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Examining Military Service with 'Presidents At War'
February 16, 2019  | By David Hinckley

Presidents At War, a History channel special, provides something rare and welcome: eight presidential stories of which 95% of all Americans can feel proud.

Airing Sunday and Monday at 8 p.m. ET, Presidents At War documents the wartime military service of eight men who later became president: Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy (top), Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter (below), Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush (bottom).

They all served during World War II, and since they represent both major political parties, Presidents at War says virtually nothing about partisan politics.

That’s another welcome part.

The definition of “service” does require two asterisks.

Lyndon Johnson was already a congressman from Texas when the war broke out, and he never enlisted in the military. He was sent to the South Pacific early in the war by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, charged with assessing what was needed there.

When he arrived, Johnson insisted on joining a crew on a bombing mission. The crew thought he must be nuts. The plane in which he flew was hit and attacked by Japanese Zeros, but it limped home on a wing and a prayer.

When Johnson got back to Washington, he convinced Roosevelt to send more troops, planes and ships, which made commanding General Douglas MacArthur so happy he gave Johnson the Silver Star.

Ronald Reagan tried to get into combat, but his vision was so poor he would have been a danger to everyone except the enemy. So he spent the war making instructional films, which are credited here with raising money and saving lives.

On the other end of the service scale were Kennedy and Bush.

Kennedy commanded a “weaponized patrol boat,” PT 109, in the Pacific. President At War recounts, for a generation that may never have heard the oft-told story, how the PT 109 was sliced in half and Kennedy’s crew left to die at sea. Kennedy led the survivors to safety, and it was his military service, friends say, that transformed him from a rich playboy to a serious, focused leader.

Bush rejected the pleas of his father that he stay in school and spurned college to train as a pilot, also in the South Pacific. That was one of the most dangerous positions in the military and for Bush as for Kennedy, surviving it helped forge the worldview he would later employ as president.

Eisenhower’s story is the most familiar. As supreme commander of the Allied troops in the European Theater, he led the campaign that toppled Adolf Hitler.

Presidents At War gives him full credit. It also traces the often-rocky path by which he got there.

Shortly before America entered World War II, historians here point out, the country’s Army was smaller than Sweden’s. Weapons and supplies were equally scanty. Eisenhower himself was 51, looking at retirement. He had never been in combat.

So when he was sent to Europe as leader of American forces there, he was scorned by the British and other Allied leaders. The first time he sent troops into battle, in North Africa, they suffered terrible casualties.

There were other setbacks. But just as America got better at all the aspects of wartime, fast, so did Eisenhower.

His winning hand, say historians here, is that he blended military skill with personal skills. Where many military men were rigid martinets, Eisenhower knew how to work with others.

Presidents At War isn’t framed as an exercise in flag-waving, and it doesn’t canonize its subjects.

It does make a strong case that they came from an era when privileged Americans felt they had the same responsibility as all other Americans to join in their country’s defense, even if it meant putting themselves on the front lines.

That’s a sentiment less evident in the wars that followed, largely because World War II had none of the grey areas that shadowed subsequent conflicts.

Presidents At War lets viewers make those sorts of broader historical assessments on their own. This show celebrates what these men did, and while there are deeply polarized views on other parts of their lives, it makes a powerful case that these years and these sacrifices deserve this salute.

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