How Have Past U.S. Presidents Broken Bad News in Times of War?
Originally published 1-14-07
Caleb Miller was an HNN intern.
Depends on the President.
In the fall of 1862, women who had tended wounded for the Union army came to Washington. When meeting Lincoln, it was clear they had seen some of the worst of war. But what was it worth? For all their effort they struggled to name solid Northern victories. One woman hinted at a word of encouragement.
"I have no word of encouragement to give," replied Lincoln, before complaining in candid terms about his young and timid General McClellan, whom he thought treated war like a game.
McClellan was fired days later, but this proved to give Lincoln little reassurance – and he wasn’t afraid to show his disappointment. In a letter to Hannibal Hamlin in September, days after a preliminary emancipation proclamation, Lincoln was downcast that "troops come forward more slowly than ever. This, looked soberly in the face, is not very satisfactory. We have fewer troops in the field at the end of six days than we had at the beginning [...] I wish I could write more cheerfully."
More setbacks came. December 15: General Burnside attempted to break through entrenched Confederate forces, cross a river and take Fredericksburg. Lincoln visited the Washington hospitals full of the resulting wounded with a dark demeanor. To a friend he remarked, "If there is a worse place than hell, I am in it." April 7, 1863: Admiral du Pont was urged by the Secretary of the Navy to attack Charleston’s forts, when he knew he was out-gunned 32 to 150. In a press conference shortly after inevitable retreat, Lincoln stated, "I am not pleased with the results." May 4: the defeat Lincoln would tell General Meade was the worst setback: Chancellorsville. Under the overly-confident General Hooker, assault was turned into a Confederate victory when troops were caught pinned on low ground after Hooker stopped his advances. The Cavalry that was supposed to come at Lee’s Confederates from the rear was misdirected. Upon receiving the news, Lincoln cried, "My God! My God! What will the country say? What will the country say?"
Initially in April 1861, Lincoln called for a 75,000-man militia. The first vaguely-stated objective would "probably be to re-possess the forts, places, and property which have been seized from the Union." What would become uncertain in Lincoln’s announcements about the war was how he did not recognize the South as a sovereign nation while still fighting the war as if it were, especially after the many defeats up until 1863.
There were some hints at optimism. When asking for a daunting draft of 500,000 men in July 1864, Lincoln simultaneously released a public letter offering safe passage if the Confederates wanted to surrender. Early January 1863, just after Fredericksburg, a group of Union men visited the White House. A battle had been waged in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. No one in Washington heard which way it went. Lincoln predicted victory even as guests expressed skepticism that the Union could win anything. He amazed the men with knowledge of topography, lines of communication, railroads, and known strategies of the generals. Victory was reported the next day.
It is also testimony to his optimism that even after a loss, Lincoln was able to make this observation: "If the same battle were to be fought over again, every day, through a week of days, with the same relative results, the army under Lee would be wiped out to its last man, the Army of the Potomac would still be a mighty host, the war would be over, the Confederacy gone, and peace would be won at a smaller cost of life."
Lincoln kept in mind that the South was outnumbered. General Grant ran into this as a difficulty from a morale standpoint – losing many more men pursuing Lee’s army than Lee would lose in defense. Lincoln and Grant were aware that since Lee had no replacements, but in terms of arithmetic, it still looked as if the Union was losing to some its own troops. Lincoln’s job was to remind the Union of the long run, but this kept him from talking about "winning" or "losing" the entire war in broad brush-strokes, sloppily – those terms would have been hard, no matter who the audience was, or what battle had just taken place.
These were days before short quips on television or radio. Lincoln was a great writer and speaker, more than quotable. He was not expected to answer short questions with short answers. He was known – or rather, notorious – for long story-telling, even among the members of his Cabinet. One political cartoon showed Lady Liberty demanding Lincoln to "give me back my 500,000 sons!" in reference to armies the North had raised. Lincoln’s caracature response is "Well the fact is – by the way, that reminds me of a STORY !!!"
Though there were equally sharp political cartoons about FDR, his situation with the press after radio was slightly friendlier. He had done away with the "written question" rules of Harding and Hoover; now the reporters could ask the President unplanned questions, and get what they knew were initial reactions. For every president after Franklin Roosevelt, short answers would be required for short questions.
Another of Roosevelt’s media devices was the fire-side chat, where longer explanations could be delivered over the radio. In one on February 23, 1942, just after Pearl Harbor, FDR asked the people of America to pull out maps as he addressed certain points of interest in the Atlantic and Pacific. This was in the early months of war: the Japanese were claiming the Philippines, the British were held back at Burma. American production of ships and planes was right on schedule, according to Roosevelt, still, the Japanese were making swift advances in the Pacific. The U.S. scrambled to manufacture more. Most importantly, he promised the people openness, as much as possible. In his words: "Your Government has unmistakable confidence in your ability to hear the worst ... You must, in turn, have complete confidence that your Government is keeping nothing from you except information that will help the enemy in his attempt to destroy us."
The FDR campaign in 1940 promised that America was consistently neutral in regard to military activity in Europe throughout the 1930's. Though there were efforts to increase the size of the Army and Navy, "there has been no entanglement and there will be no entanglement." Memories of World War I were too vivid. Roosevelt walked a fine line of not rushing to war or ruling it out, giving aid to Britain and the other western democracies, building up defenses, while not attacking the Axis powers or leaving Americans in war zones. After Pearl Harbor the tune changed dramatically for obvious reasons; still, some of the chastising of isolationists after that time made it seem as if Roosevelt was criticizing his former campaigning self just as much as any nay-saying Republicans.
The fire-side war reports were sometimes vague or emotional, since they were delivered to a scared people. An appeal to a map could not make the war a board game; these spots contained thousands of loved ones. FDR had to convey his understanding of this. Still, apparently making good on his promise to report bad news with the good, on April 28, he reported: "The news in Burma tonight is not good. The Japanese may cut the Burma road; but I want to say to the gallant people of China that no matter what advances the Japanese may make, ways will be found to deliver airplanes and munitions of war to the armies of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek."
Truman walked a similar fine line to FDR’s when announcing action in Korea. On June 29, 1950, he explained that U.S. troops landed in South Korea cooperating with a mere "police action" of the United Nations, and emphatically stated, "We are not at war." About a month later on July 19, Truman would explain in his radio and television address that U.S. troops were in fact engaged in offensive battle. The commander of the U.N forces, after all, was MacArthur, an American. This engagement would escalate. On November 30, Truman even refrained from officially counting out the use of the atomic bomb in the conflict: "Consideration of any weapon is always implicit in the very possession of that weapon."
Whether or not this comment was intended as "bad news," it was received as such. From a man who had already decided to drop two, this kind of speech was most ominous. British Prime Minister Clement Attlee went to Washington to get Truman’s word that the Korean conflict remained strictly conventional, and many Americans also spoke out against such uses. Observing this conflict among the allies, the Red Chinese were likely not frightened by this possible veiled threat. There was also Russia to consider, whose role in Korea was still uncertain at this point.
Truman’s relieving MacArthur of his duties in April of 1951 was bad news both ways – bad news for the public because they liked MacArthur, and bad news for Truman because his approval ratings dropped to some of their lowest points. Unlike Lincoln’s replacement of McClellan, Burnside, and Hooker – three generals who were known to be unsuccessful – MacArthur was seen by the public as doing a good job. If Lincoln would have replaced Grant just before Appomattox, it would have been a closer parallel with how many saw the Korean situation. Truman’s defense was hearkening back to why the war was being fought – to fight a "limited war" to "prevent a third world war." He argued that MacArthur’s views conflicted with what was best for the U.S., by trying to widen the conflict, pressing farther into North Korean territory and involving Nationalist Chinese troops. Unfortunately, MacArthur was just as persuasive the other way – appearing before Congress, and giving testimony at senatorial hearings. MacArthur made clear that there was no "bitterness" – yet the public was torn with the disagreement, between the Commander in Chief who stressed limited wars and caution when dealing with China and Russia, yet had himself not ruled out atomic warfare just months into the conflict, and a commanding General of the U.N. forces who stressed the defense of the Pacific, and nothing short of victory in securing South Korea, so that occupation was not needed.
With both Truman and FDR came the added complication of informing the public honestly of events they themselves could not always see, miles across the sea. It was one thing for Lincoln to respond to bad news within the U.S., where nearly every man, woman and child either was affected directly or had a family member affected directly by the outcomes of battles, and often heard of outcomes before or at the same time as the President as the telegrams came through. Lincoln could not have disguised bad news. FDR promised not to disguise bad news. Truman tried to explain bad news.
It is uncertain how quickly Lyndon Johnson was able to identify the bad news of South Vietnam. The U.S. under Johnson was working to remain a spectator in the conflict, until on August 2, 1964, the USS Maddox was attacked by North Vietnamese PT boats. A presidential order was sent to the Navy to double its patrol, and retaliate if the event were to repeat, not only "driving off the force" but "destroying it." Busier campaigning than brushing up on his Asian studies, LBJ complained about opponent Barry Goldwater’s aggressive approach to Vietnam, saying flat-out: "We don’t want our American boys to do the fighting for the Asian boys." But once again, after the Pleiku attack on February 7, 1965, Johnson’s top advisors were recommending instant retaliation. Despite his promises, he permitted bombing north of the Demilitarized Zone.
Television would change everything for LBJ. Though Truman had to deal with early television, it was not until the campaigns of John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon that politicians were really starting to run wild with the manipulation of image on television. It wasn’t until the assassination of JFK that major news sources like CBS were given a great deal of attention. The evening news was now a big deal and, worse, war footage was being shown on it.
Johnson was not without his own uses for TV. He could be short, precise, and sarcastic with his comments, and he could also time his messages. After months of deliberation and meetings over the situation in Vietnam, LBJ’s task would be to break the bad news of a dramatic increase in troop strength - from 70,000 to 125,000. The televised address came midday on July 28, rather than prime-time in the evening, coupling news of a fifty-thousand-man increase with another reiteration of why America was involved in Vietnam.
From here on, Lyndon Johnson would speak in safer promises and justifications, but there were still elusive moments in press conferences. When asked about putting the reserves on active duty, in Lincoln-esque style he reverted to a lengthy story from his childhood about a boy named Cecil and another named "Bones," where Cecil was not allowed to spend the night at the Johnsons, and "Bones" was twice. The round-about, open-ended point was, "There are some people that haven’t served at all. We are asking some to give their services the first time. But when and if it becomes necessary to call the reserves, we will do it." There were also very blunt moments, when Johnson called the Tet Offensive of February 1, 1968 "a complete failure."
In fact, there are many anecdotes to suggest Johnson saw Lincoln as his inspiration. For example: as if anticipating this very question of war-time and presidents, for encouragement on one occasion, LBJ resorted to reading aloud passages from Civil War historian Bruce Catton’s Never Call Retreat, depicting some of Lincoln’s agony to congressional leaders before making a decision on to resume a bombing campaign on January 31, 1966.
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