August has been a stressful month for Americans.
The disturbing weekend in Charlottesville, followed by the president’s reluctance to condemn the white supremacist groups led many to fear that the deep divisions in our country could lead to widespread violence. In fact, a much quoted expert survey by Foreign Policy magazine put the odds of another civil war at 35 percent.1
Charlottesville took the media spotlight away from the crisis that had everyone’s attention and concern last week—the showdown with North Korea that looked like it was about to erupt into hostility.
With those two situations fighting for the front burner, and plenty of other foreign leaders upset by President Trump’s Twitter antics, it’s looking more and more likely that we’ll be at war … somewhere … very soon. And we’re only seven months into Trump’s administration.
That leads to an interesting historical question: Is that fast?
Assuming we go to war in the near future, would Trump set a record for fastest war started by a new president? Where would his enemy-making ability rank among presidential administrations?
We went back through U.S. history2 and found that presidents had sent the military into action 105 times. That includes full-blown wars like World War II and the Mexican-American War. It also included military actions, either alone or in support of the U.N., such as the mid-90s forays into Somalia and Bosnia. Shorter deployments, such as putting down John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry and the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs Invasion, were also included. Basically, if our president put our troops at risk against enemy combatants, it was included—and that’s happened 105 times.
Inherited wars, such as World War II for Truman, Vietnam for Nixon and Iraq and Afghanistan for Obama, don’t count. Obviously, a president who started his term at war had no control over that situation. We only looked at wars that were started during a term.
Most wars occur in the middle of presidencies
What we found was that most presidents don’t rush into war. Just 17 of the 105 actions took place in the first year of a new presidential term. Conflicts are most likely to occur in year three of a presidency. Military actions drop in year four, perhaps because the looming reelection campaign occupies the president’s time and makes him less likely to take the unpopular step of risking American lives.
The best way to stay out of war seems to be to reelect a president. Only 19 military actions have started during a second term. That compares to the 22 actions that two-term presidents took in their first four years.
That seems counter-intuitive, since a second-term president wouldn’t have to worry about getting reelected and has the freedom to take unpopular actions. It could be that foreign leaders recognize that a second-term president has a mandate from the public and shies away from conflict.
The record book: Most war-hungry
While George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan were both criticized for being quick on the trigger with the U.S. military, they pale in comparison to past leaders.
Of the seven presidents to initiate five or more military actions, none have taken office in the last 100 years. There’s a simple explanation for that: Native Americans
The vast majority of the military actions the U.S. took in the 1800s were against Native Americans, as the country expanded from to the Pacific.
Lincoln’s nine military actions included the Dakota War, the Navaho Wars, the Snake War, the Texas-Indian Wars and the Colorado War. At least half of the campaigns launched by Buchanan, Grant, Madison, Pierce and Hayes were against Native Americans as well.
The record book: Fastest to war
Now for the good news: Trump hasn’t gone to war yet. And history shows that he certainly could have.
Seven presidents went to war in their first 100 days. William Howard Taft holds the record, sending the military to put down the Crazy Snake Rebellion 23 days into his term.
The Civil War broke out 39 days into Lincoln’s presidency, and he started the Second Cortina War 58 days in. Lincoln also has a third campaign—the Bombardment of Qui Nho’m—in the 10 fastest wars.
John F. Kennedy is a surprising member of the first-100-days club. JFK launched the Bay of Pigs 87 days into his term.
On the Friday that this story goes live, Trump is on day 209 of his administration. A war now would put him in twelfth place. If he goes the entire weekend without starting one, he’ll drop to 13th.
After that, the next key dates are in early October. If he gets past October 6, he’ll pass LBJ’s authorization to take full military action in Vietnam. The following day, he’ll outlast W’s decision to invade Afghanistan.
Of course, there’s something else Trump could aspire to. Eleven presidents, including Nixon, Coolidge and Teddy Roosevelt, made it through at least four years without calling the military into action in a new campaign.
As unlikely as it seems at the moment, that option is still on the table.