On Monday night, Tucker Carlson reported that he had sent a questionnaire to Republican presidential hopefuls asking them some basic questions about America’s strategic interest in Ukraine. The answers to this questionnaire, which you can review here, are illuminating — including which potential candidates chose not to respond.
Getting answers to these questions from America’s leaders is growing more important by the day. The war in Ukraine is now over a year old, and the United States has already spent in excess of $100 billion on the conflict. Involvement has benefitted neither U.S. interests nor those on Main Street. It has, unfortunately, benefited its elite instigators. War has become “a racket,” in the words of Gen. Smedley Butler, one of the most decorated Marines in history. American elites seem all too comfortable with continuing escalation.
The media, Hollywood, intellectuals, academics, Wall Street with investment banks Blackrock and J.P. Morgan, and leadership of both political parties are “all in” to crush Russia. Similarly, the military-industrial complex, which includes active and retired senior officers and defense contractors, is content to continue profiting from yet another drawn-out military conflict. There is no apparent concern for how this war with a nuclear adversary might escalate uncontrollably, as all wars naturally tend to do.
Despite the elites’ support for this proxy war, there’s one group in America that is no longer all in: the citizenry. Recent polls show less than half of Americans support the war in Ukraine. Ignoring a propagandistic 24/7 news onslaught, voters have wised up. It is always those who most likely will be the first in harm’s way that see its problems first. The lack of prior success in three-quarters of a century should give leaders and planners pause, but elites rarely suffer the brunt of war. Instead, we have a long list of predicable failures: Vietnam, Beirut, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan.
However, America did not become the country other nations once looked to for leadership with these current examples. This article counterposes what another more grounded elite — America’s five combat commanding generals that later became president — would advocate based on their example.
The five general-presidents are George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Each served actively in at least two wars: one as a junior officer experiencing the strong bonds of comradeship in the “fog and friction” of war along with its incumbent tragedies, and the last as a commanding general working under the heavy weight of command. They neither ignored nor skirted risk and emerged victorious from the largest war of their time — wars that created a lasting peace. Trusted by the voters to keep America safe and prosperous, they became highly popular two-term presidents except for Taylor, who died early in office. Not one started a war. By contrast, not a single 21st-century president or vice president has ever been in an operational military, and all but President Donald Trump have started or extended wars.
Not one of these five general-presidents ever lusted for war. Grant said it best, “Though I have been trained as a soldier, and participated in many battles, there never was a time when, in my opinion, some way could not be found to prevent the drawing of the sword.” Each of the five had already made their reputation upon entering the White House with nothing to prove. Each was concerned for the common soldier in war and the common citizen in peace. Appreciation for their well-being was critical. One can’t win wars with dispirited armies or homefront. If there was ever a choice for a “war of choice,” these five would choose no war.
All were elected mostly because they were trusted for an unselfish, steady temperament exhibited in combat. They were also notable for keeping an unemotional and unbiased perspective on complicated strategic issues. What do the actions of each of the elite five general-presidents say today regarding America’s involvement in Ukraine and other similar “wars of choice”?
Throughout his two terms, Washington was most concerned with keeping his nascent nation together and out of harm’s way, while trying to develop a strong and professional military. He advocated for a strong military to defend America locally. He had no taste for the military adventurism that sustained the European empires of his day.
He avoided needlessly crossing the British when they threatened to encroach on American territory from the north. Much to the disappointment of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, Washington remained neutral in the Napoleonic Wars, siding with neither France nor Britain.
On his exit, Washington’s Farewell Address became America’s most important guiding document, after the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence for the next century. It included pleas for national unity, political moderation without factions, fiscal discipline to reduce debt, virtue and religion, education, and finally and most importantly, foreign policy independence and again avoiding wars. All these points are more relevant than ever.
The hero of the Battle of New Orleans, Jackson said he was “born for a storm.” Yet he presided over a calm period of prosperity, cooperation, and high growth, one that would not have been possible with ongoing wars.
FDR later said of him, “History depicts Andrew Jackson as the last truly honorable and incorruptible American president.” Biographer H.W. Brands said of Jackson, “[The American people] placed their faith in him because he placed his faith in them.” As a general, Jackson concerned himself with keeping the interfering and warring European empires — Britain, France and Spain — off the American expanse. Jackson himself summed up his own era best:
From the earliest ages of history to the present day there never have been thirteen millions [sic] of people … who enjoyed so much freedom and happiness as the people of these United States. You have no longer any cause to fear danger from abroad. … It is from within, among yourselves — from cupidity, from corruption, from disappointed ambition and inordinate thirst for power.
On becoming president, his primary job was to keep America together and prevent elites from gaining too much power. He ended the Second Bank of the United States. He was the last president to eliminate the national debt. It was opportunity in western expansion and staying out of war that brought such a lengthy and prosperous peace.
Zachary Taylor and Ulysses S. Grant
Taylor and Grant served together in the Mexican War before either had presidential thoughts. Both were reluctant warriors. Unsurprisingly, Taylor’s view of war presaged Grant’s almost exactly, “My life has been devoted to arms, yet I look upon war at all times, and under all circumstances, as a national calamity to be avoided.”
Both felt the Mexican War was an immoral war where President Polk manufactured a casus belli, much like recent wars today. Years later, Grant would link the Mexican War and the Civil War, saying, “The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican War. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.” Leaders today should take note of Grant’s insight.
Taylor and Grant would provide the most generous of surrender terms when the time was appropriate. Though he was nicknamed “Unconditional Surrender” for his tough terms at Fort Donelson and Vicksburg, Grant at war’s end during the Appomattox surrender deftly let up on Lee, making sure he was not humiliated and provided the softest surrender terms he could, thus avoiding an interminable guerrilla war he feared. Grant then only wanted the senseless killing to cease. Upon signing the documents, Union soldiers began a celebratory 100-gun salute. Grant immediately stopped it saying, “The war is over — the rebels are our countrymen again.”
Both Taylor and Grant worked to bring the country back together during their presidencies. Taylor failed at this because of his premature death. Grant failed because the North and the South wanted to forget the war and its cause despite Reconstruction being unfinished: Americans have no taste for lengthy, costly wars.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Eisenhower’s presidency provides many relevant examples for today. Like the four general-presidents before him, he abhorred war. And like Grant, whose campaign slogan was Let us Have Peace, Ike promised peace by ending the Korean War that led to President Harry S. Truman’s downfall. Ike almost immediately succeeded by quietly intimating the use of nuclear weapons but not with Biden’s public intimidating bluster. Unlike Truman who equivocated about escalation and had no credibility, Eisenhower was taken seriously: Korea’s north-south border was settled at its original location, providing China with the breathing room it desired.
Another set of problems emerged just before Ike’s reelection. Two crises erupted: the Suez Canal crisis and the Russian invasion of Hungary — two or more potential hot wars at once. In Hungary, the Russians reoccupied their satellite, crushing its new liberal government. Meanwhile, Egypt’s Gamal Nasser occupied the canal zone controlled by Britain and France.
Ike’s response in Hungary was not to risk a wider war given Hungary’s strategic location close to the then-USSR. In the Suez Canal, France, Britain, and Israel invaded the zone without informing the United States. Eisenhower realized siding with Britain and France would stir up the enmity of the Third World against America. He felt it wise not to be perceived as another unfeeling colonial power.
He put it to his Ivy League advisors, “Nasser embodies the demands of the people of the area for independence and for ‘slapping the white man down,’” something elites today should note. The U.S. stopped trading Britain’s bonds in the market, and the invasion stopped immediately. The U.S. today no longer compares to its former self — America no longer has the economic power it once did, and the arrogant assumption that America will be able to weaponize financial policy to punish enemies is no longer valid as we have seen with Russia.
Finally, like Washington, Eisenhower gave a long-reaching warning about the military-industrial complex with its own prerogatives in his own Farewell Address, which ranks second to Washington’s in prescience.
In addition, these five abhorred the unethical politics and behavior that accompany war: inflated currencies, speculation, profiteering, and corruption. Today inflation is already raging at home, and these excesses in Ukraine guarantee more money laundering back to the U.S. for America’s elites, something all five would have stopped. Finally, outside of war, all five general-presidents would agree upon the defense of the Constitution, defending the sanctity of America’s borders, and keeping the country together physically and without factions, all of which have been forgotten by the Biden administration.
Instead of following the clear and simple examples of these general-presidents that were humble conservators, we see the use of supposedly clever intellectual stratagems like “graduated pressure,” used by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara during the Cuban Missile Crisis that was somewhat successful, and a complete costly failure in Vietnam. Unlike the general-presidents that understood Murphy’s Law and the law of unintended consequences, the current intellectual elites believe they can finesse war.
Gen. William T. Sherman famously observed, war “is cruelty and you can’t refine it.” Elegant stratagems have proven time and again to be recipes for disaster. The Ukrainian strategy will fail, and as Grant observed, “Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions.” The Third World is not lining up to support woke America. This war will not only destroy Ukraine, but it will backfire for the U.S., either by escalating into a full-fledged World War III or by causing the American people to take matters into their own hands and vote the elite perpetrators out. Such U.S. political bullying only serves to alienate most of the world, something the five never would have considered.
Thankfully, the leading Republican candidates appear to agree not only with the people but also with the historic counsel of these popular five warrior presidents that advised great caution in getting involved in unnecessary wars. The tide appears to be turning none too soon on avoiding reckless wars.