June 20, 2013
Virtual JFK: The 44th President’s Foreign Policy Challenge
Posted on Oct 29, 2008
Yet even that grim scenario is a cakewalk compared to the likelier outcome of a U.S. invasion. Based on our own research and the research of others in Cuba and Russia, we now know that the Russians had tactical nuclear warheads on the island, along with fully assembled and tested launchers, and that in the face of a U.S. invasion the Russian commanders in Cuba would probably have used their battlefield nuclear weapons, leading to escalation and the possible total destruction of Cuba, and perhaps the U.S. and Soviet Union as well. Instead, JFK chose to resist the efforts of his generals and many civilian hotheads. He was much less worried about a “defeat” than he was about escalation to unanticipated, uncontrolled and catastrophic war. We believe few modern presidents other than JFK would have been able to resist the pressure to use military force with regard to Cuba in the missile crisis and to Vietnam throughout his presidency. It seems to us unlikely that LBJ would have resisted the “hotheads” had he been president during the missile crisis. It seems even more unlikely that a president with John McCain’s bottom line—never accept defeat, and beat the other guy to the punch—would have been able to do so. Indeed, it seems more likely that a President McCain in October 1962 would have been leading the charge to attack, just as President George W. Bush led the phalanx within his administration determined to undertake the war of choice in Iraq.
Of course, the scenario is hypothetical. But an important question underlies Kristof’s point. In a crisis, a national emergency, in a situation when the chips are down, what kind of president do we want—one with a short fuse and a penchant for military solutions, like McCain, or one with a longer fuse and a proclivity toward political alternatives, like Obama?
The Vietnam War looms very large among the components that collectively we call John McCain’s bottom line: avoid defeat. McCain’s narrative of the Vietnam War is not about President Johnson caving in to tremendous pressure from his advisers to take the nation to war. In fact, the McCain narrative tends to omit the escalation of the war, questions of whether the escalation of the war was inevitable or even necessary, and nearly everything about the war itself, with one exception. That exception is what McCain and his supporters tell themselves about the way the war ended. The narrative, in outline, is roughly as follows: The U.S. was winning the war in Vietnam by the early 1970s; the left-wing Democrat-controlled Congress cut off funding for the war just as the U.S. and its allies were on the verge of victory over the communists; the abandonment of South Vietnam was an affront to the dignity of people like John McCain, who was a prisoner of war, and to all other Americans who fought in Vietnam; and the reputation of the U.S. was stained terribly by the American betrayal and abandonment of its allies in South Vietnam, many of whom suffered terribly at the hands of the victors after the U.S. withdrawal. The end of the war is all about unnecessary dishonor, betrayal and humiliation of the greatest military power on Earth. And the basic assumption, usually implied but sometimes quite explicit, is that the U.S. loss in Vietnam was unnecessary. The U.S. could have won and should have won.
However much we might sympathize with those like John McCain who served with distinction in Vietnam, and who feel betrayed and abandoned because of the outcome, there is not a shred of evidence that the U.S. could have won the war in Vietnam, if by winning is meant the preservation of an independent, anti-communist South Vietnam, ruled by South Vietnamese democrats and strong enough to resist its adversary in Hanoi. The possibility of a U.S. victory in Vietnam is a fantasy remaining from an unfulfilled wish.
The tragedy is not, as McCain et al. would have it, that the U.S. abandoned its soldiers and South Vietnamese allies. The United States’ withdrawal was inevitable from the moment Marines first hit the beaches at Da Nang in March 1965. The tragedy was that President Johnson failed to continue the withdrawal from Vietnam initiated by his predecessor. If he had, John McCain would never have been taken prisoner, and millions of Vietnamese and tens of thousands of Americans would have been spared obliteration.
What Awaits the Voters on Nov. 4, 2008
In the conclusion to his new book, “The War Within: A Secret White House History, 2006-2008,” Bob Woodward departs from his usual flat, nonjudgmental, detached tone in singling out President George W. Bush as the individual responsible for the debacle in Iraq. According to Woodward:
“In the end one lesson remained, a lesson played out again and again through the history of the American government: of all the forceful personalities pacing the halls of power, of all the obdurate cabinet officers, wily deputies and steely-eyed generals in or out of uniform, of all the voices clamoring to make themselves heard, one person mattered most.”
That person was of course President Bush. Does anyone believe that Al Gore, if he had assumed office on Jan. 20, 2001, would have invaded and occupied Iraq? Is it conceivable that anyone other than George W. Bush would have done so?
The JFK-LBJ-Vietnam quasi-“experiment” demonstrates powerfully that it makes a big difference, a decisive difference in matters of war and peace, whom we elect as president. That difference prevented an American war in Vietnam under JFK from 1961 to 1963, and that difference led to the escalation of a disastrous war of choice under LBJ in the spring and summer of 1965. An analogous difference led to a tragic war of choice from 2003 until the present. When Americans go to the polls on Nov. 4 they need to think hard about the difference between Barack Obama and John McCain because, as history shows, in matters of war and peace that difference will be decisive.
Reinhold Niebuhr emphasized that wielding power places one in an ironic situation. The risk is always present that leaders will get the opposite of what they seek. Like all ironies, this one would be comical if so much weren’t at stake. This was all the proof needed by Niebuhr, a Lutheran minister as well as a philosopher and theologian, that there is a good deal of evil—he called it sin—in the world. As Americans prepare to go to the polls, we feel as if we are in a Niebuhrian echo chamber. Thus it is that if Americans elect the candidate whose bottom line is avoiding a military defeat, as it was for LBJ and as it is for John McCain, they will probably raise the odds of enduring many more military defeats. If, on the other hand, they elect the candidate whose bottom line is avoiding disastrous war, as it was for JFK and as it is for Barack Obama, they will probably increase the odds of meaningful victory—a “victory,” that is, in Niebuhr’s sense, meaning having not made matters worse, and perhaps having made them a little better.
James G. Blight and janet M. Lang are on the faculty of Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies and are the co-authors of “The Fog of War: Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara” (2005). Their new book, “Virtual JFK: Vietnam if Kennedy Had Lived” (with David A. Welch), will be published in January. A companion movie, of the same title and directed by Koji Masutani, is currently playing at selected theaters across North America.
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