Failure Of A President

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An American President is responsible for everything his country does in time of war. He has been given extraordinary powers, and he is supposed to use them to win a victory. But that does not necessarily mean that he must exert constant, day-by-day control over the things his armies do. He controls high policy, which means that the victory which his armies win must at last be the kind of victory that will make his political aims secure, but he goes beyond that at his peril. Once he sees himself as primarily the strategist and the tactician, the man without whose consent no soldier may move, fire a musket, or button his coat, he begins to interfere with the experts who are supposed to be at his service but who must be allowed to achieve his aims in their own way.

The President, then, who is commander in chief, must understand and use his powers to the full, but he must not abuse them. Probably it is just as well that he usually is not a trained soldier himself; not being one, he is more likely to understand his own limitations. One of the fascinating aspects of the comparison between Davis and Lincoln is that Davis was a trained soldier and Lincoln was an unblemished amateur. Being a trained soldier, Davis tried to be a soldier, and the outcome was ruin for his cause. Being wholly untrained, Lincoln came before long to see that there were things he could not do, and so he let the soldiers do them. The result was victory.

Davis is a tragic and appealing figure in American history. He failed, mostly because the cards were stacked against him, but at least in part because he was too literal in his interpretation of the duties of the civilian commander in chief. Mr. Dowdey’s book makes an excellent companion piece to the study engineered by Mr. May.