No U.S. President Has Ever Blown Re-election During Wartime

War Clouds Gather in the Persian Gulf. Rain in the 2020 Forecast.

William Sonn
Jun 3, 2019 · 7 min read

Those who ignore the past, it’s said, are doomed to repeat it.

President Trump, who frequently changes his mind, maintains that he does not want a war with Iran. On the other hand, he is up for a difficult re-election campaign in 2020 and no U.S. president, even an unpopular one, has ever lost a re-election campaign during wartime.

Historian Ronald Feinman has examples: James Madison, reelected during the war of 1812; Lincoln, during the Civil War, reelected in 1864; Franklin D. Roosevelt, reelected in 1944 during World War II; Lyndon B. Johnson, elected in 1964 during the Vietnam War; and Richard Nixon, Vietnam War, reelected in 1972. George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004 during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

And, as the next presidential election draws near, some Administration officials and friends — pointedly National Security Advisor John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Fox News commentators — are warning ever-more urgently that Iran and its proxies are preparing to attack American troops and interests.

Retaliating against Iran wouldn’t be the first crisis to arrive with little evidence that something is actually happening. In the cumulative bafflement that has followed many bellicose 240-character alerts (including exclamation points), it’s been hard to remember if the recommended solutions are tariffs, border shutdowns, face-to-face summits, tax cuts, troop withdrawals or troop insertions. Pompeo and Bolton, however, are broadly hinting that war might be the best response to the Iranian threat.


Ephemeral emergencies. If not Iran, of course, it could be anyone. As much as we want to believe that ours’ are extraordinary times, we’ve been seduced into electing presidents to protect us from ginned-up dangers before.

The Swedish tanker sabotaged in the Persian Gulf

Yemeni rebels (Iranian groups arm them) did recently attack a Saudi oil pipeline (we arm the Saudis who are fighting them), though it is not altogether clear how to draw a line from it to warning that American targets are next. That may be why Secretary Pompeo stipulated we were set to go to war over American “interests” as well as American fatalities. Then, some 1240 miles from Yemen, someone also fired a Katyusha rocket into the “Green Zone” in Baghdad, near though not into the U.S. embassy in Iraq.

Iran denied involvement in both incidents but a supportive political choir immediately began reinforcing the Administration’s case. On May 16th a Fox News commentator, for one, harmonized that the attack on Saudi oil installations “have Iranian fingerprints all over it.” His evidence: “that’s how Iran’s leadership operates.”

The Administration’s Iranian saber-rattling began in early May, when attackers in several small boats sabotaged at least one oil tanker off the coast of the United Arab Republic. Iran, not always truthful itself, quickly denied involvement again.

But America was ready to retaliate before Iran got its denial out. Bolton and Pompeo sent the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a bomber task force to the area earlier than scheduled. The president declared Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a “terrorist organization.” Days later, Bolton and Pompeo flatly accused the Revolutionary Guards of organizing the May 12thoil tanker attacks.

This path to war is well-worn. Sure enough, Iran then retaliated against our retaliation. It put the U.S. military on its own terrorist list. It announced it would quit abiding by some of the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal that, to kick things off, we had quit in 2017 on some never-presented evidence that Iran wasn’t abiding by it.


Bolton himself is an old hand at alarms. Described in a recent New Yorker profile as a “loaded gun,” Bolton warned of Cuba’s weapons of mass destruction in 2002, Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in 2003, Syria’s plans to build weapons of mass destruction (the same year), North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction in 2006, a “jihadist takeover” of Europe, Muslim sleeper agents in the U.S. government and, repeatedly, Iranian intentions to build weapons of mass destruction.

This time, he says, he’s not kidding.

If nothing else, it’s more proof that history does repeat itself. Plenty of other presidentshave used real or imagined threats to distract us from scandals and even to justify and escalate wars.

George W. Bush’s administration (Bolton was an under-Secretary of State in it), for example, urgently released out-of-focus satellite pictures of some objects. They were centrifuges, Bush said, that Saddam Hussein was going to use to enrich weapons-grade uranium. Hussein denied that he was enriching uranium or had nerve gas or weapons of mass destruction. Sages counsel that even a stopped clock is right twice a day and, as it turned out, Hussein was actually being truthful. We invaded Iraq anyway, on March 20, 2003.

Bush, having claimed “Mission Accomplished,” was re-elected in November 2004.


The Gulf of Tonkin attack: a small event that led to a big escalation

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson announced the North Vietnamese had attacked the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin. He pledged to “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States.” Among the measures were Operation Rolling Thunder, a famously brutal bombing campaign over North Vietnam, and the first large deployment of American ground troops to the area.

Documents de-classified in 2005 and 2006 suggested the Maddox attack was wildly exaggerated and mostly faked, but that was long after 60,000 U.S. soldiers, 250,000 South Vietnamese troops, 1.1 million Viet Cong and North Vietnamese fighters and two million civilians lost their lives in the years after 1964.

But in 1964, patriotism aroused, LBJ was resoundingly elected president.

It was hauntingly reminiscent of the “attack” on the USS Maine. President William McKinley sent the warship in 1898 to dock in Havana’s harbor to protect substantial American business interests caught between Spanish and Cuban fighters in Cuba’s war for independence. Its armed presence would dissuade the combatants from harming American interests. A month later, the ship mysteriously exploded.

McKinley brushed aside a Spanish proposal for a joint Spanish-American investigation into the explosion and, next, a Spanish inquiry’s finding that spontaneous coal combustion was to blame. An American board of inquiry instead declared the Maine was hit by a Spanish torpedo. Egged on by lurid news declarations that Spain was o blame — “Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain!” — the U.S. invaded Cuba in April.

Many years later, in 1976, a U.S. Navy assessment agreed a coal bunker fire probably caused the explosion.

But in November 1900 McKinley, flush with victory over Spain, was resoundingly re-elected.


It’s same reason Bolton moved the strike force near the Persian Gulf: he called it a warning that we would meet attacks on allies or Americans with “unrelenting force.” Two days after saying he didn’t want to go to war with Iran, President Trump sent another 1500 U.S. troops to the area, removed Iran’s few exemptions on oil exports, and threatened to extend his trade war to U.S. allies who continue to buy Iranian oil. “Nothing is off the table,” he said.

This path to re-election is almost as worn as the path to war, and President Trump, of course, is up for re-election next year.

Wars of aggression, in sum, always start as a response — a defensive response — to an enemy’s outrageous acts. The acts do not have to be real or even much of a threat. The enemy, in fact, may not even be a real enemy.

By historian Steven Kinzer’s count, we have been involved in at least 144 regime changes since our first overthrow of a foreign government (Hawaii, in 1892). Sometimes the overthrows have been covert, as in the CIA’s removal of Iran’s democratically elected leader in 1953. In that case, a need to protect British and American oil interests was cast as protecting the world from the evanescent communism of Iranian reform leader Mohammed Mosaddeq.


Genuinely provoked by real or made-up ghosts, threatened Americans then swarm to the flag, and the wars themselves become, at least at their start, electoral gold. It was Lincoln who, campaigning for re-election in 1864, first noted that it “was not best to swap horses” in the midstream of war.

At least in some quarters, the Iran gambit is already bearing fruit.

As June began the reconstituted, right-wing Washington Examiner reported that a Zogby Analytics poll found that 64% of those surveyed say that, if attacked, “the U.S. should take military action against Iran.”

Two weeks earlier Zogby, whose findings about the Administration tend to be dramatically rosier than other pollsters, reported the president’s approval rating has risen to “over 50%”*

* FiveThirtyEight, which calculates approval ratings by weighting survey results from six reputable polls, put the president’s approval rating at 41.2% as of May 31. RealClear Politics, which uses a similar amalgam of polls, puts it at 43.1%. Both represent increases.

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