changing leaders during a war
February 25, 2005 9:30 AM   Subscribe

Why is it "a bad idea to change [leaders] during a time of war"? Is this just political rhetoric, or is there also some historic fact backing it up?
posted by me3dia to Law & Government (16 answers total)
I'm not looking to win a political argument here, I'm genuinely curious if history bears out this popular adage. Although I realize your answer will vary based on your political persuasion, try not to get into partisan bickering with the other side of the aisle. I'm not interested in spin.
posted by me3dia at 9:34 AM on February 25, 2005

My WAG is that it's purely an emotional appeal to stability, and not to appear to be aiding the enemy.

There's no logical reason not to change leadership in wartime. For example, in the First World War, both England and France formally changed their political leadership in the midst of the war and improved their war effort. For all intents and purposes, so did Germany, with mixed results.
posted by mojohand at 10:16 AM on February 25, 2005

Its more of an issue that a leadership change will create a period of chaos and uncertainty in an organization during the tranisition. Having chaos and uncertainty in an organization that is engaged in a battle for its survival is not a good thing.
However, if the methods being used for that battle for survival are in the end self-destructive, then a change may be needed, but there are no guarantees that the change will be better.

I'll work on getting historical data to back the above up (if somebody doesn't beat me to it).
posted by forforf at 10:17 AM on February 25, 2005

i think its clearly a political argument. You could argue for any policy that its best to stay with the same leader--if you think the policy is a good idea and want to finish the job. War, obviously, raises the stakes in this regard. But if you disagree with the policy or how its being implemented than this argument makes no sense.
But I can't really think of an example of a time where a new leader came in and messed it up, unless you want to count LBJ...which maybe makes sense, but its hard to say. It could be that's what Bush was saying (a lot of coded messages from our politicians about war are actually a reference to Vietnam) Clearly in that case though, Nixon would have argued (if LBJ had run for reelection) that things were going so badly that at that point you needed to change leaders. I don't think anyone would say that about truman, but maybe FDR wouldn't have used the atomic bomb so aggressively...who knows. I know of no clear example though.
posted by alkupe at 10:32 AM on February 25, 2005

For an example of a change for the worse, in 1916 Hindenburg and Ludendorff essentially lead a slow motion military coup d'etat in Germany. Among their subsequent decisions was the approval of unrestricted submarine warfare, the promimate cause for America entering the war on the Allied side, which doomed Germany.

OTOH, David Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau were much more effective wartime leaders than the prime ministers they replaced.
posted by mojohand at 10:52 AM on February 25, 2005

I think it's only a bad idea if you're winning. Leaders have a kind of inertia; they tend to keep on doing what they have been doing. If what they've been doing works, it's good to let them keep on. If it doesn't work, can 'em.

(Please note that I am biting my tongue to keep from saying anything about any current leaders, as much as I really want to.)
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:08 AM on February 25, 2005

The present administration knows more than its successors... if you're referring to Bush/Kerry... I think it was at least good in that there was no transition time in which something bad could have happened because Kerry would not have been "up-to-snuff."
posted by bamassippi at 11:34 AM on February 25, 2005

That Churchill guy worked out okay, I thought.
posted by winston at 12:02 PM on February 25, 2005

A former Senior Advisor to the President/major agency head once told me that a new administration, no matter how competent, will generally spend its first year learning where the levers of power are. Running a country is harder than it looks. As a consequence, all things being equal, a new administration will be less competent (for at least the first year) than the incumbent administration would have been.

(Obviously, I'm not saying the new administration won't know where the nuclear codes are located. It's all the little things you don't think about that become harder, and take more time and energy to accomplish when you're new.)
posted by gd779 at 12:08 PM on February 25, 2005

Are you talking about political or military leadership? Because if you look at, say, the US Civil War you get an example of not just changing leaders but changing leaders several times, on both sides. The Union went through... well, a lot of guys (Hooker, Meade, McLellan, Burnside, Grant... I don't recall the exact order or number right now) in the eastern theater before they found one who could win it. And on the other side, the various Confederate armies also went through changes of leadership during the course of the war (e.g., Lee replacing Johnston as commanding general of the Army of Northern Virginia).
posted by ubernostrum at 12:11 PM on February 25, 2005

Are you talking about political or military leadership?

Well, the soundbite has been used primarily in regards to the presidency lately, not military leadership. I replaced president with leaders in my question because I was trying to avoid a political argument.
posted by me3dia at 12:44 PM on February 25, 2005

I always thought is was a political version of This Proverb , " Don't change horses in the middle of a stream".
The Discovery Institute mentions that FDR used it as a re-election motto in 1944.
In Donna Woolfolk Cross' essay "Propaganda: How Not to Be Bamboozled" she calls it a false analogy, stating:
" But the analogy is misleading because there are so many differences between the things compared. In what way is a war or political crisis like a stream? Is the President or head of state really very much like a horse? And is a nation of millions of people comparable to a man trying to get across a stream?"
posted by lobstah at 1:12 PM on February 25, 2005

We switched from Truman to Eisenhower during the Korean War.
posted by rfs at 7:05 PM on February 25, 2005

I think it's also just an issue of leadership. With that in mind, I think you could even broaden your argument to something like sports. The Florida Marlins won a World Series after changing coaches halfway through the season. Othertimes, it has not been successful to change coaches. If you are in wartime, would it not make sense to change leadership if a better leader came along?
posted by Arch Stanton at 10:14 PM on February 25, 2005

As has been pointed out already, there is no logical, rational reason why changing leadership in wartime is bad. Sometimes it even helps you win.

However, the fact remains that psychologically, people just don't like it. War is a time of fear and insecurity; people want to see a familiar face and hear a familiar voice day in and day out as a way of reassuring them the world hasn't turned completely upside-down.

(I recall reading somewhere that Israel at one point during the 1970s appointed a public 'reassurer' whose job was to be the image and voice of government in all matters relating to terrorism and defence, but I can't recall the details. I do remember that, far more than being a mere PR/propaganda creature, the man appointed became an important psychological axis in many Israeli's lives during the violence and upheaval of the period.)

Psychological factors can't be discounted from war. Remember Napoleon's dictum: "The moral is to the physical as three is to one." For the army itself, I suspect that changing the commander-in-chief is less psychologically upsetting than having a seemingly endless parade of staff and field officers rotated through commands at high velocity.

I do think, however, that it is a quite despicably disingenuous when politicians play upon people's wish for continuity to get themselves re-elected in wartime. But compared to all the other despicably disingenuous acts that politicians perform, that's probably a minor quibble in the grand scheme of things.
posted by Ritchie at 11:22 AM on February 26, 2005

The following is pure opinion, but I tend to follow the Sir Humphrey Appleby school of thought, ie that career public servants are more in control of running a country than people realise, just as middle management pretty much runs the show in any company. Change political leaders or CEOs, and operations will continue largely as before, in most of their essentials.

Along those lines, I am fond of Ambrose Bierce's definition of a politician: an eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared. When he wriggles he mistakes the agitation of his tail for the trembling of the edifice.
posted by UbuRoivas at 1:13 PM on February 26, 2005

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