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Against the President: Dissent and Decision-Making in the White House: A Historical Perspective.

Against the President: Dissent and Decision-Making in the White House: A Historical Perspective. By Mark J. White. (Chicago, Ill.: Ivan R. Dee, 2007. Pp. 384. $28.95.)

For those intrigued by how U.S. presidents make important decisions, this author has provided a well-written and enjoyable book on this subject. Although this aspect of presidential policy making has been intensely investigated by others, Mark J. White focuses on what he claims is a neglected component of this process: the dissenter within a president's administration. White analyzes the conflict between Harry Truman and his advisers, Harry Hopkins and Joseph Davies, over the Polish question; the clash between Truman and Henry Wallace on how to respond to Stalin's Soviet Union; Defense Secretary Charles Wilson's efforts to persuade President Eisenhower not to commit to the defense of South Vietnam; Adlai Stevenson's struggles with John Kennedy over policy toward Cuba; and George Bali's endeavors to prevent Lyndon Johnson from waging war in Vietnam.

Although White defines a dissenter as someone who breaks away from the herd and thinks for himself, the dissenters he chooses to write about may speak to his own ideological preferences. Dismissing those advisers whose policy proposals he may disagree with, he states, "[v]arious aides encouraged their presidents to adopt a tougher approach to [C]old [W]ar issues." The reviewer does not include these harder-line officials because, although they promoted different Cold War strategies, they generally shared the same assumptions as the presidents under whom they worked. In this sense, these truculent advisers were not dissenters: "IT]hey did not disagree with the fundamental beliefs underlying U.S. foreign policy" (5).

Because much is already known about the national security decisions the author discusses, the value of White's book is dependent on whether his study of dissenters' roles in presidential decision making can improve the rationality of the process. White believes that if presidents could be convinced to listen more carefully to dissenters, they would be less likely to make such costly errors as George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq. However, White spends less than ten pages in his concluding chapter summarizing the lessons he has derived from his five case studies. He concludes that,
   [w]hat these episodes demonstrate is that when policy options are
   being discussed, presidents should resist the impulse to strengthen
   consensus and nullify opposition within their administrations.
   Paradoxically, they need to encourage opposition, to allow
   dissenters to articulate their views in an unrestrained fashion and
   win converts to their points of view. (319)

Dissenters deserve respect within the president's advisory system, according to White, because they are the most likely to uncover the weaknesses in the hidden assumptions that frequently limit the options considered. If one accepts the validity of the domino theory, for example, then South Vietnam has strategic value and one must prevent its fall to the Communists. When assumptions are not questioned, the decision makers will focus on selecting the best methods to achieve their objectives, not taking into consideration whether the objective can be achieved at a reasonable cost.

White does not address the question of why it will be difficult for chief executives to accept his recommendations. The research of several political scientists--including Richard Neustadt, Larry Berman, John Burke, Alexander George, and Fred Greenstein--suggests that most chief executives feel overwhelmed by their domestic and foreign responsibilities. Presidents try to recruit advisers who have demonstrated their loyalty and who will be responsive and competent in serving them. Believing that they already face too much antagonism from the opposition political party, an independent Congress, and an adversarial press, presidents are not likely to adopt procedures within their administration that will increase internal dissent. Advisers want to tell the president what he wants to hear, and most presidents feel comforted when their advisers, after deliberation, reach a consensus in support of a particular option. No president is going to be pleased with a recommendation to change the direction of policy. For the president to reverse policy, he must concede that he made major mistakes. Few presidents are willing to hand their opponents that advantage.

John W. Sloan

University of Houston
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Author:Sloan, John W.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2009
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