That much must be obvious. But is it similarly obvious that wartime presidents are routinely re-elected in American history? Some might consider the answer to be somewhat complex, but on the whole it is actually a rather simple phenomenon that trends mostly in one direction. That trend is that American wartime presidents are usually, and ultimately, dumped by the voters.
This historical phenomenon tends to run in a curve. When the war first breaks out, the American president becomes very popular. But as the war drags on into a period of months and years, that wartime president’s popularity begins to decline, usually all the way to the point of his ultimately losing his office. This is due to the domestic political and economic traumas that the war increasingly inflicts on society. Such are the domestic consequences of America’s most famous and "glorious" wars. Those wars would be, according to the perpetual war hawks, the Gulf War, Vietnam, Korea, and World War II.
George H. W. Bush’s political suicide was the result of his once popular wars. The voters dumped him in 1992 because of the recession which many, if not most economists trace to two related causes: Bush’s Iraq war, and Bush’s tax and spending increases. The major spending increases that Bush favored most were not on the domestic-welfare side of the budget, but rather on the military-warfare side. Bush wanted that money for his invasion of Panama, and for his invasion of Iraq. Thus, Bush’s wars and his inevitable post-war recession resulted in his electoral defeat in 1992.
The American body politic also dumped two other war hungry Republican presidents during the post-war traumas of Vietnam. Ford lost re-election due to two related causes: the post-war recession that continued into 1975, and his pardon of Nixon. Both of these were the result of the U.S. war in Vietnam. The recession was caused by the Federal Reserve’s measures to crush the wartime inflation, and the pardon was for the Watergate crimes that were themselves all wrapped up in Nixon’s Vietnam fight.
Both Ford and Nixon were thrown out of office because of the political and economic traumas caused by Vietnam/Watergate. Some may argue, however, that Nixon was a wartime president when he was re-elected in 1972. But by 1972 Nixon had drastically de-escalated U.S. involvement in the war. He had de-escalated in every year of his administration, which was why the voters rewarded him with re-election. The more Nixon de-escalated, the less he could be considered a warrior president.
Nevertheless, Nixon’s remaining degree of involvement in Vietnam still ultimately lost him his office. This was because Watergate was the domestic side of the global anti-communist struggle. When the Watergate was burgled during the 1972 campaign, the primary political issue was still Vietnam. McGovern was charging that Nixon was not de-escalating fast enough, which inevitably left the Democrats open to the perennial Republican charge that the Democrats were soft on Communism. Therefore, any attempt by Nixon to defeat the Democrats with burgled Watergate information was primarily motivated by the primary issue of that campaign: Vietnam and the Cold War against Communism.
Vietnam destroyed not only Nixon’s and Ford’s presidencies, but also that of their predecessor, Johnson. They all repeated the fate of Truman and his handpicked successor Stevenson, both of whom were dumped by the voters in 1952 because of their fruitless war in Korea.
That leaves us with the only twentieth century wartime president to be re-elected while a war was raging and escalating. This was FDR in 1944, and he is the great model upon which all subsequent wartime presidents have based their illusory and ill-fated hopes. But even the case of the 1944 election still comports with the theme that wartime presidents lose their popularity. FDR’s re-election in 1944 was by his slimmest majority ever. In other words, of all four of his campaigns, 1944 was his least successful.
Nevertheless, the wartime FDR was re-elected, and many will argue that this singular case will be the precedent that George W. Bush emulates. But these dreamers’ analogy is fundamentally flawed for the following reason. In 1944, FDR was actually less pro-war than was his opponent, Dewey. Although both candidates equally supported the war against the Axis, Dewey took his belligerence a step further by implicitly advocating yet another war, one against Russia, because of its conquest of Poland. The Cold War was already beginning, at least in the traditionally anti-communist Republican ranks.
The current Republican war hawk analogists should now ask themselves if Bush will also emulate FDR’s relation to his 1944 opponent. Do they believe that Bush’s Democratic opponent will actually be even more pro-war than Bush? None of the partisan rhetoric thus far has indicated that that kind of historic turnabout is likely.
History clearly demonstrates that Americans soon tire of war and the wartime presidents and politicians who pushed those wars. Americans may be enthusiastic for war at its outset, but that enthusiasm inevitably wanes. And when it does, pro-war presidents and candidates soon lose their popularity, and their grasp on office.
This is the trend of history. But if the current warrior president is able to buck this trend and the fates, he would be the greatest political and military genius in American history. He would have to be even more brilliant than FDR. How many American voters who would re-elect the president today also believe he is indeed an unprecedented genius?
Richard Hill is the author of the forthcoming book from Lynne Rienner Publishers, entitled Hitler Attacks Pearl Harbor: Why the U.S. Declared War on Germany.