On April 4, 1864,  Abraham Lincoln made a shocking admission about his presidency.  “I claim not to have controlled events,” he wrote in a letter, “but confess plainly that events have controlled me.” Lincoln’s Civil War era words carry an invaluable lesson for wartime presidents, writes Andrew J. Polsky in this seminal book. As Polsky shows, when commanders-in-chief do try to control wartime events, more often than not they fail utterly.

In Elusive Victories, Polsky provides a fascinating study of six wartime presidents, drawing larger lessons about the limits of the power from the White House during armed conflict. He examines, in turn, Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, showing how each gravely overestimated his power as commander-in-chief. In each case, these presidents’ resources did not match the key challenges that recur from war to war. With insight and clarity, Polsky identifies overarching issues that will inform current and future policymakers. The single most important dynamic, he writes, is the erosion of a president’s freedom of action. Each decision propels him down a path from which he cannot turn back.  Elusive Victories is the first book to provide a comprehensive account of presidential leadership during wartime, highlighting the key dangers that presidents have ignored at their peril.

About the Speakers:

Andrew J. Polsky is professor of Political Science at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York.  He is the author of two books, Elusive Victories:  The American Presidency at War (Oxford University Press, 2012) and The Rise of the Therapeutic State (Princeton University Press, 1991). Elusive Victories has been chosen as a main selection of the History Book Club and the Military Book Club for July 2012. In addition, he has written numerous scholarly articles and chapters on the American presidency, wartime presidential leadership, political parties, business in American politics, and American political development.  From 2005 to 2010, he served as the editor of Polity, ranked among the ten best-known political science scholarly journals.

Gideon Rose is the editor of Foreign Affairs and the Peter G. Peterson chair.  He served as managing editor of the magazine from 2000 to 2010.  Prior to this, he was the Olin senior fellow and deputy director of National Security Studies and the Council on Foreign Relations.  From 1994 to 1995, Mr. Rose served as associate director of the Near East and South Asian affairs on the staff of the National Security Council.  He was assistant editor at the foreign policy quarterly, the National Interest, from 1986 to 1987, and held the main position at the domestic policy quarterly, the Public Interest, from 1985 to 1986.  He received his BA in classics from Yale and his PhD in government from Harvard. and has taught American foreign policy at Columbia and Princeton.


Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War, Discussion with Andrew Polsky, moderated by Gideon Rose | Posted on April 27th, 2012 | Book Discussions, Faculty Associates News, Public Programs