David J. Fitzpatrick
Review of Geoffrey Perret, Commander in
Chief: How Truman, Johnson, and Bush Turned a Presidential
Power into a Threat to America's Future. New York: Farrar,
Straus, and Giroux, 2007. Pp. x, 436. ISBN 978-0-374-53127-0.
Two points need to be made at this review's
outset. First, more than a few historians of the Ph.D. variety look
down their noses at those in the profession who have not attained
that lofty status. This reviewer is not one of them. Non-academic
historians, particularly in the fields of political, diplomatic, and
military history, have made substantial contributions to their
fields. More importantly, these historians have often educated the
public about important historical issues in ways academic
historians either cannot or will not. Bruce Catton, Shelby Foote, Rick Atkinson,
Stanley Karnow, Bernard Fall, David McCullough, and Ken Burns come
to mind in this regard, as does Geoffrey Perret, who, through his
biography of Douglas MacArthur and works on the U.S. Army and Army
Air Force in the Second World War,
has well served the public's never-ending interest in these subjects
while telling well written and well researched stories.
Second, I jumped at the chance
to review Perret's latest, Commander in Chief, when it was
offered to me. Given Perret's past works I had expected a book of
similar quality, one that tackled a critical historical issue with
huge contemporary consequences. I anticipated a book that almost
wrote itself: Truman's failure to seek congressional approval for
American intervention in Korea, LBJ's use of the Gulf of Tonkin
Resolution as a vehicle to escalate the conflict in Vietnam, and
George W. Bush's unprecedented expansion of executive power in the
aftermath of 9/1--all of these posed a threat to the future of our
democratic republic. But I was sorely disappointed: Commander in
Chief does not merit the attention of anyone seriously
interested in its subject.
The book is flawed on many
levels. Much in it belongs in the National Enquirer rather
than a work of serious historical research. "Truman's wallet," we
are told, "bulged with membership cards.... This was the wallet
of a man who belonged" (28-29). What this has to do with Truman's
expansion of presidential powers is not clear. But Perret goes well
beyond such pointless observations, charging that Truman was under
the influence of some unspecified drug when making many of his most
important decisions. At one point he asks, "Was it Harry, or the pep
pills?" (36-7, 137, 166) Perret's source for this revelation is an
oral history in the Truman Library done by the president's
physician, Dr. Sylvester Graham, in 1989, nearly 40 years after
Truman had left office and only shortly before Graham died. These
facts should have caused Perret to doubt the account's veracity,
especially since Graham's previous oral history (1973) had not
mentioned Truman's alleged drug use. This, apparently, was enough to
convince both Alonzo Hamby and David McCullough that Dr. Graham's
account was unreliable,
but no rumor or innuendo is too suspect for Commander in Chief.
Such examples might fill a book
(as, indeed, they do). Perret condescendingly quotes President
Kennedy, "We strongly and unreservedly support the goal of a neutral
and independent Lay-os," as if mispronunciation or a patrician
Boston accent (or both) were, in and of themselves, worthy of
MACV commander General Paul Harkins, according to Perret,
"approached common sense as yet another enemy to be defeated" (194).
Few historians give Harkins high marks, but none are so flippant in
their condemnations, normally providing support for their
assertions, where Perret offers none. Clark Clifford's account of a
meeting in the Truman White House is labeled "so slanted it verged
on crooked," an unsupported judgment that also shows Perret's
annoying habit of mixing metaphors (102). Senator William Fulbright,
Perret tells us, was "probably the most urbane racist of his
generation" (231). This, almost certainly, was true, and it might
have been germane in a book that addressed LBJ's efforts to push
civil rights legislation through Congress. But it has nothing to do
with the subject of this book and makes Perret appear little more
than a second-rate gossip.
Perret often gets his facts
wrong or misunderstands their meaning. In a brief "history" (roughly
four pages) of presidential war powers before Truman, he states
Lincoln used his war powers to do many things that Congress would
probably not have supported, such as instituting the draft. He
demanded that the states implement conscription, but there was
hardly a northern governor who believed that what he was doing was
"Lincoln's slighting of
Congress," Perret continues, "had a price"--the formation of the
Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War (146). This account is
wrong in numerous ways. First, it confuses the militia draft with
the conscription of young men into volunteer regiments. Second,
contrary to Perret's implication, both occurred with Congressional
approval, the former under the Militia Act of 1862, the latter under
the Conscription Act of 1863.
Finally, Congress had created the Joint Committee on the Conduct of
the War in late 1861, long before conscription became a vital issue.
The committee's formation is best understood, not as a result of
Lincoln's slighting of Congress, but as a response to the disaster
at the Battle of Ball's Bluff and to rising congressional distrust
of the commander of the Army of the Potomac, General George B.
The irony of these misstatements and misunderstandings is that much
about Lincoln's expansion of presidential power would in fact
fit into Perret's story. For example, Lincoln's suspension of
habeas corpus would not only illuminate his use of his
war-making powers, but also clarify a particularly divisive issue in
our so-called "War on Terror." Perret not only gets his history
wrong, he overlooks events that still have relevance today.
Among many other examples of
factual and/or interpretive error, a few illustrations will have to
suffice. Perret claims that George Kennan's 1946 Long Telegram
concluded "Stalin's military was not as daunting as it appeared," yet nowhere does it or even imply that, least of all in the passage
Perret quotes to support this assertion (59). Describing events
preceding the Gulf of Tonkin incident, he incorrectly states that
"an American force raided two small islands ... off the coast of
North Vietnam" on the night of 31 July 1964, when, in fact, it was a
South Vietnamese commando force (227).
His flawed description of the infamous LBJ campaign commercial in
which a little girl plucks a daisy suggests Perret either never saw
it or is describing it solely from (imperfect) memory, neither of
which is forgivable in the YouTube era (237). Perret both
incorrectly defines the term "crossover point" and misattributes it
to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (253) when its originator
was General William C. Westmoreland.
Such easily correctable mistakes call into doubt virtually all of
The book's errors might be due,
in part, to a very eclectic collection of sources. Popular
historians are often criticized for their over-reliance on secondary
sources and lack of primary-source support for their arguments.
Perret, in Commander in Chief, exemplifies the worst of both
worlds. His primary sources are, overwhelmingly, oral histories,
memoirs, and papers in the State Department's multi-volume
Foreign Relations of the United States.
FRUS publishes important official documents as they become
declassified, but seldom discloses the deliberations that led to
particular decisions. Memoirs and oral histories, on which Perret
relies especially heavily where Truman is concerned, can be
untrustworthy (as would appear to be the case in the aforementioned
Graham oral history) without supporting documentary evidence. Yet
Perret unhesitatingly accepts almost any odd claim in such sources
if it insults and denigrates important historical figures, whether
or not it relates to his book's subject.
These shortcomings might have
been overcome had Perret consulted works by highly regarded
historians who have worked extensively with multiple primary
sources. Walter LaFeber, John Gaddis, Joseph Goulden, Burton
Kaufman, David McCullough, Alonzo Hamby, Robert Dallek, and George
Herring, among many others, have addressed at length the subjects of
Perret's book, but none appear to have been consulted in any
Many secondary sources are cited only once (e.g., Stanley Karnow on
Vietnam), others are badly dated (e.g., H. Bradford Westerfield's
Foreign Policy and Party Politics),
or, to be polite, rather eclectic (e.g., Athan Theoharis's The
Perret's selective use of some sources, while ignoring other better
researched and more recent works, suggests cherry-picking of his
evidence to support predetermined conclusions.
Indeed, Perret virtually
ignores factors that complicated the conduct of war and foreign
policy. For example, he all but writes off the deleterious effect
Joe McCarthy had on both.
"McCarthy's attacks on the State Department were scurrilous, but
there was an integrity deficit there," Perret opines, "there"
meaning Dean Acheson (145). In this rather amazing sleight of hand,
he manages to elevate McCarthy above Acheson where integrity
is concerned and, in so doing, minimizes the former's impact. It
apparently never occurred to Perret that Acheson's alleged
exaggerations might have been due, in large part, to increasing
pressure from the political right, which was insisting that the
Truman administration had been infiltrated by fellow travelers. It
is a shortcoming that persists throughout Commander in Chief.
For example, Perret repeatedly states that President Johnson felt
handcuffed regarding his options in Vietnam in 1964 and 1965, and he
goes to great lengths to argue that neither Eisenhower's commitment
to South Vietnam, nor the SEATO treaty, nor anything JFK had done
required LBJ to stay in Southeast Asia, much less to escalate the
war there (221-5).
Entirely missing from this discussion is the degree to which LBJ
felt trapped by the ghost of Joe McCarthy.
Whether Johnson should have felt trapped is debatable, but
simply to ignore it as an important factor in LBJ's decision-making
is unforgivable, and shows the very real limits of Perret's account
I have not touched directly on
Perret's argument, which concerns the threat that the expansion of
presidential war power poses to the republic's future. There is good
reason for this, as Perret, in a book of nearly 400 pages of text,
seldom addresses the issue. He spends but four pages on the subject
where Truman is concerned, and more than half of that is a flawed
history of presidential war power before Truman.
Nowhere does he begin to explain how Johnson's expansion of
presidential war power (or, for that matter, Richard Nixon's, which
far exceeded that of LBJ) posed a threat to the nation's future.
And, where the presidency of George W. Bush is concerned, it is
difficult to argue with his conclusions, but the story has been
better told and far better researched by David Halberstam,
and by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor.
A serious book needs to be
written about the expansion of presidential war-making power over
the past half-century. This, unfortunately, is not that book.
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