“Strategy is what Generals do.” That quote, often credited to the celebrated military writer Basil H. Liddell, may have been true when he said it. But today it could not be more wrong. No one knew that better than the founding editor of our sister publication Harry Summers Jr., a Carl von Clausewitz lecturer at the U.S. Army War College, had surveyed the resumes of officials in the federal government who were formulating American military strategy. Strategy courses we Vietnam magazine. Colonel re taught in the country’s war colleges, but Harry could not find anyone holding a significant position involving strategic decision-making—including senior elected officials, foreign policy experts, consulting academic theorists, and civilian appointees in the Department of Defense—who had received such instruction.
Yet Summers was not particularly dismayed by his findings. He knew that decisions on how to direct the nation’s resources and military organizations in the use or threatened use of armed force had to be made by individuals who possessed a firm grasp of what the American public would support and what costs would be deemed worth the chosen ends. He did not believe the leaders of the armed forces were in a position to make that call.
Since World War II, the U.S. military hierarchy has had little influence on the creation of high-level security policies. Military leaders have been largely reduced to pleading for more resources to achieve their missions. Today the commander in chief can be expected to determine the goals and the limitations on what resources will be committed, including who, where, and when. Except in dicey cases involving rules of engagement, U.S. military leaders determine how those resources will be employed.
Any comprehensive post–World War II strategic-level military history must describe the contributions of both the president and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As with the conduct of battles and campaigns, high-level strategy reflects the personality, strengths, and weaknesses of those who formulate it. The history of a U.S. military strategy and its outcome is therefore not limited to the story of those in uniform. It must also include the background, character, attitudes, and actions of those who created the policies guiding the military leaders.
To that end, Joseph Persico reveals in this issue the little-known story of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first and only battlefield experience. That memorable episode, however brief, undoubtedly influenced the strategies and decisions of the American who commanded more of his fellow citizens in an armed conflict than any other U.S. commander in chief—before or since.
Originally published in the Summer 2008 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.