Lincoln, FDR, and their decisions for war

By Dr. Charles M. Hubbard

The sesquicentennial of the American Civil War reminds us of the enormity of the secession crisis that confronted the nation in April of 1861. On April 12 the Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. President Abraham Lincoln was confronted with gravest decision any president is required to make—how to respond to an attack on the country. Lincoln made the fateful decision to use military force to suppress the rebellion. His decision eventually escalated into a bloody and prolonged Civil War.  At the time many of Lincoln’s critics accused him of maneuvering the rebels and manipulating the circumstances to force Jefferson Davis and the Confederates into firing the first shot. Lincoln had made his position on secession clear in his first inaugural address when he pledged to protect the government: “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.”

The same charge of deliberately leading the country into war is sometimes leveled at Franklin D Roosevelt. In Roosevelt’s case the question was how to respond to the aggressive military tactics of the Empire of Japan. In an effort to force Japan to refrain from further aggression in Asia, Roosevelt placed an embargo on military supplies and moved the Pacific Fleet from San Diego to Pearl Harbor. These actions form the basis of the charges that Roosevelt forced Japan to bomb Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

Neither Abraham Lincoln nor Franklin Roosevelt wanted war.  Both presidents responded to unprovoked attacks on the country. Their critics continue to argue that a more passive response to the events preceding the outbreak of hostilities could have avoided the two deadliest wars in American history, but Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt were astute politicians and understood that Americans would support a forceful response to any threat to the security and preservation of the nation.

The two wars were different—one was a Civil War between Americans and the other a world war involving people all over the globe—but the decisions of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt significantly changed the world in which we live. In 1864 Lincoln wrote, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”  The same could be said of Roosevelt. The events and circumstances left little choice for either President and both decided to take the nation into armed conflict.

—Charles Hubbard is Executive Director of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy

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