happen." Over lunch beneath the magnolia, those latent anxieties became powerful certainties. Roosevelt did not look like a man who could survive another four years as president.5

Soon after the inauguration in January, something happened to Roosevelt’s signature. Once strong, even, and so stylish it looked worthy of gracing historic documents, it suddenly became a palsied scrawl, lacking energy and authority. If Truman saw it, and he may well have done so, seeing that he now presided over the Senate, it would have come as a shock to him, as it did to everyone else.6

Like many a southern or border state politician, Truman enjoyed hoisting a glass of bourbon around five o’clock almost any afternoon, which happened to be the hour when the Democratic speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn of Texas, held a soiree in his office for political friends and acolytes. Those invited knowingly and half-jokingly referred to these gatherings as "the Board of Education." After all, along with the booze, they imbibed Rayburn’s political wisdom.

The afternoon of April 12, Truman had got his hand around a whiskey glass just as the Board went into session. Then Rayburn’s phone rang. It was Steve Early, Roosevelt’s press secretary, calling for Vice President Truman. "Come to the White House at once," said Early, "through the main gate."

Saying he’d probably be back in a few minutes, Truman returned to his office to collect his hat, and had his driver take him down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. When he reached the private quarters upstairs, Eleanor Roosevelt was waiting for him. She placed an arm around his shoulders. "Harry, the president is dead." A minute or so later the secretary of state, Edward Stettinius, arrived in tears.

No one seemed sure what to do next. Stettinius suggested a cabinet meeting be held immediately, and Truman reached, almost instinctively, for a gathering of other men around him. Truman was a joiner, a man who sat on a wallet stuffed with membership cards, and a member of the Masonic elite. He was rarely alone and then never for long.7

When the cabinet met at 6:00 p.m., it really had nothing much to discuss. There was too much grief. The purpose of this gathering was mutual support, not serious discussion, but they had to talk about something. Steve Early saved the moment. He came into the room and said the reporters outside wanted to know if there would be any change in the arrangements for the conference due to meet in San Francisco on April 25 to write a charter for the United Nations. "No," said Truman. "It will proceed as planned." In years to come, he would refer often to this moment as proof of two things—his commitment to world peace and the fact that he had been decisive from the first minutes of his presidency.

After the brief cabinet meeting broke up, Henry L. Stimson, the elderly secretary of war, asked for a word alone. He told Truman that the United States was developing a new kind of explosive. "It has almost unbelievable destructive power." Truman was physically and emotionally drained. It was too much to take in at such a moment.8

At 7:09 he was sworn in as President of the United States, in the Cabinet Room by the chief justice, Harlan Fisk Stone. Truman swore the oath on a red-edged Gideon Bible found after a brief, frantic search of West Wing bookcases and desks. When he reached the end of the oath, Truman bent over and kissed the Bible.

There were so many journalists and photographers, congressional leaders and White House staffers milling about in and around the Cabinet Room, it was a struggle getting out to where his car was waiting. He, Bess, and his daughter, Margaret, were driven back to their apartment at 4701 Connecticut Avenue, where dinner was a sandwich and a glass of milk. And then, he recalled, "Went to bed, went to sleep, did not worry any more."9

That was not true. In the morning he met with the leaders of Congress, and as they offered him their support, he burst into tears and wailed, "I am not big enough! I am not big enough!" And over the weeks that followed, Truman asked any number of people, "Pray for me." He assured others that he did not see how he could be president. "I’m the last man fitted to handle it," he told one. "If there ever was a man who was forced to be President, I’m that man," he told another.10

These outbursts expressed a characteristic humility, yet they were also an oblique reflection of crushing pressures suddenly brought to bear. Some hours after meeting with the leaders of Congress, Truman had recovered his composure and had a meeting with Byrnes. At Stimson’s behest, Byrnes proceeded to give his old friend Harry an account of the Manhattan Project, the enormous secret program to build an atomic bomb. This time, Truman understood. By making atoms disintegrate and set off a chain reaction similar to the process that produced the light and energy of the sun, it would be possible to make a new kind of bomb. "It will be great enough to destroy the whole world," said Byrnes.11

What Truman had just been handed by Byrnes was not simply responsibility for the United States, great as that was, but responsibility for the future of the planet and the whole human race. How could he know he was up to it? Could anyone?

Less than two weeks into his presidency, Truman received a note from his secretary of war: "I think it is very important that I should have a talk with you as soon as possible on a highly secret matter." The bomb again. Stimson arrived the next day, bringing the director of the Manhattan Project, Major General Leslie Groves, with him.

Groves assured Truman that the first atomic bomb would be ready sometime in the summer. Stimson was confident that it would work. What troubled him was what might follow. The bomb would alm...

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