With military policy sure to be an issue in this presidential election, I thought it would be interesting to examine whether or not there is any truth to the claim that Democrats are dovish in military policy or “soft on national security” by looking at the record of every Democratic president from Andrew Jackson through Barack Obama. A couple of notes before I get started: I had some hesitation about two presidents, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Johnson, specifically about whether or not I should include them. Jefferson was a member of the Democratic-Republican Party and is sometimes referred to as a
“small r“ republican. However, he is often considered a patron saint of the Democrats and gets a dinner thrown in his honor by the party ever year. Before the Republican Party was founded, the Whig Party was the Democrats’ primary rival and was much more conservative on slavery than the GOP. If his financial stake in human property had been the only issue, Jefferson could have felt at home in either the Whig Party or the Democratic Party, though almost everything about the Republican Party, from its antislavery platform to its close alliance with industry, would have been an anathema to him. It is his support for states’ rights in certain instances, agrarianism, and Westward expansion that make it probable that he would have been a Democrat had he lived long enough to see the party capture the presidency. So I’ll leave him off of the list but touch on him here. Thomas Jefferson was essentially like Lincoln—not a pacifist but generally reluctant to resort to war. When Britain aggressively worked to restrict trade between the United States and France during Jefferson’s presidency, he responded by cutting off trade between America and all foreign nations. Jefferson’s successor, James Madison’s solution was to launch the War of 1812. Thus, we can consider Jefferson a dove with a major asterisk: he supported military conscription. Johnson was a tough call to make, because he was a Democrat who ran with Abe Lincoln on the “National Union Party” ticket. However, since his roots were in the Democratic Party and since he clashed over policy with a Republican Congress, I am including him on my list. The second issue is civil liberties. If I did a play-by-play of each president that included both civil liberties and military policy, this blog post would become a novel. Therefore, I will focus only on military policy. Suffice it to say that no civil libertarian has ever served as president from the Democratic Party.
Andrew Jackson: Against the wishes of the U.S. Supreme Court, former Speaker of the House and three-time presidential candidate Henry Clay, former President John Quincy Adams, Massachusetts Senator and future Secretary of State Daniel Webster, and much of the Northern public, Jackson put heavy pressure on Native American tribes to give up their land rights. He also started the Second Seminole War against the Florida tribe of the same name. His aggressive stance paved for the way for…
Martin Van Buren: Following Jackson’s precedent, Van Buren used federal troops to initiate the Trail of Tears. He also continued the Second Seminole War.
James K. Polk: A firm believer in American imperialism, Polk provoked a war with Mexico, giving us a huge chunk of new Western territory and laying the groundwork for our current illegal immigration debate as millions of Mexicans eventually attempted to return to the land once owned by their nation.
Franklin Pierce: While trying to avoid wars with other countries, Pierce sympathized with the slaveholding South and sent U.S. Marines and infantrymen to Massachusetts to ensure that a runaway slave was returned to his master.
James Buchanan: Sympathetic to the South like Pierce had been, Buchanan sent federal troops to stop John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry and stationed them at his hanging to prevent any rescue attempt.
Andrew Johnson: A native Southerner with a strong belief in white supremacy that could verge on racial hatred, Johnson generally favored a lenient military policy toward the defeated Confederacy. Similar to most Democrats, such as Clement Vallandigham and Daniel Voorhees, who opposed Lincoln’s decision to fight the Civil War, Johnson’s dovish views during Reconstruction were, as indicated, linked to his racism.
Grover Cleveland: Despite sending in troops to stop a labor strike, Cleveland was generally an isolationist in military affairs and even attempted to give Hawaii back its independence.
Woodrow Wilson: While some accused him of not going to war quickly enough and despite running as a peace candidate in 1916 Presidential Election, Wilson placed support for foreign trade above a desire to avoid war. When it became clear that Germany would not allow the United States to trade with Britain, the president chose to go to war, resulting in the deaths of 110,000 American lives. Wilson used democracy as a reason for his “need” to go to war. Democracy, however, did not preclude him from allowing segregation to be brought back into branches of the federal government, which leads one to conclude that Wilson’s real motivation was economic. He also became the first Democratic president to institute a military draft.
Franklin Roosevelt: Roosevelt spent some time planning for U.S. entry into World War II prior to Pearl Harbor. The Japanese attack all but killed the isolationist movement in America, allowing FDR to enter the fray. Like Wilson, Roosevelt used a draft to build up the military. Once again, human rights was not likely a reason for Roosevelt’s decision to go to war, given the fact that he condoned segregation in multiple cases.
Harry Truman: After dropping two atomic bombs to end World War II, Truman issued the Truman Doctrine, promising aid to nations fighting Communism. Based on this principle, he brought the United States into the Korean War two years after bringing back military conscription.
John F. Kennedy: In addition to taking a hard line with Russia and Cuba, Kennedy increased U.S. presence in Vietnam. There is evidence that he planned to strongly escalate troop levels to the point of a full scare war, but Lee Harvey Oswald’s timing made this claim subject to debate.
Lyndon B. Johnson: While never officially declaring war on Vietnam, Johnson brought the number of U.S. soldiers into the Southeast Asian nation up to 500,000. Johnson’s use of the draft was highly controversial. Opposition to the Vietnam War and to a lesser extent the draft contributed to internal division in the party, sending the Southern conservatives who did not bolt to Wallace or Nixon into a strange alliance with liberal hawks against the antiwar liberal wing of the party personified by Bobby Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, and George McGovern.
Jimmy Carter: While Carter cut back on nuclear weapons, he also began forcing young men to once again register for the draft, intervened in the Soviet-Afghanistan War, and created Rapid Deployment Forces to intervene internationally.
Bill Clinton: Clinton took military action in various places, such as Iraq, the Balkans, Haiti, and Somalia. His relatively hawkish foreign policy led George W. Bush to promise in his 2000 run for president that his administration would not engage in “nation building.”
Barack Obama: While frequently accused of being soft on national security, Obama continued the United States’ war against Afghanistan and adopted an interventionist military policy toward Libya, causing controversy among the Right and Left.
What this summary should demonstrate is that, far from being generally dovish or “weak” when it comes to the military, Democratic presidents have by and large been overly aggressive in this area.