NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

War and Presidential Greatness

April 13, 2012

Historians often attempt to assess the contemporary public feeling toward the nation's former presidents, probing and testing different factors to ascertain the exact makings of greatness.  Research in this field has typically focused on economic indicators and events in the personal life of the president, but has also extended to the presence of war or the incidence of an assassination.

However, a new econometric study performed by David Henderson of the Naval Postgraduate School and Zachary Gochenour of George Mason University has found that none of these capture the single most important variable.  Rather, they point to the number of wartime military casualties per capita as the single most significant indicator of popularly perceived presidential greatness.

  • In determining the definition of wartime, the authors cast a broad net by including all major foreign military expeditions (thereby avoiding events in which war was never formally declared).
  • They also captured the true depth of the wartime experience by measuring casualties per capita, as this allows for the different wartime presidencies to be compared when the size of the American population had changed drastically.
  • The measured effect of wartime deaths per capita was strongly positive, implying that presidents fighting particularly bloody wars earn great fandom among current citizens.

This measure explains the popularity of presidents like Lincoln, Roosevelt and Washington, each of whom faced enormous casualty counts in their respective conflicts.

Additionally, the data analysis showed that the costly wars metric tended to account for economic growth.  This is because, when wars are long and violent, government spending tends to rise in order to support the armed forces.  All other things equal, this increased government spending tends to support rapid growth in the economy, thereby confounding the two variables.

The study points to a growing need for historians and current citizens alike to reassess the values they admire in presidents.

  • Presidents who fight unnecessary wars should be recognized as such instead of being celebrated for glorious victory in an unneeded conflict.
  • Meanwhile, survey-takers should more heavily consider the almost-wars and prevented conflicts of peacetime presidents that more broadly contributed to long-term national prosperity.

Source: David Henderson and Zachary Gochenour, "War and Presidential Greatness," Social Science Research Network, March 27, 2012.

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