When Politicians Overrule Their Generals
News today that President Obama is set to announce his Afghanistan strategy next week. He certainly has been getting a lot of advice and he is reportedly irate over the leaks.
The debate over Obama’s deliberation has been fascinating and strikes me in the main as being almost totally lacking in historical context. The president’s critics have suggested he should just adopt the recommendations of his generals and be done with it. Former Vice President Cheney persists in criticizing the president for “dithering” over the decision and many members of Congress argue that he should take the advice of the “generals on the ground.”
These critics have either not read our history or have chosen to ignore what has happened many times in the past. So, a little history and perspective on presidential decisions about war.
Obama’s critics should know that presidents decide strategy, informed, of course, by military and other advice, but the buck stops – and should – at the president’s desk. Sometimes presidents have even said “no” to their generals and it has been a good thing. I have no idea what the president will decide in Afghanistan, but history, all the way back to Commander-in-Chief Abraham Lincoln, tells us that political leaders questioning, probing and even overruling their military advisers is the American way.
George C. Marshall (left), one of the country’s greatest military and political leaders, was Franklin Roosevelt’s chief military advisor during World War II. He knew something about being overruled by a civilian.
FDR Overruled His Generals, Truman and Kennedy, too, and Lincoln Should Have
In the early stages of U.S. involvement in World War II, the American high command lead by Chief of Staff Marshall pressed hard for an early invasion of Europe to be accomplished by Allied landings on the French coast. The British, unlike the Americans, having experienced the full force of German military might and having by 1942 been expelled from the continent three times – Dunkirk, Norway and Greece – resisted an invasion in 1942 or even 1943.
Winston Churchill warned the Americans that a military disaster on the French coast was the “only way in which we could possibly lose this war.” The British advocated a less risky, but more time consuming strategy that included as a first step an Allied invasion of North Africa.
Still, Marshall and others, including Dwight Eisenhower, pushed Franklin Roosevelt to adopt a plan to invade France as soon as possible. The military high command considered North Africa a sideshow. Roosevelt “dithered” over a decision much to the dismay of Eisenhower who argued “we’ve got to go to Europe and fight.”
As Rick Atkinson masterfully recounts in his Pulitzer Prize winning book “An Army at Dawn,” FDR summoned his lieutenants to the White House at 8:30 in the evening of July 30, 1942. Roosevelt announced, as commander-in-chief, that he had made his strategic decision and it was final. The United States would adopt the British strategy and invade North Africa.
As Atkinson has written: “The president made the most profound American strategic decision of the European war in direct contravention of his generals and admirals. He had cast his lot with the British rather than his countrymen.”
British historian Andrew Roberts details in his book “Masters and Commanders,” that all of FDR’s top advisors “Marshall, [Secretary of War Henry] Stimson, Eisenhower, [Secretary of State Cordell] Hull and [Marshall’s chief deputy General Thomas] Handy…preferred the ‘Ulysses S. Grant’ view” that fighting the Nazis “should be done with a full frontal assault on Germany via France as early as possible.”
FDR considered those views and rejected them in favor of Churchill’s and the British high command’s “soft underbelly of Europe” strategy that would eventually involve invasions of Sicily and Italy before the invasion of France. History has vindicated that decision. Most historians now agree that an invasion of France much earlier than 1944 would have risked a military disaster.
Roosevelt must have been thankful to not have to put up with Dick Cheney-type criticism while he made his commander-in-chief decision. All of his deliberations were conducted in strict secrecy and in 1942 military and civilian advisers did not leak. When all the advice was weighed and sifted, FDR had the confidence and courage to overrule his military advisers.
Other presidents have done the same.
During the Korean War, Harry Truman overruled and eventually fired Douglas MacArthur for the general’s insubordination in questioning Truman’s strategy of not carrying the war directly on to Chinese territory.
John Kennedy rejected the advice of his generals to attack Soviet missile sites in Cuba during that crisis and opted instead to negotiate back from the brink of nuclear war.
Perhaps our greatest president – and greatest military strategist in the White House – Abraham Lincoln, experimented with general after general until finding one he could trust. In hindsight, Lincoln gave too much deference early in the Civil War to the views of his generals, particularly the disastrous George McClellan.
When McClellan hatched his ill-considered plan to capture Richmond by moving the Union Army up the Yorktown peninsula in 1862, Lincoln knew that McClellan was pursuing the wrong objective. His real aim should have been to engage and destroy the Confederate Army, but Lincoln, still an unsure commander-in-chief, reluctantly gave into McClellan’s strategy. The outcome was a series of bloody Union defeats and eventual retreat. Lincoln should have overruled his general, but he did gain confidence in his own judgment and worked hard to avoid future mistakes.
Lyndon Johnson also did not overrule his advisers. One wonders how history would be different had LBJ trusted his instincts and resisted the military and political pressure he felt to escalate the Vietnam conflict.
Johnson was captured on tape worrying out loud about his Vietnam decision: “I don’t think it’s worth fighting for and I don’t think we can get out. And it’s just the biggest damned mess that I ever saw.”
Obama’s decision about Afghanistan, just like George W. Bush’s decision to go into Iraq or LBJ’s into Vietnam, will determine the future direction of his presidency. Of course, Obama must – as FDR, Truman and JFK did, consider the full and frank views of his military advisers. They are the experts and their views deserve great deference. However, our history shows that the generals aren’t always right.
As another president famously said, Obama is the decider. We don’t remember that Generals Marshall and Eisenhower were wrong about North Africa, we do remember that Lyndon Johnson’s presidency died along with tens of thousands of Americans and Vietnamese in Southeast Asia.
Such decisions are how young presidents become old men.
When Politicians Overrule Their Generals