By Jean Edward Smith
The New York Times
May 7, 2007
On Feb. 8, 2004, George W. Bush proudly proclaimed to Tim Russert on “Meet the Press,” “I am a war president.” Like an 8-year-old playing with toy soldiers, Bush, an Air National Guard dropout, looked at war with vicarious enthusiasm. Contrast the attitude of the nation’s “peace presidents” – supreme commanders who led the nation to victory in the greatest wars the country faced: men who had experienced the grim reality of battle and wanted no part of it.
Ulysses S. Grant condemned war as “the most destructive and unsavory activity of mankind.” Surveying the carnage at Fort Donelson during the Civil War, he told an aide, “this work is part of the devil that is left in us.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower, another former general, was equally outspoken: “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, as only one who has seen its brutality, its futility and stupidity…. War settles nothing.”
Both Grant and Eisenhower were elected with expectations that they would put a victorious end to conflicts in which the country was then engaged. Both presidents did end the fighting. But not in ways that their bellicose supporters anticipated.
In Grant’s case, the frontier was ablaze, and it was widely assumed that the general-in-chief who had bested Robert E. Lee would make quick work of the Plains Indians who were slowing the nation’s westward expansion. That bet was misplaced. Grant admired the integrity and lifestyle of Native Americans and ordered an end to the slaughter. He reined in Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan (who seemed bent on annihilation), dispatched a brace of “humanitarian generals” to the West, provided aid and comfort to entice the tribes onto reservations, and replaced corrupt Indian agents with Quakers. “Grant’s peace policy” – as it is called by historians – brought peace to the Great Plains without racial genocide.
Twice more Grant faced down the hawks clamoring for war — first with Great Britain, then with Spain. British-American relations had not recovered from the Civil War for several reasons: Irish-American expatriates were conducting cross-border raids into Ontario; conflicting claims to fishing rights in the North Atlantic often resulted in bloodshed; a boundary dispute in the Pacific Northwest lay unresolved; and the unpaid claims from Union shipping losses continued to fester.
Grant rejected the possibility of a military solution, and with the cooperation of the Gladstone government in Britain, he submitted the issues to arbitration. This marked a breakthrough in the settlement of international disputes and paved the way for the Anglo-American accord that survives to this day.
The issue with Spain involved Cuba. Portions of the island were in revolt against Spanish rule, and American public opinion demanded intervention on the side of the rebels. Grant not only refused, but deployed the Navy to prevent American freebooters from joining the conflict.
In 1952, Eisenhower was elected with the expectation he would win the war in Korea. After the election Ike went to Korea, measured the situation firsthand, and concluded the war was unwinnable. Without hesitation he negotiated an armistice. After Eisenhower made peace in Korea, not one American serviceman was killed in combat during the next eight years.
Like Grant, Eisenhower believed the United States should never go to war unless national survival was at stake. He resisted calls for preventive war against China and Russia, reached out to the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death and slashed the Defense Department budget. He declined to take military action to defend the Chinese offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu, stepped aside when Hungary exploded in 1956 and refused to deploy American forces in situations that might lead to combat without Congressional authorization.
When the National Security Council – Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, Vice President Richard Nixon and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff – unanimously recommended the use of nuclear weapons at Dien Bien Phu to rescue the beleaguered French garrison, Eisenhower summarily rejected the proposal. “You boys must be crazy,” he told Robert Cutler, the national security adviser. “We can’t use those awful things against Asians for the second time in less than 10 years. My God.”
In 1956, when Britain, France and Israel colluded to invade Egypt, Eisenhower forced them to withdraw, toppling Anthony Eden’s government in London and threatening financial reprisals against Israel. That repudiation of what Ike called “old fashioned gunboat diplomacy” not only kept the peace but enhanced American prestige throughout the world.
George Bush and the neocons have no monopoly on glorifying military adventure. Madeleine Albright, President Clinton’s secretary of state, caused General Colin Powell a case of near cardiac arrest when she asked at a meeting of the National Security Council, “Why do we have an Army if we are not willing to use it?”
War is not an instrument of policy. It is an act of desperation. “Any course short of national humiliation or national destruction is better than war,” Grant told Prince Kung of China in 1879. “War itself is so great a calamity that it should only be invoked when there is no way of saving a nation from a greater [one].”