A Path to Greatness?

The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

A Path to Greatness?


"Presidential Greatness as an Attribute of Warmaking" by David Gray Adler, in Presidential Studies Quarterly (Sept. 2003), Center for the study of the Presidency, 1020 10th St., N.W., Ste. Washington, D.C. 20036.

Theodore Roosevelt always lamented that World War I started after he had left office, believing that he'd been robbed of a president's only opportunity for greatness, a war. "If Lincoln had lived in times of peace, no one would know his name now," he declared in 1910. Of course, Roosevelt went down as one of the greats anyway, showing that presidents don't need a war (or perfect judgment) to win a place in history, writes Adler, a political scientist at Idaho State University.

Others, notably John F. Kennedy, have shared TR's view. The Founding Fathers feared that dreams of glory might prompt the chief executive to wage war, which is why they vested the war-making power in Congress. As James Madison wrote, "The strongest passions and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast, ambition, avarice, vanity, the honorable or venial love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace."

Seven presidents of the dozen often rated by historians as "great" or "near-great" held office while the nation was at war, according to Adler. But four of these--John Adams, James Polk, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson--did not owe their standing to their actions as commander in chief, Indeed, Truman and Johnson achieved greatness despite their wartime leadership. …

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