Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Bush: Just War Theory and America’s Wars

[I’m traveling for the holidays today, and in the next week and a half blogging will be somewhat more sporadic and brief than usual. I do hope to get up a few posts, however, the first of which is the following on Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and American wars. Things should be back to normal in January.]

I recently finished reading biographies of two presidents – Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower – both of whose legacy was to a significant degree shaped by their foreign policies. In Roosevelt’s case, whatever the controversial legacy of the New Deal may be, the successful oversight of what is largely regarded as the greatest and most just war in human history cements his place in history as one of America’s greatest presidents. As for Eisenhower, although his eight years in the White House can be criticized on many points, he merits significant praise for navigating America through eight years of peace and prosperity, years book-ended before and after by bloody military conflicts in Korea and Vietnam.

Judging the morality of any given military conflict is a notoriously complicated task. Although it’s easy for armchair ethicists to judge wars once they have been fought and won (or lost), in the heat and passion of most conflicts, very few people have the wherewithal to make level-headed evaluations. For example, for most amateur students of history it is difficult to fathom why so many Americans believed the nation’s cause was so righteous – and why they were convinced so much was there to be won – in the First World War. The same is true of the Spanish-American War in 1898, and to a certain extent of the Mexican War in 1846-1848. It is increasingly the case with the Iraq War, launched by President George W. Bush in 2003.

One of the things that really strikes me about the presidencies of Roosevelt and Eisenhower was just how seriously these men took decisions whether or not to go to war, and how hard they worked to ensure that if the nation did go to war, the public would be solidly behind the effort. This despite the fact that during the 1940s and 1950s the United States faced threats to its security far greater – or at least far more obvious – than the country does today.

During Roosevelt’s second term in office Germany launched Europe into its second major war in little more than two decades, overrunning seven countries and crushing the combined armies of the major military powers of Britain and France in a matter of weeks. Britain had a knife at its throat and its survival was most certainly in doubt. Despite the threat to western civilization, and despite his efforts to give Britain as much material support as he could, President Roosevelt did not commit the United States to war. It’s not that he didn’t believe in the cause. The issue was that he believed the country had to be fully behind a major war, and he was determined to lead Congress by leading popular opinion. In many ways it was FDR’s policies that provoked the dastardly Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, and when it was all said and done, Roosevelt, like Abraham Lincoln before him, succeeded in the crucial tactical effort of having his enemies (even Germany and Italy) start a war with America, rather than the other way around. As a result, Americans were always 100% behind the war effort.

Eisenhower, likewise, faced enormous threats to the United States. In the years leading up to his presidency the country had become embroiled in a seemingly endless yet bloody war in Korea, eastern Europe had been decisively consolidated under communist control, and the great nation of China – in which many Americans had placed lofty political and religious hopes – had itself turned red. The Soviet Union and the United States were gearing up for a nuclear arms race – soon to be followed by a space race –  that would leave the two countries in a state of perpetual fear and tension. Despite these threats, despite crisis after crisis, and despite the consistent urging of his highest advisors to go to war, Eisenhower led the United States through eight years of peace. He ended the Korean War, kept the military out of Eastern Europe, and avoided getting entangled in the French conflict in Vietnam. All the while he made himself clear on one crucial point: if America was going to go to war against China, or the Soviet Union, or one of their satellites, the country had to be overwhelmingly committed. The United States was not going to go to war divided or half-hearted.

I can’t help but think of the two wars of George W. Bush in relation to these earlier times. I know that historical comparisons are fraught with danger. No two situations are entirely alike, and often military and political actors make their greatest mistakes by assuming that history is repeating itself, when it is actually not. It is sometimes true that those who fail to learn from the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat it, but it is also true that those who try to imitate the leaders of the past often make the present worse. So comparing Bush’s war on terror with Roosevelt’s struggle against fascism, or Eisenhower’s against communism, is certainly comparing apples and oranges.

That said, it is worth noting that when Bush led the United States into war in Afghanistan in 2001 he had the country solidly behind him. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 were our generation’s Pearl Harbor, and virtually no one doubted that our troops were serving the cause of justice when they went after Osama bin Laden, and the regime that had made his terrorism possible. On the other hand, when Bush led us into war against Iraq, Americans were divided from the start. There was no great event to unify the country (the War on Terror was already beginning to run on fumes); instead we were working to wrap our minds around the new doctrine of preemptive war, desperately hoping that Colin Powell’s presentation at the UN would be as dramatic as the one he was seeking to emulate had been (during the Cuban Missile Crisis). True, no one doubted that Saddam Hussein was a tyrant and a threat to the United States. But was he a greater threat than Nazi Germany, regarding which Roosevelt was so patient before leading the country to war? Was he more dangerous than the Soviet Union, with whom Eisenhower maintained peace for eight solid years?

I’m not trying to offer any definitive judgments here. But it does seem to me that history affirms the wisdom of applying just war theory quite strictly. When our country is fighting a defensive war, when when we have justice on our side, we tend to be very united. We also tend to win. When matters are more complicated – you might think of Vietnam, in addition to Iraq – we do not do so well. I don’t know when the next war will be. But Iran’s continued progress towards a nuclear bomb continues to provoke talk of war, particularly preemptive war. We should make sure we keep some historical perspective, however, and not rush into anything prematurely. Roosevelt and Eisenhower both did a swell job protecting American security. Let’s hope our current leaders have the wisdom to do the same.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on December 20, 2012, in International Affairs, Just War and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Bush: Just War Theory and America’s Wars.

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