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Political Opposition to America's Wartime Presidents is Rich in Tradition


President Bush's State of the Union address on Tuesday will be delivered at a joint session of Congress, where a majority now opposes his call for a troop increase in Iraq. Mr. Bush recognizes his plan is not popular, but he insists that presidents must often make difficult choices. VOA's Peter Fedynsky looks at some of America's wartime presidents and how military results determined their standing in history.

George W. Bush is hardly the first president to face stiff political opposition for his war plans. President Lincoln was opposed -- even by members of his own party following setbacks in the first years of the U.S. Civil War. Early difficulties during World War II prompted calls for U.S. isolationism in opposition to President Roosevelt's decision to fight Nazi aggression.

American University history professor Allan Lichtman says President Bush is being criticized today for the same reason as Lyndon Johnson was during the Vietnam War. "Increasing the troop levels and pursing a war that seemed to have no clear objectives and no end."

President Bush says the mission in Iraq is clear: to create a democracy in the Middle East and to protect America against terrorism. But public opinion polls indicate about 70 percent of surveyed Americans disapprove of Mr. Bush's handling of the war. And some critics predict he will go down in history as one of America's worst presidents.

Mr. Bush, America's 43rd chief executive, seems unconcerned. "Everybody is trying to write the history of this administration even before it's over. I'm reading about [President] George Washington still. My attitude is, if they're still analyzing number 1, [number] 43 [Mr. Bush] ought not to worry about it and just do what he thinks is right."

Historically, success has often vindicated unpopular presidential war plans. President James K. Polk's war against Mexico in 1846 was opposed by nearly half of the U.S. population. But victory brought annexation of what are now the states of California, Arizona and New Mexico, and also … public approval.

More than a century ago, President William McKinley benefited from victory in the Spanish-American War after initial criticism that he launched the war under false pretenses.

But Stephen Hess, a scholar at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, D.C. says military defeat can damage a president's legacy. "If you have a war like Vietnam, it's very hard to turn it into a victory. And those presidents who were most closely identified with it, primarily Lyndon Johnson and then Richard Nixon, have to bear the brunt of being a president during a losing war."

President Bush rejects proposals to withdraw U.S. forces and accuses the opposition of forgetting the persistence of Presidents Franklin Roosevelt during World War II and Harry Truman during the Korean War. Both were Democrats.

"The Democrats offer nothing but criticism and obstruction, and endless second-guessing,” said Mr. Bush. “The party of FDR and the party of Harry Truman has become the party of cut-and-run."

Professor Lichtman notes that Truman left office with a 23 percent approval rating at a time when communists fought America to a stalemate in Korea and seemed on the march elsewhere. President Bush says the Truman presidency has been vindicated by history. But Allan Lichtman says President Bush is misreading it.

"Truman's policy of containment, of keeping the communist empire confined within its boundaries – not being too provocative, not necessarily using military means is quite different from what George Bush is pursuing in Iraq, which is essentially an attempt to use military means not only to overturn a regime but to utterly reconstruct a country."

Professor Stephen Hess notes that public assessments of former presidents often change when their papers are eventually declassified and provide insights into once unpopular decisions. And Professor Lichtman adds that victory in Iraq would improve President Bush's standing more quickly.

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