Presidents of War is a significant feat of historical synthesis. Beschloss is a deft researcher and a first-rate storyteller, and his book draws from not only other scholarship but also from diaries, memos, tapes and interviews to construct a pointillist canvas that plumbs the hopes, ideals, fears and delusions that prompted some presidents to lead the country into armed conflict. Rather than a paean to presidential courage in the tradition of Stephen Ambrose, Presidents of War is a sober-minded analysis that stresses the ways presidents wielded deception as a weapon ... The idea that presidents have acquired imperial power, especially in war, is a familiar concept. Yet Presidents of War provides a deep history of how chief executives since the early 19th century have waged war under confused circumstances and often with secret motives ... As this fine book demonstrates, the Constitution, for all its virtues, has proved unable to check presidents who become bent on waging war. Most of the wars described here were grounded in deception and, arguably, were unjust wars of choice. Beschloss drives this point home in his disquieting study.
One of the book’s more intriguing contributions is in noting that the founders could not have envisioned war in the nuclear age, when the president would have the ability to eviscerate hundreds of millions in less than an hour—all resting on 'the whim' of a single person. However, beyond pointing this out, Beschloss says little more. The issue cries out for a treatment of its own ... Beschloss’s writing is clean and concise, and he admirably draws upon new documents. Some of the more titillating tidbits of the book are in the footnotes ... The book also has some delicious asides ... It is noticeable that Beschloss only modestly touches on 9/11, Afghanistan or Iraq, asserting, I think rightly, that they are too recent to be written about as history ... Moreover, Beschloss does not say much about the Cold War, itself a momentous conflict that long held the world hostage to potential nuclear war. But all this is mere quibbling. There are fascinating nuggets on virtually every page of Presidents of War. It is a superb and important book, superbly rendered.
Reading Beschloss's well-crafted synopses, one is reminded how often major wars are started on a false pretext ... Beschloss provides both an institutional perspective on these wars and a personal account, giving readers a sense for the dynamics of war through presidential eyes ... While Presidents of War provides excellent coverage of the eight major war episodes, smaller military interventions are missing from this book ... A full understanding of presidents of war would require attention to these limited military interventions, as well as the eight major conflicts studied by Beschloss.