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Jewish World Review
August 26, 2009
/ 6 Elul 5769
On May 27, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson had telephone
conversations about Vietnam with McGeorge Bundy, his national security
adviser, and Sen. Richard Russell, chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
First, to Bundy, he said: "It just worries the hell out of me. I don't see
what we can ever hope to get out of there. … I don't think that we can
fight them 10,000 miles away from home and ever get anywhere. … I don't
think it's worth fighting for, and I don't think we can get out. It's just
the biggest damn mess I ever saw. … What the hell is Vietnam worth to me?
… What is it worth to this country?"
In a second, 20-minute conversation that day with his friend
Sen. Russell, he said: "I've got lots of trouble. What do you think about
this Vietnam thing?" Russell responded: "It's the damn worst mess I ever
saw. … I'd get out. … It isn't important a damn bit."
Late in the conversation, President Johnson worried: "The
Republicans are going to make a political issue out of it. … Nixon,
Rockefeller and Goldwater all (are) saying let's move (and) let's go into
the North. … They'd impeach a president … that would run out. Wouldn't
Johnson went on to speak of a sergeant who was a father of six.
He ''works for me over there at the house,'' Johnson told Sen. Russell. Then
Johnson said: ''Thinking about sending (him) in there … and what the hell
we're going to get out of his doing it? It just makes the chills run up my
back.'' LBJ concluded the conversation by saying, "I haven't the nerve to do
it, but I don't see any other way out of it." (To listen to those
heartbreaking taped conversations, go to http://www.hpol.org/lbj/vietnam.)
As of that spring day in 1964, a total of 201 Americans had been
killed in Vietnam since 1956, according to the official records. A few
months later, the Gulf of Tonkin resolution was passed by Congress, and the
great escalation of our troop levels started. By the time we finally lost
the war and brought our boys home, another 57,992 American troops were
Of course, in 1964, only the president knew he was taping his
phone conversations. Publicly, Johnson said that it was a war we had to
fight and win and that we would win it. Now, of course, we know that he
believed we couldn't win even before he sent the first of those 57,992
American boys over there to die. And that he did it because he didn't have,
in his words, "the nerve" to follow his best judgment because he wouldn't
risk his own political danger, perhaps impeachment.
As painful as it is to consider the consequences of Johnson's
decisions, he was, for all his faults, no monster. And even the finest,
ethical leaders often find the pressures of politics powerfully encroaching
on their best policy judgments. (For example, in order to win, Franklin
Roosevelt ran publicly on a peace ticket in 1940, though he privately
believed American interests required us to get into World War II.)
Today President Barack Obama is on the cusp of a fateful policy
decision. He has argued consistently that the war in Afghanistan is
necessary to deny al-Qaida a base of terrorist operations and to stop the
Taliban insurrection from destabilizing nuclear Pakistan. But serious doubts
are being raised by many policy experts and an emerging majority of the
American and British publics as to whether we have a strategy and the
materiel to succeed. Even the optimists believe that a successful
counterinsurgency in Afghanistan (and needed as much in Pakistan) will
require several years of sustained commitment, with substantially more men
and materiel and a shrewder strategy (probably requiring modern nation
building of a traditional tribal society).
To have a reasonable chance at success, President Obama will
have to sustain the effort for years, which will require him to be at least
as determined and stubborn on behalf of this war as former President George
W. Bush was in fighting the Iraq war whatever one thought of Bush's
policy wisdom. It may be a lonely struggle at times for the president
because his strongest supporters (the Democratic Party, particularly its
progressive/liberal wing) are not by philosophy or recent history natural
supporters of military action; their support will be based largely on party
instincts. The war's natural supporters the hawkish right and center of
the Republican Party inevitably will have at least their enthusiasm
ameliorated by their party instincts.
Thus, President Obama has a hard decision to make. Because
things are going worse than expected in Afghanistan, it will take longer and
require more sacrifice of American blood and treasure to succeed (if we can
succeed even then) than was believed to be the case last year. Moreover,
political support for the president is likely to be uneven at best.
So in this already politically difficult summer of 2009,
President Obama must bring a higher level of intellectual integrity and
moral courage to his go/no-go war decision than Lyndon Johnson was capable
of 45 years ago. Notwithstanding his prior and current commitment to
prosecute the war in Afghanistan and notwithstanding the ambiguous
political effect of his decision he owes it to both himself and the many
young service members who soon may be shipping out to make a new, cold
calculation of whether he believes that he has a reasonable chance of
successfully leading us in this new stage of the war. I don't envy him his
job at the moment.
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Tony Blankley is executive vice president of Edelman public relations in Washington. Comment by clicking here.
© 2009, Creators Syndicate
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