Matthew Moten, Presidents and Their Generals. The Belknap Press at the Harvard University Press, 2014. 380 pp. plus notes.
Matthew Moten, a retired Army colonel and former head of the history department at West Point, has written a wide-ranging, episodic account of American civil-military relations. Beginning in the Revolutionary War, his book moves through the administration of John Adams, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the two world wars, Korea and Vietnam, and our two wars with Iraq. The earlier chapters, for which he relies largely on primary sources, will be the most educational for most readers, and some of the later ones sometimes get bogged down in narrative.
Moten gradually develops his own model of civil-military relations. On the one hand, the civilian authority—the President—needs to combine a clear sense of what he intends to accomplish and a broad grasp of military strategy. This is a very Clausewitzian view, and one that remains very hard to argue with. On the other hand, the military leadership needs professionalism, by which he means not only military competence, but also a lack of political partisanship. And when it comes to military matters—at least since the First World War—his default assumption is that senior military officers understand what has to be done. The book’s selection of civil-military conflicts and cooperation in every major war since the Revolution lays out a somewhat depressing cycle of American civil-military relations. In his view, the necessary civilian and military leadership was frequently lacking from the revolution through the first two years of the civil war. Military professionalism developed quite slowly, and both Presidents and generals often had their eyes fixed firmly on the next election. Lincoln and Grant, Wilson and Pershing, and FDR and Marshall solved these problems and achieved great things in the latter stages of the Civil War and the Second World War. Moten thinks that things have been going downhill ever since.
In the last 60 years, Moten argues, American Presidents have relied upon politicized generals who would tell them what they wanted to hear, rather than the professional military advice of the Joint Chiefs as a whole. The facts, in my view, sometimes have to be stretched to fit this argument. Thus, Moten vastly exaggerates the role of General Maxwell Taylor in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations with respect to Vietnam and other matters. In his long discussion of the origins of the Vietnam war, Moten never acknowledges that what the Joint Chiefs wanted was an all-out war throughout Indochina, regardless of the very real risk of war with Communist China—a strategy which Presidents were wise to reject. Since he cuts his discussion of Vietnam off when American troops arrive in 1965, he does not have to acknowledge that for the next two years, until 1967, President Johnson did almost everything the Chiefs wanted. And indeed, at the end of his Vietnam chapter, he reverses himself, arguing that the military and civilian leadership had collaborated in leading the United States into a hopeless war.
Moten’s personal feelings intrude more and more as the book continues. He has considerable animus towards Colin Powell, whom he sees as an entirely political animal who usurped civilian authority and made major mistakes during the Gulf war. But he has far more contempt for Donald Rumsfeld and General Tommy Franks, the leading civilian architect and military executor of the Iraq war of 2003, who refused to face up to what the conflict would entail. He is also highly critical of the increasing involvement of retired general officers in electoral politics—a position with which I thoroughly agree.
There are in fact at least two separate questions that have to be asked about civil-military relations in war. The first, upon which Moten tries to focus, is whether political and military leaders consulted appropriately and played their proper roles. The second, which in practice is just as important, is whether either civilian or military leaders had feasible political objectives on the one hand, and a good idea of the military strategies that would achieve them on the other. Because Moten does not always separate these questions clearly, he is often led into contradictory positions. On the one hand, he realizes that General MacArthur’s call for a war with Red China in 1951 contradicted Truman Administration policy and that therefore MacArthur had to be relieved. On the other, he criticizes President Kennedy for cutting most of the Joint Chiefs out of the White House meetings on the Cuban missile crisis, even though their preferred course of action—an airstrike and invasion of Cuba—would, we now know, have surely led to exactly the nuclear war Kennedy was determined to prevent. Presidents such as Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Kennedy, who are instinctively fine strategists themselves, understand that the result is what counts, and that they cannot always follow their generals’ and admirals’ recommendations and still achieve it.
Because Moten does not treat all his wars thoroughly and does not discuss some decisions not to go to war at all, he leaves out some of the greater success stories in civil-military relations. Thus, after MacArthur’s relief, General Matthew Ridgway, who replaced him, successfully concluded the Korean War within the constraints imposed upon him by the Truman’s Administration’s policies because he both understood and accepted them. In 1954 President Eisenhower relied upon the advice of Ridgway, now Army Chief of Staff, to ward off the pleas of Secretary of State Dulles and Vice President Nixon to go to war in Indochina. History, I strongly suspect, will eventually show that cautious military leaders kept the Reagan Administration out of unwise adventures in the Middle East and Central America. Moten notes, correctly, that civil-military relations must be understood as an ongoing negotiation among powerful men with different priorities. History shows however that the negotiation cannot possibly have a good outcome if neither party has a sound idea of what it is possible to accomplish, and how the objective might be gained. And sadly, this problem has not gone away.