June 19, 2013
Virtual JFK: The 44th President’s Foreign Policy Challenge
Posted on Oct 29, 2008
Peace or War: Does It Matter Who’s President?
For these and other urgent, difficult foreign policy issues, is the election likely to make a significant difference? Can history tell us whether it matters who is president when it comes to matters of war and peace? Can a president decisively lead his country into war, or keep his country out of war? Or are the forces of history too impersonal, too powerful, to be significantly affected by any individual, even a president of the United States?
Some doubt that the choice of a president can make much, if any, difference. For example, in a recent widely publicized book, “The Limits of Power,” the Boston University historian Andrew Bacevich argues that the choice of a president makes little difference with regard to foreign policy, because, he believes, the U.S. political system has been broken for a very long time by greed and corruption and the trivialization of elective politics. Bacevich even dismisses the contentions of supporters and opponents of Obama and McCain who believe that this election, perhaps more than any in recent memory, offers the voters a decisive choice regarding the future direction of U.S. foreign policy. According to Bacevich, the choice the voters believe they have is an illusion. In a recent interview he said: “… it seems to me that the differences between Senator Obama and Senator McCain are operational differences, not strategic differences.” In other words, yes, there is a difference between the candidates on matters of war and peace, but no, the difference is unlikely to make much difference once the new president takes office.
But it is simply incorrect to say that a president has not made a decisive difference in the past. On this, we are confident. Our research shows that JFK prevented an American war in Vietnam, and reveals the reasons why his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, could not. We see strong parallels between the crisis-ridden environment JFK faced when he took office in January 1961 and the current situation, especially across the Middle East and South Asia. The difference between the two presidents, JFK and LBJ, made a difference as to whether the U.S. entered or avoided a disastrous military conflict. That is why it is important to examine from within a template of that earlier period the potential presidencies of Obama and McCain.
The key to answering our question—does it matter who is president in matters of war and peace?—lay in a careful examination of the escalation of the war in Vietnam in the 1960s. There has been no shortage of rhetoric about Vietnam during the current presidential campaign. Campaign debate about the past and future of U.S. foreign policy has been littered with analogies deriving from the U.S. debacle in Vietnam—at least since Sen. Edward Kennedy’s assertion in April 2004 that “Iraq is George Bush’s Vietnam,” and the Bush administration’s angry response. Is the war in Iraq “another Vietnam,” a quagmire in the desert? Is George W. Bush another Lyndon Johnson? Is John McCain another Bush or Johnson? Is Barack Obama another John F. Kennedy? Finally, does it make any difference whether this or that candidate reminds us of this or that president who held the office during the era in which the Vietnam conflict escalated to an American war?
Our answer with respect to the Vietnam War (elaborated in our forthcoming book, “Virtual JFK: Vietnam if Kennedy Had Lived”) is this:
• If President Kennedy had lived and been reelected in 1964, we believe he would not have Americanized the conflict in South Vietnam.
We do not say in “Virtual JFK” that we are certain Kennedy would have withdrawn from Vietnam. We do say that a bet back then on Kennedy withdrawing would have been a very good one. Further, we contend that by comparing Presidents Kennedy and Johnson it is possible to identify salient features of the temperament and decision-making approach of each, and to draw conclusions about the key differences between the president who prevented a U.S. war in Vietnam and one who initiated such a war.
Our research and conclusions have nothing to do with either endorsing or repudiating the ethos and mythology of “Camelot.” Our judgment does not rely on the recollections of private conversations JFK allegedly had with some close adviser. Instead, we stick to the facts, as they can now be gleaned from the massive public record, nearly a half-century after Kennedy’s assassination. Our research method of critical oral history, which we developed in a predecessor project on the Cuban missile crisis, was used to address what would have happened in “Vietnam, if Kennedy had lived.” The method is described in detail in our 2005 book, “The Fog of War: Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara,” the companion book to the 2004 Academy Award-winning film of the same title, directed by Errol Morris.
Critical oral history involves the simultaneous interaction of three essential elements in a conference setting: (1) declassified documents and formerly top-secret audiotapes; (2) oral testimony from key former and/or present officials who had some responsibility for the way events transpired; and (3) commentary by top scholars of the events under scrutiny. The documents are given context by the oral testimony of those who were involved in the decisions. The vagaries of memory and the sometimes-confused chronologies underlying oral testimony about events decades in the past are checked against the documents and scholarly analyses. The documents also provide a neutral playing field on which scholars and former officials can address the issues and begin to work toward a common understanding of the events under scrutiny. To examine how critical oral history works in practice, see our 2002 book, “Cuba on the Brink: Castro, the Missile Crisis and the Soviet Collapse.” It contains the annotated record of a critical oral history conference in Havana during which we first learned that the Soviets had delivered nuclear warheads to the island before the U.S. naval “quarantine” went into effect, and that in all probability tactical nuclear weapons would have been used by the Soviets in response to the expected U.S. invasion of the island.
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