Since America became a nation, four of her greatest generals have served two terms as president: George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant and Dwight David Eisenhower.
Not one of these generals led America into a new war.
Washington was heroic in keeping the young republic out of the wars that erupted in Europe after the French Revolution, as were his successors John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
Jackson, arguably America's greatest soldier -- who won the Battle of New Orleans, which preserved the Union, and virtually annexed Florida -- resisted until his final days in office recognizing the Republic of Texas, liberated by his great friend and subaltern Sam Houston.
Jackson wanted no war with Mexico.
Eisenhower came to office determined to end the war in Korea. In six months, he succeeded -- and kept America out of the raging war in Indochina.
Of the men who led us into our 19th century wars -- the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War and the Spanish-American War -- only one, William McKinley, was a soldier who had seen combat.
McKinley had enlisted at 17. In 1862, he was with the Union army at Antietam, the bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil.
Though derided as having "the backbone of a chocolate eclair" by the bellicose Theodore Roosevelt, McKinley confided to a friend before going to war with Spain: "I have been through one war. ... I have seen the bodies piled up. I do not want to see another."
James Madison, who took us into the War of 1812, which came close to tearing apart the Union; James Polk, who took us to war with Mexico and gave us Texas to the Rio Grande, the Southwest and California; and Abraham Lincoln, who led the nation in its bloodiest war, were politicians. Lincoln had served three months in the Illinois Militia in the Black Hawk War, but he never saw action.
America was led into the world wars by Woodrow Wilson, a professor, and Franklin Roosevelt, a politician. Harry Truman, who took us into Korea, had captained an artillery battery in France in 1918. John F. Kennedy, who led us into Vietnam, had served on a PT boat in the Solomons. George H.W. Bush, who launched Desert Storm, was one of the youngest Navy pilots to fight in the Pacific war.
While Americans this Memorial Day put flags out for all of their war dead, the arguments do not cease over the wisdom of the wars in which they fought and died.
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