Lincoln: Focus on the real foe

HAROLD HOLZER won a Lincoln Prize for his last book, "Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech that Made Abraham Lincoln President."

PRESIDENT BUSH has often cited Lincolnian resolve to justify staying the course in Iraq. He takes inspiration from the knowledge that Abraham Lincoln too endured failure, frustration and dissent, not to mention more American casualties on a single day at Antietam than we’ve lost in all four years in Iraq. Yet Lincoln still persuaded the North to persevere “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”

Such comparisons are not all inapt. Just as Bush widened (diluted?) the war against terrorism by invading Iraq, Lincoln broadened American goals mid-conflict. The war to save the Union became a war to end slavery. Both presidents sought increased powers at home. Lincoln not only imposed the military tribunals that Bush dreams about, he once allowed troops to shut down an unfriendly New York newspaper and imprison its editor. Bush has never gone that far — much as he might like to.

Nor did Lincoln seek preemptive war; it sought him. “You can have no conflict,” he said at his first inaugural, “without being yourselves the aggressors.” But when war “came,” as he later put it, Lincoln proved far nimbler than Bush, quickly shifting course when necessary. As soon as the first 75,000 Union volunteers proved inadequate, he called for 300,000 more. When 90-day recruits went home, he ordered three-year service instead. When white soldiers alone could not win, he welcomed “colored” troops into the ranks. And when even this vast volunteer army could not restore the Union, Lincoln imposed the nation’s first military draft.


Unlike Bush, who waited six years to remove Donald Rumsfeld, Lincoln jettisoned his first, failed secretary of war in just 10 months. He elevated and dismissed generals rapidly, even ruthlessly, until he found the right one in Ulysses S. Grant.

He even surpassed Bush when it came to finding weapons of mass destruction — albeit for his own use. He encouraged innovations such as rifled artillery and ironclad warships. The president famous for espousing “malice toward none” argued that the war could not be won with “elder-stalk squirts, charged with rose water.” He wanted cities leveled, enemies destroyed.

Most important, Lincoln understood that “public sentiment is everything” (he said it in his first debate with Stephen Douglas). He was not only decider in chief but communicator in chief. In his brilliant speeches defining the nature of democracy and sacrifice — all widely published — Lincoln kept Americans informed and inspired.

So what might Lincoln do today?

First, focus on the real enemy: terrorists. When advisors suggested he start a war with England merely to woo patriotic Southerners back into the Union, Lincoln replied: “One war at a time.” He also rejected adventurism against French-controlled Mexico. Today Lincoln would fight only the war that needs fighting.

Second, embrace flexibility. Seek the right generals, strategies, troop levels and weaponry, and be willing to change course and personnel swiftly.

Third, communicate objectives with frequency, passion and precision. No one can match Lincoln’s eloquence, but no president should abandon Lincoln’s commitment to engage the public.


Fourth, spend more time at the front. Lincoln visited the troops often, absorbing their pain and boosting their morale. Maybe his case was better, but his manner of symbolizing it was best.

Finally, abandon the notion of divine will to justify war. Even the pious Lincoln came to realize it was fruitless, even sacrilegious, to invoke God as his ally. “In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God,” he lamented. “Both may be, and one must be, wrong.” As Lincoln understood: “The Almighty has his own purposes.”