The best books on the politics of war

Why am I passionate about this?

I take great pride in having somehow turned a passion for visiting presidential libraries into an academic career. I’ve now conducted extensive research at eight of them, and have future projects lined up to get me to the rest. This experience means I can and frequently do ruin family gatherings by challenging distant relations to quizzes about obscure details involving presidential pets. But it has also left me well-placed to write a number of articles and books exploring how domestic politics shapes the development and execution of U.S. foreign policy. I’ve done this while affiliated with the University of Oxford and, more recently, at City, University of London. 


I wrote...

War on the Ballot: How the Election Cycle Shapes Presidential Decision-Making in War

By Andrew Payne,

Book cover of War on the Ballot: How the Election Cycle Shapes Presidential Decision-Making in War

What is my book about?

The president of the United States is at once holder of the highest elected office and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. But how do presidents balance these competing responsibilities during an ongoing war? War on the Ballot examines how electoral politics shaped presidential decisions about military and diplomatic strategy during the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. Drawing on a wealth of declassified documents and interviews with senior officials and military officers, it reveals the surprisingly large role played by political considerations during these conflicts. In each case, the exigencies of the domestic political calendar led presidents to miss crucial opportunities to limit the human and financial costs of the war, gain strategic advantage, and sue for peace.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of America's Cold War: The Politics of Insecurity

Andrew Payne Why did I love this book?

This was the book that got me hooked on the study of U.S. foreign policy.

I vividly remember debating the grammatical merits of the word “intermestic” with my undergraduate adviser. (Full disclosure: he was a skeptic; I was in favour.) But we both agreed that the term it introduced to describe the connection between the international and domestic dimensions of policy was fundamentally apt.

This remains my go-to book to get up to speed on the domestic politics of any major foreign policy challenge of the Cold War period. And it should be yours, too.

By Campbell Craig, Fredrik Logevall,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked America's Cold War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"A creative, carefully researched, and incisive analysis of U.S. strategy during the long struggle against the Soviet Union."
-Stephen M. Walt, Foreign Policy

"Craig and Logevall remind us that American foreign policy is decided as much by domestic pressures as external threats. America's Cold War is history at its provocative best."
-Mark Atwood Lawrence, author of The Vietnam War

The Cold War dominated world affairs during the half century following World War II. America prevailed, but only after fifty years of grim international struggle, costly wars in Korea and Vietnam, trillions of dollars in military spending, and decades of nuclear…


Book cover of Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security--From World War II to the War on Terrorism

Andrew Payne Why did I love this book?

This book expands the horizon to include coverage of many of the crises and conflicts of the post-Cold War era. In doing so, it draws on an unusually rich range of primary sources for a book of this scope.

Its treatment of the role played by Congress is particularly notable, which should perhaps be no surprise given the author’s expertise in chronicling several of the major legislative battles in U.S. history. Somehow still coming in around the 500-page mark, the book’s briskly paced narrative makes it possible to devour it in one sitting. Indeed, you might find it hard not to. 

By Julian E. Zelizer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Arsenal of Democracy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Arsenal of Democracy , historian and public intellectual Julian Zelizer shows how internal politics have influenced American foreign policy since the Cold War. Rejecting the notion that, prior to the presidency of George W. Bush, politics stopped at the water's edge," Zelizer exposes the partisan fighting that shaped the foreign policies of presidents from FDR to Kennedy to Reagan, revealing the extent to which the GOP and Democratic party have alternately sought to define themselves as the party of war and the party of peace as the political mood shifted. Republicans, he shows, have not always been hawks during…


Book cover of Selling the Korean War: Propaganda, Politics, and Public Opinion in the United States, 1950-1953

Andrew Payne Why did I love this book?

If you want to go a little deeper, you can’t do much better than this outstanding study of how Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower sought to sustain public support for the Korean War.

Written by a historian who knows his sources like the back of his hands, this book is jam-packed with evidence of the ways in which presidents try to control the narrative about an ongoing war. And beyond its impressive use of archival materials, it also challenges the conventional wisdom about a president’s ability to lead public opinion using the “bully pulpit.”

Presidents can and do try to do that. But the Korean case illuminates the unique challenges of selling a limited war, in which the administration struggled to calibrate its mobilization campaign with the complex politics of waging war. 

By Steven Casey,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Selling the Korean War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

How presidents spark and sustain support for wars remains an enduring and significant problem. Korea was the first limited war the U.S. experienced in the contemporary period - the first recent war fought for something less than total victory. In Selling the Korean War, Steven Casey explores how President Truman and then Eisenhower tried to sell it to the American public.

Based on a massive array of primary sources, Casey subtly explores the government's selling activities from all angles. He looks at the halting and sometimes chaotic efforts of Harry Truman and Dean Acheson, Dwight Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles.…


Book cover of The Insiders' Game: How Elites Make War and Peace

Andrew Payne Why did I love this book?

Unlike the other recommendations on my list, this is a work of political science. But the qualitative components of this text rival that of any work of history.

In fact, it was this author’s first book that provided the model for my own, blending deeply researched case studies with conceptual innovations in the study of foreign policy decision-making. Her latest contribution, The Insiders’ Game, will set the agenda for the next generation of scholarship on the politics of war.

It reminds us that the public is not the only audience that leaders need to worry about when making decisions to initiate, escalate, or conclude a war. Maintaining the support of advisers, legislators, and military officials is also essential. As a result, it is often the bargains struck with these small groups of political elites that determine how democratic leaders wage war.

By Elizabeth N. Saunders,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Insiders' Game as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

How elites shape the use of force in American foreign policy

One of the most widely held views of democratic leaders is that they are cautious about using military force because voters can hold them accountable, ultimately making democracies more peaceful. How, then, are leaders able to wage war in the face of popular opposition, or end conflicts when the public still supports them? The Insiders' Game sheds light on this enduring puzzle, arguing that the primary constraints on decisions about war and peace come from elites, not the public.

Elizabeth Saunders focuses on three groups of elites-presidential advisers, legislators,…


Book cover of Command: The Politics of Military Operations from Korea to Ukraine

Andrew Payne Why did I love this book?

Every book this author produces feels like a magnum opus. In this latest tour de force, Freedman surveys decades of history across several continents to shed light on the deeply intertwined relationship between the development of military strategy and the politics of command.

Thanks to this vast scope, the case studies in this book provide portraits of a wonderfully eclectic cast of characters, demonstrating how civilian leaders and military officials battled over authority, autonomy, and resources in a wide range of contexts.

By Lawrence Freedman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Command as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Using examples from a wide variety of conflicts, Lawrence Freedman shows that successful military command depends on the ability not only to use armed forces effectively but also to understand the political context in which they are operating.

Command in war is about forging effective strategies and implementing them, making sure that orders are appropriate, well-communicated, and then obeyed. But it is also an intensely political process. This is largely because how wars are fought depends to a large extent on how their aims are set. It is also because commanders in one realm must possess the ability to work…


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Sea Change

By Darlene Marshall,

Book cover of Sea Change

Darlene Marshall Author Of Sea Change

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Romance Reader Regency Romance Fan History Buff SF & Fantasy Fan

Darlene's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

David Fletcher needs a surgeon, stat! But when he captures a British merchantman in the Caribbean, what he gets is Charley Alcott, an apprentice physician barely old enough to shave. Needs must, and Captain Fletcher takes the prisoner back aboard his ship with orders to do his best or he’ll be walking the plank.

Charley Alcott’s medical skills are being put to the test in a life-or-death situation, Charley’s life as well as the patient’s. Even if she can save the American privateer's brother there will still be hell to pay—and maybe a plank to walk—when Captain Fletcher learns Charley…

Sea Change

By Darlene Marshall,

What is this book about?

High Seas, #1

David Fletcher needs a surgeon, stat! But when he captures a British merchantman in the Caribbean what he gets is Charley Alcott, an apprentice physician barely old enough to shave. Needs must, and Captain Fletcher takes the prisoner back aboard his ship with orders to do his best, or he'll be walking the plank.

Charley Alcott's medical skills are being put to the test in a life-or-death situation, Charley's life as well as the patient's. Even if she can save the pirate's brother there will still be hell to pay--and maybe a plank to walk--when Captain Fletcher…


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