By James G. Blight and janet M. Lang
This generation of Americans has already had enough of war. … We do not want war. … The world knows the United States will never start a war.
—John F. Kennedy, June 10, 1963
If strength becomes weakness because of the vanity to which strength may prompt the mighty man or nation … the situation is ironic.
—Reinhold Niebuhr, “The Irony of American History”
After the Nov. 4 election the new U.S. president, either Barack Obama or John McCain, will face a bewildering array of dangerous foreign policy crises. To have any chance at successfully managing these crises, the new president must bring two qualities to the job, both of which are reversals from the norm established during the administration of George W. Bush: (a) skepticism about the utility of military solutions to political problems; and (b) the willingness and the ability to inform and instruct the American people as to why, as Churchill once put it, “to jaw-jaw is better than war-war.”
The historical precedent for such a president, we argue, was President John F. Kennedy, especially in his approach to the crisis he faced over what to do about the disintegrating situation in Vietnam. Understanding how JFK dealt with Vietnam helps us understand what we call virtual JFK: what JFK probably would have done in Vietnam if he had not been assassinated. The degree to which the next president emulates JFK’s success on both points—resistance to military solutions and the capacity to explain this resistance to the American people—is, we believe, the degree to which the president we elect on Nov. 4 has a chance of success.
Postelection U.S. Foreign Policy: The Return of the Repressed
For a presidential candidate, all politics is local. In this respect, running for president is rather like running for mayor of America. The candidate is expected to promise to make his constituents’ lives better, safer, richer. This is why the leading issue in the current face-off between Barack Obama and John McCain is the economy. The banking crisis has only added to voters’ concerns about the usual bread-and-butter issues.
Once elected and inaugurated, however, a U.S. president’s politics become global literally overnight. At that moment, issues of war and peace come to the fore for the new commander in chief. This was true during the Cold War. It is still true now, at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. Shortly after noon EST on Jan. 20, 2009, either Obama or McCain will be thrust headlong into a withering array of foreign policy crises, whose number and potential threat to U.S. interests around the world rival those faced by presidents during the darkest days of the Cold War.
We will mention only four looming crises, all caused by, or greatly exacerbated by, the disastrous foreign policies of the Bush administration, all in the Middle East and South Asia, any one of which could spiral into a monumental disaster with dramatic repercussions for the U.S. and perhaps the entire world. The list of probable foreign policy crises could be made longer, to include an increasingly bold, anti-Western and belligerent Russia; a rising Chinese behemoth set to challenge the U.S. at every point in East Asia; the collapsing deal with North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, a situation that carries potential consequences in Northeast Asia almost too horrible to contemplate; and a potential tinderbox in Cuba, following a half-century of rule by Fidel and Raul Castro.
Four epochal disasters are already under way, each of which is likely to wind up on the new president’s desk within 24 hours of his inauguration. They are:
• Iraq. More than five years after the U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation, Shiites allied with Iran are poised to take virtually total control of the country as the U.S. withdraws. Their objective: to establish an Islamic republic on the Iranian model. The new president must decide: intervene militarily, again, to prevent this from happening, or accept the outcome as inevitable, try to manage the outcome politically in the U.S., and learn to deal with the Baghdad government, whoever may be in charge, and begin exploration of mutual interests with both Baghdad and Tehran.
• Afghanistan. U.S.-led forces are losing the war in Afghanistan against rejuvenated Taliban forces and al-Qaida fighters, according to recent leaked U.S. government reports. U.S. allies are wearying of the fight and are preparing to bring their troops home. The leadership in Kabul has proved incompetent and an embarrassment to Washington, even before it was revealed that President Hamid Karzai’s brother is a leading Afghan drug lord. The new president must decide: raise the troop commitment in Afghanistan to 100,000 or more and try to subdue the Afghan resistance by the use of force, or begin to withdraw and try to manage the withdrawal politically at home, while making an effort to deal with whoever winds up in charge in Kabul.
• Pakistan. The country is coming apart at the seams. The civilian administration seems incapable of governing the country, and the formidable, U.S.-backed and -supplied Pakistani military is deeply resented by many Pakistanis, due to its increasingly brutal tactics in putting down insurgents, and because of the perception that the army is doing the bidding of the unpopular Americans. The autonomous territories are teeming with anti-U.S. sentiment, and the number of insurgents finding haven there is increasing by orders of magnitude. Pakistan is a nuclear power, and if the situation blows up into full-scale civil war, as many deem likely, the world for the first time would face the possibility of a civil conflict ending in nuclear holocaust. The new president must decide: try to intervene militarily, perhaps with other interested parties, or work with others in the region and around the world to defuse the problems before they spiral out of control.
• Iran. Tehran supports Hezbollah and Hamas, both of which have been labeled terrorist groups; Iran is heavily involved in supporting various Shiite causes in Iraq, and Iran has in fact been the primary beneficiary of the U.S. war and occupation of Iraq. Iran refuses to come clean or to stand down its nuclear program, which nearly all followers of Iranian nuclear policies regard as an earnest effort to become a nuclear power. Iran, with its deeply anti-American stance, is already a major power in the region. Were it to acquire nuclear weapons, it would become the Middle East superpower. The new president must decide: to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites, risking a massive Iranian response against U.S. interests in Iraq and Israel and throughout the entire Middle East, or begin talks with Iran to search for common interests, including, but not limited to, trying to strip Iran of its nuclear program.
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.
Virtual JFK: The President Made a Decisive Difference
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 believe JFK would have continued the withdrawal of U.S. advisers from Vietnam that had begun during his presidency.
• Kennedy’s successor, Johnson, by deciding to Americanize the Vietnam War, reversed the process JFK had set in motion.
• Thus, we believe the identity of the occupant of the White House made all the difference: between a conflict that would have become little more than a footnote in U.S. history if Kennedy had lived, and the catastrophe we now know as the American war in Vietnam and in which millions perished.
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.
In April 2005 we organized a critical oral history conference devoted to the question of whether or not JFK probably would have escalated the war in Vietnam if he had lived and been re-elected. The most relevant declassified documents and transcripts of formerly secret Kennedy and Johnson audiotapes filled the conference briefing notebooks of the participants. And top scholars of the war, who came from across the spectrum on this key issue, grilled former officials of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. They included LBJ’s all-purpose aide and press secretary Bill Moyers, former State Department intelligence chief Thomas Hughes and Chester Cooper, who was the principal Vietnam expert serving National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy. The former officials were not shy about what they believed the scholars had gotten wrong in interpreting the declassified documents. The critical oral history conference produced a scintillating argument, in the best sense of the word argument: people stated opposing positions, argued hard for their views and listened carefully to what those with opposing views were saying. Some revised their views on the question of what a surviving JFK would have done and some did not. The annotated record of that path-breaking conference, complete with excerpts from the most illuminating formerly secret documents, is the empirical heart of our book “Virtual JFK.”
By combining these elements—former officials, declassified documents and scholars of the war—the conferees participated in a historical thought experiment. In this thought experiment, the only factor that varies to any significant degree is the identity of the president—that is, JFK before his Nov. 22, 1963, assassination, and LBJ after Nov. 22, 1963. The outcome of interest is whether or not the U.S. president sent combat troops to South Vietnam, and whether he initiated U.S. bombing in both South and North Vietnam. Caveat: Of course, history never allows for an “experiment” in the scientific sense of the term. History never repeats itself—not exactly—and its variables cannot be manipulated the way the scientific method requires the manipulation of independent variables, in the service of making causal connections to the dependent variables. That said, however, all the participants in the critical oral history exercise recounted in “Virtual JFK” agreed that the JFK-LBJ-Vietnam conundrum comes as close as we are ever likely to get in a historical example to something approximating scientific rigor.
The thought experiment is plausible because LBJ, for various reasons discussed at length in “Virtual JFK,” retained all the senior members of JFK’s national security team, including the “Big Three”: Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy. Moreover, these key advisers gave LBJ the same advice they gave JFK. All three had argued from the outset of the Kennedy administration that the U.S. should send large numbers of combat troops to Vietnam to save the Saigon government from a communist takeover. Kennedy said no, repeatedly and forcefully, and eventually convinced McNamara to become the principal architect of the withdrawal of U.S. advisers from Vietnam. Within days, or even hours, of LBJ’s accession to the presidency, these same advisers made to him the same argument they had made to Kennedy. The argument was: U.S. troops are needed in Vietnam. If you, as president, fail to guarantee the security of our ally in Saigon, the U.S. reputation will be tarnished irrevocably, another “domino” will fall to the communists, and your presidency will probably be judged a failure—the moment when the Free World began to collapse in earnest. We now know in great detail when, to whom and on what basis JFK said no to these arguments. We also know the details of LBJ’s response, given less than 48 hours after Johnson took the oath of office. It was “win the war.”
Same advisers. Same conflict. Same dire predictions. Same recommendations. But a different president. And an utterly different outcome. Conclusion: It was the president who made the difference. It was the president who was determinative in keeping the nation out of war or leading the nation into war.
Avoiding Escalation vs. Avoiding Defeat
The declassified documents and oral testimony now available strongly suggest that in his attitude and decisions on the war JFK was poles apart from LBJ. Over and over again, Kennedy acted to avoid unintended escalation. He worried that having gotten into a conflict, there might be no non-catastrophic way out. Kennedy was certainly no pacifist. But he was skeptical of military advice—skeptical of the typical military confidence in the armed services’ ability to achieve their objectives with acceptable costs and risks. JFK’s skepticism derived from many sources. He had fought in the Pacific in World War II and seen firsthand the extraordinary degree to which war eludes human control, or even human understanding. And he never forgot the overconfidence and delusionary assessments and advice he received in the run-up to his decision to allow the doomed Bay of Pigs invasion to go forward.
LBJ, with no combat experience or significant military experience of any kind, was highly insecure around military advisers. Equally, he was also almost pathologically anxious about appearing to be the first president to “lose” a war that his military and civilian advisers told him must be fought. In fact, it is now quite clear from the documentary record that LBJ’s core concern was losing, or even the appearance of losing. Chief among his worries was that his military advisers might leak stories to the press or the Congress that he was preventing the U.S. military from achieving its objectives—whether it was intimidating the Soviet Union at the nuclear level or winning the war against the communists in Vietnam. Just as Kennedy was no pacifist, Johnson was no warmonger. He was aware of the risks of escalation, but unlike Kennedy he thought he could keep escalation under control in Vietnam via micro-managing the war from the Oval Office. He also hoped, despite receiving a good deal of evidence to the contrary, that superior U.S. military power might eventually bring the Vietnamese communists to their knees and to the conference table. JFK never believed that regular U.S. combat forces could prove decisive in a civil conflict like the one in Vietnam. Thus LBJ was much more amenable to reiterated lamentations, doomsday predictions and pressure to escalate from advisers who told him, as they had told Kennedy, that without U.S. military intervention in Vietnam, countries of the so-called free world might topple over “like a row of dominos,” as President Dwight Eisenhower had said in April 1954.
This, then, was the core difference that made all the difference: Kennedy’s bottom line was avoiding uncontrollable escalation to a catastrophic conventional or nuclear war, while Johnson’s bottom line was avoiding a military defeat anywhere in the world, or even the appearance of a defeat. Kennedy, too, worried about defeat, of course. After all, he was president during that phase of the Cold War when many on both sides of the East-West divide characterized the competition in winner-take-all terms. But Kennedy was prepared to take his chances at limiting the political fallout from an outcome that his political opponents in the U.S. might try to characterize as a military defeat. JFK had shown at the outset of his presidency that even the tragic and humiliating Bay of Pigs invasion could be successfully framed from the “bully pulpit” of the U.S. presidency as a mistake from which he intended to learn, and which could have been much worse for U.S. interests if he had gone along with the invasion and air attack that many of his advisers had urged on him.
The antithetical nature of the bottom lines of these two presidents was, we believe, the principal reason why there was no American war in Vietnam before JFK’s assassination and why, in retrospect, it seems to have become almost inevitable after LBJ assumed the presidency, given the ever-worsening situation on the ground in South Vietnam.
‘Virtual JFK,’ Obama, McCain and Vietnam
What about the 2008 U.S. presidential election? In matters of war and peace, what do we want the bottom line of our next president to be? Should it be to avoid war, and the unintended escalation of war? Or do we want the next president’s bottom line in foreign affairs to be the avoidance of defeat (or retreat, or conciliation, or something less than unconditional victory)? How do the two presidential candidates fit into this historical context? Can the JFK-LBJ-Vietnam quasi-“experiment” help us decide whom we want to elect as president this year?
We believe it can. One candidate, John McCain, shares many of the assumptions of those in the Bush administration who launched the war in Iraq and the occupation of that country. McCain does not in the least regret the Bush decision to invade Iraq. He does not even regret the occupation of Iraq, which has destabilized the entire Middle East and brought untold suffering to millions of people. On the contrary, McCain often seems eager to expand the American presence in the region. He has even suggested on many occasions that he favors war with Iran, a country roughly three times the size of Iraq, with a large military establishment and a recent history of anti-American zeal.
In fact, McCain often sounds more hawkish with regard to Iraq than even some Bush loyalists. Bush has said from time to time, for example, that he could imagine a U.S. presence in Iraq for 50 years. But McCain has said during the campaign that he would have the U.S. stay in Iraq for a hundred years if necessary—if that is what it takes to bring to power in Baghdad a stable, democratic government on the U.S. model, congenial to U.S. interests. It was unnerving to hear to this potential occupant of the White House speak so casually and confidently, on Jan. 3, 2008, in New Hampshire, about a hundred years of war and occupation.
Just to put the hypothetical hundred-year benchmark in the context of America’s involvement in Vietnam: U.S. combat troops fought in Vietnam for eight years; significant numbers of U.S. advisers were in Vietnam 19 years. At the end of these eight years, or 19 years, depending on one’s definition of “involvement,” more than 2 million Vietnamese and more than 58,000 Americans had been killed. Today, five and a half years into the U.S. military occupation of Iraq, more than a million Iraqis have been killed, by some credible estimates, and more than 4,000 Americans have lost their lives. Based on what has happened so far in Iraq, the math over the hundred-year occupation that McCain finds acceptable is deeply disturbing.
John McCain’s critics have characterized him as a trigger-happy, muddle-headed advocate of military solutions to international political problems. Some see this as the inevitable residue of his career as a “top gun” Navy pilot during the Vietnam War. His supporters, on the other hand, see McCain as a strong defender of U.S. interests who will not back down, who will not betray an ally (like Israel, or the current Baghdad government) and who will not coddle an enemy who understands only the language of force.
The other candidate, Barack Obama, opposed the invasion of Iraq and has pledged, if elected president, to withdraw U.S. personnel from Iraq as soon as that can be done in an orderly and dignified way. Moreover, Obama has said he prefers talking to enemies rather than attacking them or threatening to attack them. He has said he believes that military force should be used to resolve conflicts of national interest only as a last resort. Obama’s critics see him as too inclined toward trying to reason with unreasonable adversaries (like Iran, with whose leaders Obama has said he would talk without pre-conditions). McCain and his supporters have characterized Obama as an Ivy League rhetorician who is too naive and too indecisive to apply military force when it is needed, a man wholly unsuited to the dangerous new world of Islamic fundamentalism, a resurgent, anti-Western and belligerent Russia, and the Chinese behemoth. Obama’s supporters, however, see him as a thoughtful, nuanced, cautious leader who could deal with an increasingly complex, interconnected and chaotic international arena.
We have witnessed during the 2008 campaign frequent comparisons between the two candidates for president, on the one hand, and the leaders and events of the early to mid-1960s on the other. Often the Vietnam dimension is implicit, but sometimes it is quite explicit. Early in the 2008 campaign, former JFK aide and speechwriter Theodore Sorensen said that he endorsed Obama because Obama had evinced good judgment and a calm demeanor—which he characterized as very JFK-like. Others have seen something similar in Obama: the same skepticism, the same resistance to panic, the same ironical wit that JFK displayed as president. New York Times columnist David Brooks recently revealed that, in response to an offhand question from Brooks about the American theologian and philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr, Obama “for the next twenty minutes gave a perfect description of Niebuhr’s thought, which is a very subtle thought process, based on the idea that you have to use power while it corrupts you.” We note that JFK believed Niebuhr was the most important political philosopher of his time.
Many regard this kind of calmness and resistance to making snap judgments based on advice from bellicose advisers as one of Obama’s strongest traits. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote recently that he fears if John McCain had been president during the Cuban missile crisis we would recall that event not as a crisis but as “World War III”—assuming that anyone remained to recall it. Kristoff endorses Obama. Why? Because Kristof believes that McCain’s instincts lead him to snap decisions, pre-emptive decisions, meant to “beat the other guy to the punch.” Kristof’s reference to the Cuban missile crisis suggests that he believes a McCain-like president in October 1962 would have agreed with the preponderance of JFK’s advisers then who initially recommended an air attack on Cuba and an invasion. Such an invasion, if militarily successful, would have resulted in the U.S. occupation and governance of the island under difficult circumstances, against a force of tough Cuban and Russian fighters numbering in the hundreds of thousands. In other words, as Cuban veterans from that era have said on many occasions, the U.S. would have had its “Vietnam” in Cuba—a guerrilla war the U.S. was unlikely to win and from which it would eventually have withdrawn in defeat.
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.
In 1999 one of us (JGB) wrote a book co-authored with the former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. The book was called “Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy.” Chapter 7 was co-authored with the distinguished military historian and Vietnam veteran Col. Herbert Y. Schandler. He explained to our satisfaction why John McCain’s retrospective fantasy was, and is, just that. Schandler makes this basic point: The U.S. had taken over the war from the South Vietnamese in 1965 because our allies were corrupt, incompetent and collapsing. The U.S. fought the war for them for more than a half-dozen more years, to the point of a military standoff—but a standoff maintained at a horrible and unsustainable cost in blood and treasure. Any objective observer of the situation in Vietnam in the early 1970s, which is when McCain and his fellow travelers believe the U.S. was on the verge of winning, could see easily that the minute the U.S. pulled out—as it inevitably must pull out from all such arenas following a military intervention—the Saigon government would collapse. That is exactly what happened.
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.
Collage: AP photo / Chip Somodevilla, pool / Wikimedia Commons