Presidents During Each of the Major American Wars

President George W. Bush meets with the military regarding the War on Terror.

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Who was the president during each of the major U.S. wars? Here's a list of the most significant wars the U.S. has been involved in and the wartime presidents who held office during those times. 

The American Revolution 

The Revolutionary War, also called the American War for Independence, was fought from 1775 through 1783. George Washington was a general and commander in chief. (He was elected president in the first U.S. presidential election in 1789.) Spurred on by the Boston Tea Party in 1773, 13 North American colonies fought Great Britain in an effort to escape from British rule and to become a country unto themselves.

The War of 1812

James Madison was president when the U.S. next challenged Great Britain in 1812. The British did not graciously accept American independence after the Revolutionary War. Britain began seizing American sailors and doing its best to interrupt American trade. The War of 1812 has been called the "Second War of Independence." It lasted until 1815.

The Mexican-American War

The U.S. clashed with Mexico in 1846 when Mexico resisted James K. Polk's vision of a "manifest destiny" for America. War was declared as part of America's effort to forge westward. The first battle took place on the Rio Grande. By 1848, America had taken possession of a huge swath of land, including the modern-day states of Utah, Nevada, California, New Mexico, and Arizona.

The Civil War

The "War Between the States" lasted from 1861 until 1865. Abraham Lincoln was president. Lincoln's opposition to the enslavement of African people was well known, and seven southern states promptly seceded from the union when he was elected, leaving him with a real dilemma. They formed the Confederate States of America, and the Civil War broke out as Lincoln took steps to bring them back into the fold—and to emancipate their enslaved people in the process. Four more states seceded before the dust from the first Civil War battle had settled.

The Spanish-American War

The Spanish-American War was brief, technically lasting less than a year in 1898. Tensions first began escalating between the U.S. and Spain in 1895 as Cuba fought against Spain's dominance and the U.S. supported its efforts. William McKinley was president. Spain declared war against America on April 24, 1898. McKinley responded by declaring war as well on April 25. Not one to be upstaged, he made his declaration "retroactive" to April 21. It was over by December, with Spain relinquishing Cuba and ceding the territories of Guam and Puerto Rico to the U.S.

World War I

The First World War broke out in 1914. It pitted the Central Powers (Germany, Bulgaria, Austria, Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire) against the formidable Allied Powers of the U.S., Great Britain, Japan, Italy, Romania, France, and Russia. By the time the war ended in 1918, more than 16 million people were dead, including many civilians. Woodrow Wilson was president at the time.

World War II

Raging from 1939 until 1945, World War II actually monopolized the time and attention of two presidents: Franklin Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. The war began when Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany invaded Poland and France. Great Britain declared war on Germany two days later. Soon, more than 30 countries were involved, with Japan (among several other countries) joining forces with Germany. By V-J Day in August 1945, this had become the most devastating war in history, claiming between 50 and 100 million lives. The exact total has never been calculated.

The Korean War

Truman was president when the Korean War broke out in 1950. Credited with being the opening salvo of the Cold War, the Korean War began when North Korean soldiers invaded other Soviet-backed Korean territories in June. The U.S. got involved to support South Korea in August. There was some concern that the fighting would mushroom into World War III, but it was largely resolved in 1953. By that time, Dwight Eisenhower was president. The Korean peninsula continues to be a hotbed of political tension.

The Vietnam War

It's been called the most unpopular war in American history, and four presidents (Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon) inherited this nightmare. It lasted from 1955 through 1975. At issue was a division not unlike that which prompted the Korean War, with Communist North Vietnam and the Soviet Union opposing the U.S.-backed South Vietnam. The ultimate death toll included almost 30,000 Vietnamese civilians and roughly an equal number of American soldiers. With chants of "Not our war!" resounding across the U.S., Nixon ordered U.S. forces to end their efforts there in 1973—although it would be two more years before they were officially withdrawn from the region. Communist forces took control of Saigon, Vietnam, in 1975.

The Persian Gulf War

The Persian Gulf War touched off in August 1990 after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. U.S. President George H. W. Bush ordered U.S. forces to intervene and come to the aid of Kuwait and soon put together a coalition of other nations after Saudi Arabia and Egypt requested American assistance. The U.S. combat phase of the war, codenamed Operation Desert Storm, raged for 42 days until Bush declared a ceasefire in February 1991.

The Iraq War

Peace or something like it settled over the Persian Gulf until 2003 when Iraq again prompted hostilities in the region. U.S. forces, under the direction of President George W. Bush, successfully invaded Iraq with the help of Great Britain and other members of the coalition. Insurgents took exception to this state of affairs and hostilities broke out again. President Barack Obama eventually oversaw the withdrawal of most American forces from Iraq by December 2011.

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Kelly, Martin. "Presidents During Each of the Major American Wars." ThoughtCo, Mar. 6, 2021, Kelly, Martin. (2021, March 6). Presidents During Each of the Major American Wars. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "Presidents During Each of the Major American Wars." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).