Riding The Back Of The Tiger

At the start of the Kennedy administration, back in 1961, the story goes that JFK invited in a group of historians to the White House. The new president wanted to chat. What Kennedy asked these scholars was what elements insured a great presidency, and the answer from these learned gents was simple: a war.

Kennedy’s own war experiences in the South Pacific, and the ensuing menace of nuclear armageddon left JFK unconvinced. America’s situation on the world stage was just not as simple as war and peace. The lessons of  Nazi appeasement, especially by his own father, Joe Kennedy, compelled the new president to draw a hardline against Communism, and check its growth around the world. 

Caught in the eye of that dilemma; to appear tough, while preserving the lives of young Americans, Kennedy attempted a middle ground. Reluctant to fully commit US forces in Southeast Asia,  he also engaged in discreet negotiations with the Russians to settled the Cuban Missile Crisis. As a wounded veteran himself, JFK pursued a cautious and flexible foreign policy.

Not all presidencies have demonstrated such restraint.

President Madison succumbed to war cries after mediation with Great Britain looked to have collapsed, sparking the War of 1812. In reality the English had agreed to cease much of the abuse that brought about the war, before Madison’s declaration. Sadly news of accommodations from London did not arrive in time, and two futile years of warfare ensued. At the end of hostilities the United States made no measurable gains from the fight. The only red meat served came compliments of Andrew Jackson in his victory over the British in New Orleans. The war had been over two-weeks by the start of that battle. 

Most agree Madison is better remembered as the “Father of the Constitution,” than for his lackluster presidency.

“All of Mexico” resounded across young America in 1844. A toxic, but powerful combination of racism and hubris plunged America into another conflict-the Mexican American War. An unapologetic new president, James K. Polk, publicly stated in his campaign he would lead America into war, though he meant against Britain in his “54, 40, or Fight” slogan. Waged from 1846 to 1848  Polk ordered the invasion of Mexico, and defeat of the Mexican Army. 

A third war with the British never materialized, as the US opted to negotiate claims to Oregon. Though not gaining all of Mexico, America still claimed Texas to the Rio Grande, the southwest region known as the Mexican Cession, and all of California. In the aftermath of war, slave holders spilled westward in search of fertile new lands. In turn, national tensions escalated, both politically, and morally, erupting into Civil War by 1861. 

No other President extended American power, more than William McKinley, and no president was less eager to do so. As a young sergeant in the Civil War, McKinley had witnessed the truly  horrific bloodbath at Antietam Creek, surviving the bloodiest single day of the Civil War.  By the time of McKinley’s election in 1896, he faced a growing threat of a new war with Spain, this time over the Spanish possession of Cuba. Events careened out of control when a Navy gunboat, the USS Maine, sent by McKinley to protect American sugar interests, exploded in Havana Harbor in February, 1898. The disaster of The Maine forced the President’s hand, and he asked for a declaration of war from an enraged Congress. 

Though fought only from April to August, this conflict gave America island possessions from the Philippines to Puerto Rico. The United States had now officially entered the race to become an imperial power. This war extended fueling ports for the growing US Navy from across the Pacific, to the Caribbean. New markets and resources for American business opened up a fortune in profits. Filipinos, in particular, were left unhappy, switching from Spanish overlords to American authority. A bloody 3-year insurrection, fought in dank jungles, exploded, taking the lives of some 4,000 American combatants.

Sadly, in less than twenty years, the world-wide lust for colonies and riches brought America into the trenches of World War One. Decades-long rivalries for land and resources, particularly by Germany and Austro-Hungary, triggered a ruthless international competition that proved to history how industrialization could bleed young men. Not surprisingly this “war to end all wars” did not benefit Commander in Chief, Woodrow Wilson. In the end, the struggle killed him too.

As World War One ushered World War Two into being, World War Two led to the escalating tensions of the Cold War. First Truman in Korea, then Lyndon Johnson into Vietnam. Perhaps as stepchildren to Imperialism and the Cold War, GW Bush’s blunder into Iraq has assured his low position in history. 

The inescapable truth, Mr Trump, is that war does not make a presidency. With the exceptions of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and to some degree, Harry Truman, war has sullied more administrations than enhanced. Blind militarism may titillate your base, but you’re a damn fool to believe you can cheat history. Wars take on a life of their own, and as President Kennedy cautioned, “Those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.”

Gail Chumbley is the author the historic play, “Clay,” and the two-part memoir, River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight. Both books are available at http://www.river-of-january.com or on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

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