Michael Beschloss, Leadership, War and the American Presidency

Published on16 NOV 2018

Presidential historian Michael Beschloss discusses the epic war stories that have shaped American history, the way that presidents have dramatically expanded executive power during times of military conflict and the enduring consequences for America and the world.

On the importance of leaders understanding history: “Harry Truman felt that he could not be president without knowing history, not because he had to know names or dates, but the way I would put it is, if you’re not interested in history, perfectly fine. But it means that your life experience will be limited to what happened to you and what people you know tell you. And that’s about it. If you tap into history in some way, whether it’s movies or books or some other way, you’re tapping into the collective wisdom of billions of people.”

On the difficulty for historians to write about modern presidents: “The problem is nowadays sources are not kept by a president. They don’t keep diaries. They don’t write letters. Their lawyers tell them keep your paper trail as modest as possible because it might be leaked to newspapers or there might be a special prosecutor. Well that’s the advice every president’s gotten for at least the last 40 years…. And the problem for a historian is what are we going to write these books from, press releases in the future? It’s a real problem. Some people say you can use emails. Well, yes, they can tell you a little bit, but don’t make up for the letters. Maybe Twitter.... 40 years from now, Twitter tells you a lot about the way the public is reacting to a president, but it’s not going to tell you a huge amount about what was going on in the president’s mind that you did not know about at the time, and that’s what we really need.”

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