Review of War and Post World War II Presidents





Political Effect




The unpopularity of this war, including Truman’s firing of Gen. MacArthur, contributed to Truman’s not seeking a second full elective term in 1952.




“I will go to Korea,” said Eisenhower during the ’52 campaign, and the natural public confidence in the former WWII Supreme Allied Commander helped to insure his landslide victory at the polls.



Cold War

Ike ended the hot part of the Korean War, and for his entire two-term presidency he was seen as having the stature to deal with the Soviet Union and the ‘Red’ Chinese. Vice President Nixon benefited from his own wide experience in foreign affairs to assume Ike’s mantle as the GOP nominee in 1960.



Cold War

The ’60 race was closer in some ways than even the 2000 contest, and most of the key issues involved the Cold War: the JFK-alleged “missile gap,” the islands off China named Quemoy and Matsu, and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev‘s aggressive posture toward the U.S.A. Democrats sometimes forget that JFK won a squeaker thanks to the first televised presidential debates by appearing to be an even tougher Cold Warrior than Nixon. (Doubters should re-read Kennedy’s Inaugural Address.)



Cuban Missile Crisis

The “thirteen days” of confrontation between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. over nuclear missiles in Cuba brought the world to the brink of annihilation, and in addition those October weeks were beautifully positioned just before a midterm congressional election. The Soviet Union blinked, Kennedy was judged the winner, and Democrats did extraordinarily well in November, gaining four Senate seats while losing only 3 House seats–with Nixon defeated in a comeback attempt for governor of California.




In an incident still much disputed in history, North Vietnamese gunboats supposedly fired on a U.S. military vessel in August 1964. Lyndon Johnson faced Republican charges of “soft on communism” in his soon-to-be match-up with Sen. Barry Goldwater, and he saw his opportunity. At LBJ’s urging, Congress nearly unanimously passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which Johnson would forever cite as his authority to wage an undeclared war in Vietnam.

For 1964, the gambit worked. But both Johnson and especially Congress would come to regret deeply the events that unfolded after Tonkin.




Johnson’s two-year, gradually escalating war in Southeast Asia was not going well, and no light at the end of the tunnel was apparent to a restless public. The out-of-power party benefited, and the Republicans gained 47 House seats and 4 Senate seats.




“Johnson’s War” ended his presidency, forcing LBJ out of the contest after anti-war candidate Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-MN) came close to Johnson in the New Hampshire primary and anti-war Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY) also entered the presidential contest. With a half-million troops in Vietnam, and the body count ever-rising, the country was in turmoil, and demonstrators followed Johnson everywhere with chants of, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”




The war in Vietnam first elected Nixon, then provided the fuel that destroyed a second consecutive presidency. Nixon’s Cold War experience was widely admired, and he announced a “secret plan to end the war,” which conveniently couldn’t be detailed ahead of the election lest disclosure defeat his intentions.

Vice President Hubert Humphrey was caught between his personal instinct to break with Johnson and LBJ’s absolute insistence on loyalty. HHH came close to winning, but only because of the presence of a right-wing spoiler, former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who drained his 13% of the vote mainly from Nixon.




Frustrated by his inability to end what was now “Nixon’s War”, and deeply angry at the increasingly massive anti-war movement in the U.S., Nixon secretly authorized a wide range of eavesdroppings, break-ins, and dirty tricks. These efforts were aimed both at his domestic critics and possible Democratic opponents in his 1972 reelection contest. Nixon got his ’72 landslide, but also sealed his doom in a series of events that have come to be known as “Watergate.” In August 1974, facing certain impeachment in the House and conviction in the Senate, Nixon became the first and only U.S. President to resign.



Cold War

Nixon’s interim and unelected successor, Gerald Ford, faced a nearly impossible series of challenges: from a Vietnam sliding to communism, to a sharply declining economy, to a country still very divided over Nixon, and Ford’s pardon of the disgraced former president. Yet Ford positioned himself reasonably well for the ’76 election, especially in foreign policy. Despite being behind his Democratic opponent (Jimmy Carter) by as much as 33 points in the summer of ’76, Ford was moving up dramatically in the fall until he made one of the great debate gaffes of all time, by insisting in an October TV face-off that Poland was not dominated by the Soviet Union. Ford was referring to the attitude of the Polish people-and indeed Ford was proven right a decade later– but at the time it appeared the president was out of touch with foreign policy. That neutralized Ford’s great advantage against the untested Carter, slowed his momentum, and allowed Carter to win a narrow November victory.



Iranian hostage crisis

Perhaps double-digit inflation and sky-high interest rates would have been enough by themselves to defeat Carter for a second term in 1980, but any small chance he had vanished during the year-long disaster of the hostage crisis. Religious extremists in Iran seized over four dozen American citizens at our Tehran embassy in early November 1979. Over the next year, Carter tried every diplomatic, and eventually, military option to free them, without success.

One final attempt collapsed in failure on the weekend before the 1980 election; ironically, election day was exactly one year after the hostages were taken. Ronald Reagan won a ten-point landslide, pulling in a GOP Senate with him. The release of the hostages just minutes after his presidency began on Jan. 20, 1981, got his term off to a good start.



Cold War

Reagan’s strong anti-communism and determination to project American power served him well, and fit the public mood perfectly. After the embarrassment and weakness exhibited during the Iranian hostage crisis, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980, most citizens were inclined toward a policy of “peace through strength.” With the economy clearly on the mend, Reagan’s foreign policy received a landslide endorsement in November 1984 against Democrat Walter Mondale.


Reagan/Bush Sr.

Iran-Contra and Cold War

The Iran-Contra scandal, if it had broken closer to the 1988 election, might have given the Democrats the upper hand. But Iran-contra started in late November 1986 and was well over by the election year. While Americans were not pleased with what they learned, most seemed inclined to forgive Reagan, and Vice President George H.W. Bush was never conclusively tied to the scandal. This allowed Reagan and Bush to move the election to more favorable ground: peace and prosperity. McGovern, Carter, Mondale, and 1988 Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis were viewed as representative of the new, more liberal Democratic party.

The anti-Communist Democratic party of Truman, JFK, and LBJ was now consigned to history, and Americans did not really trust Democrats to be tough enough with ruthless foes around the world. Reagan got his third term, and George Bush served it after a near-landslide victory over Dukakis.


Bush Sr./Clinton

Fall of Communism

The fall of communism in 1989 and 1990 changed everything. The strong edge Republicans enjoyed on the national security issue vanished—or at least was severely diminished. As the world’s lone superpower, Americans now felt safe, whoever was president. Even with a highly successful war in the Persian Gulf under his belt, George H.W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton once the economy sagged. Clinton’s nonexistent foreign policy experience mattered not a whit, even as he ran against the most experienced and admired foreign policy president since Nixon.

1996 and 2000


The Absence of Foreign Policy

The Clinton-Dole contest in 1996 and the Bush Jr.-Gore race of 2000 were arguably the most domestic-centered elections since FDR’s first two elections in 1932 and 1936. The foreign policy discussions were perfunctory, and both pre- and post-election surveys indicate that almost no Americans cast a ballot based on foreign policy considerations. And as we all know too well, the national naivete came to an end on September 11, 2001.