By William Pfaff
The pressure that has been on Barack Obama with respect to reinforcement of the war in Afghanistan resembles that placed on John F. Kennedy to send American combat troops to Vietnam during the 18 months before his assassination.
Kennedy made an early decision that displeased most of his staff as well as much of the Washington press and political establishment. It was not to send combat forces. He did not waver. The controversy continued, but he was able to contain it by leaving the matter open to debate while doing the strict minimum necessary to appease his aides, nearly all of whom were for sending troops.
He counted on the fact that one of the most effective ways to take a decision is to postpone it until it no longer is relevant. This is what Barack Obama has been able to do until now, while the evolution of political events in Afghanistan and Pakistan has steadily reduced the public pressure on him brought by the Pentagon and a revived and militarized American right.
Next week, when the president speaks to the country, one will learn his response to the demand for dramatic escalation that has been issued by Gens. David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, Pentagon adviser David Kilcullen and certain rejuvenated neoconservatives and others from the last administration determined to pursue the “long war” for what they see as permanent American global politico-military domination.
There is a lesson in the past. Before leaving office, President Dwight Eisenhower warned John F. Kennedy of the pitfalls before him in the entire area of Southeast Asia. Eisenhower recalled that in 1954, when France asked for U.S. intervention in support of the French troops besieged at Dien Bien Phu, he had refused the request because he could not accept without congressional approval and an indication of British support. At one meeting with his staff he had said that “without allies and associates,” military intervention would be the act of “an adventurer, like Genghis Khan.”
He also said that he had been elected in 1952 to end one war in Asia, in Korea, which might have become a total war with China, at a time when the United States had both allies and a U.N. mandate. To quote one of Eisenhower’s closest aides, he “was in no mood to provoke another one in Indochina.”
The new president, Kennedy, sought the advice of another eminent American soldier. He invited Douglas MacArthur to Washington.
According to Robert Kennedy’s account, MacArthur said that it would “be foolish to fight on the Asiatic continent” and that “the future ... should be determined at the diplomatic table.” Kenneth O’Donnell, a JFK aide, has added that MacArthur said to Kennedy that “there was no end to Asia and even if we poured a million American infantry soldiers into that continent, we would still find ourselves outnumbered on every side.”
Gen. Maxwell Taylor, Kennedy’s military adviser, said that MacArthur “made a hell of an impression on the president,” adding that when presented with further proposals from the Pentagon for military intervention, Kennedy would say, “Well, now, you gentlemen, you go back and convince Gen. MacArthur, then I’ll be convinced.”
Taylor said, “None of us undertook the task.”
Kennedy remained adamant. He was determined not to send American combat troops to Vietnam. In his first formal meeting on Southeast Asia, in January 1961, he had asked some of the same questions that today have been asked about reinforcement of the war in “Af-Pak.” If the situation is as serious as it is said to be, Kennedy asked, what good was a policy of training troops and national police who would not be available for many months?
McGeorge Bundy noted in 1961 that Kennedy posed another question that remains pertinent concerning Afghanistan and Pakistan today, asking “whether the situation was not basically one of politics and morale.”
The conclusion of Gordon M. Goldstein’s recent book, “Lessons in Disaster,” which makes use of McGeorge Bundy’s contemporary papers and his drafts for the collaborative memoir he and Goldstein had begun before Bundy’s death in 1996, is that Kennedy’s determination at the time of his assassination was to withdraw American advisers from Vietnam.
Bundy had favored intervention. He was one of the winners of the argument—or so it seemed—when he was one of those most influential in persuading incoming President Lyndon Johnson to go to war in 1964, a war that would continue for another nine years.
Among the papers Goldstein has used in his book is a memo from Bundy to Lyndon Johnson on May 4, 1967. This one said to the president, “The fact that South Vietnam has not been lost, and is not going to be lost, is a fact of truly massive importance in the history of Asia, the Pacific and the United States.”
Looking back at the memo, nearly 30 years after he had written it in triumph, he noted on it, for Goldstein to read and quote, “McGB all wrong.”
What was not wrong was that the decision Bundy had urged Johnson to take was indeed a decision of massive importance, as will be the decision Barack Obama announces next week.
Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at www.williampfaff.com.
© 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc.