War and Presidential Popularity

War and Presidential Popularity

By Frederick J. Chiaventone

Whatever one might think of President Bush’s much touted popularity numbers – or perhaps one should say unpopularity numbers – in the polls, the historical convergence of conflict and Presidential approval ratings is almost universally dismal.
Our contemporary collective memories most readily recall the lackluster approval ratings of the Presidents involved in Vietnam.  Johnson and later Nixon took severe hits in popularity as the war in Southeast Asia dragged on seemingly without end and at horrendous cost to American families. Lyndon Johnson was so disheartened that he opted not to run for re-election and Nixon worked as quickly as possible to bring to a close this very unpopular conflict.  Their predecessor John F. Kennedy seems largely to have escaped the wrath of the pollsters but it is easy to forget that the US involvement in Vietnam, initiated in his Presidency, was still in its infancy at the time of his death.
Several years before Kennedy’s Administration, Harry Truman found himself embroiled in the first of many post-World War II conflicts as the United States struggled to rescue South Korea from an unprovoked assault by hordes of North Korean and later Chinese troops.  A confused, nasty slugfest resulted that cost over 54,00 American lives by the time an uneasy cease-fire was signed in Panmunjon. By then, Truman’s approval rating had slipped to 22% (lower even than President Bush’s most recent polling figures) and his hopes for re-election had ended with his defeat in the New Hampshire primary.
Truman’s predecessor in the White House, the inimitable Franklin Roosevelt, alone among what could be termed War Presidents, seems to have avoided the excoriation of a disenchanted press and public. Despite his election to the Presidency for an unprecedented four terms, and despite America’s twin trials of the Great Depression and World War II, Roosevelt seems to have escaped the harsher judgments of the opinion pollsters (perhaps owing to the fact that the Gallup Poll did not make its debut until after his death) and the press. But even the sainted FDR had his critics as American forces sustained unprecedented casualties for a 20th Century war.
Woodrow Wilson, who was elected on the slogan “He kept us out of war!” was nonetheless obliged to commit United States forces against Imperial Germany. Unrestricted submarine warfare waged by Germany – especially with the sinking of the Lusitania – and the subsequent uncovering of the infamous Zimmerman Telegram (in which Imperial Germany urged Mexico to attack the United States) had so aroused American passions that Wilson felt he had no peaceful options open.  Notwithstanding these circumstances, so concerned was Wilson to curry the favor of the American public that some scholars have speculated that his mental and physical breakdown in the last year of his term was due to his inability to cope with the stresses of maintaining a popular mandate.
The Great Emancipator himself, Abraham Lincoln, was pilloried in the press, by opposition politicians, and even his own generals as he tried to prosecute the nation’s bloodiest, and possibly most necessary war.  In fact, as historian Geoffrey Ward has noted,

“What is remarkable…is how little praise Lincoln got and how much abuse he endured without complaint.” 

In hindsight however we readily acknowledge that Mr. Lincoln’s war was an indispensable and possibly unavoidable turning point for this nation.  The dreadful knowledge which Lincoln carried internally, was that this war, however horrifying. however thankless and distasteful a task, was one that must be seen through to the bitter end.

Thus let us try not leap to judgment in the aftermath of President Bush’s annual State of the Union address.  The opposition in both Democratic and Republican parties have been looking anxiously at  opinion polls and American involvement in Iraq.  But, the question to ask is “What if the opposition is wrong?”  Only twice before in our history has America been threatened by external forces – once by the bandit Pancho Villa’s depredations in our Southwest, and once by British troops who actually burned the White House in the War of 1812.  In neither case did the enemy have or seek the capabilities which are actively being sought by our enemies in the Middle East and Afghanistan. In neither case did the civilian casualties inflicted rival those of the attack on the World Trade Center.  In neither case did the enemy seek to destroy utterly the United States, our population, our form of government.  In neither case were the stakes quite so high as they are today. 
Frederick J. Chiaventone – award-winning novelist, screenwriter, and retired Army officer taught International Security Affairs and counter-insurgency operations  at the US Army’s Command and General Staff College.

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