Wednesday, December 9, 2009
U.S. history is littered with war blunders
President Obama would be wise to note that bad advice often precedes momentous wartime decisions.
By Robert Dallek
As President Obama moves ahead with his expansion of the war in Afghanistan, history suggests that he has a better chance of being wrong than right.
Judging from the experience of Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush, miscalculations about war and peace are all too common. Despite receiving counsel from the best and the brightest in each of their generations, these presidents received poor advice that each should have resisted.
Wilson's Fourteen Points of January 1918, which were an amalgam of high-minded progressive thinking, described a postwar world that was beyond reach: a peace without victors, disarmament, self-determination for nationalities, a world safe for democracy, and an end to war through collective security provided by a league of nations. It was a mirage that did nothing to prevent the rise of Nazism and the onset of another world war.
A costly mistake in Korea
Truman's miscalculation followed a series of wise steps between 1945 and 1950 in the emerging Cold War. The fact that realistic good sense — containment as played out in the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan — characterized his initial Cold War decisions was no assurance that he would get things right in the Korean conflict. His decision to beat back North Korea's attack on South Korea in June 1950 now enjoys almost universal approval as a sensible extension of the containment response to communist aggression.
Yet the decision to cross the 38th parallel in order to unify Korea under a representative government was a blunder that cost the United States, Koreans and Chinese considerable blood and treasure. Gen. Douglas MacArthur's advice that the Chinese would not enter the fighting if we crossed the parallel and that they would suffer a great defeat if they did, with American troops returning home in a matter of weeks, was the greatest miscalculation of his military career. Moreover, it destroyed Truman's presidency: Unable to end the war or put across the domestic reforms promised in his 1948 election campaign, his approval rating fell to 23%.
Kennedy's decision to accept the judgment of CIA and military advisers that Cuban exiles could topple Fidel Castro's Cuban government was a failure he could never forget. "How could I have been so stupid?" Kennedy repeatedly asked himself later.
No president stands out more for poor judgment in fighting a war than Johnson. His beliefs that he could defeat a communist insurgency in South Vietnam, that this could be done quickly and that it was vital to the national security in the larger Cold War struggle all proved to be wrong. Two of the principal architects of the war — Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy later acknowledged how unwise they had been in pressing the case for a war they retrospectively saw as unwinnable. Their views reinforced Johnson's mistaken assumptions and made it easier for him to push ahead on a policy that was a disaster, costing more than 50,000 American lives and even greater Vietnamese losses.
Nixon, who was burdened with ending U.S. involvement in Vietnam, mistakenly drew out American withdrawal over four years on the conviction that Vietnamization — the training of South Vietnamese forces to replace U.S. troops — was a viable option suggested by his military chiefs that would produce "peace with honor." Nixon would have done well to recall the Herculean efforts to supply and train Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist armies, who never performed effectively against either the Japanese or the communists during and after World War II. Vietnamization was another miscalculation in the miserable history of American involvement in Vietnam.
Recent missteps in Iraq
Bush's misadventures in Iraq are a familiar tale that is so fresh in American minds, it hardly needs repeating. Nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, more than 4,300 U.S. dead as well as tens of thousands of Iraqis, and a Middle East no more stable or inclined to embrace democracy are not the legacies that Bush, Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld intended.
By promising an early exit from Afghanistan, President Obama might be trying to avoid the catalogue of blunders that beset these predecessors. If pressure mounts to extend his withdrawal deadline, he would do well to remember JFK's refusal to take the advice of his military during the Cuban missile crisis, when Pentagon officials urged him to bomb Soviet missile installations on the island and some of them favored a follow-up invasion that would oust Castro.
Kennedy told his aide, Kenneth O'Donnell, "These brass hats have one great advantage in their favor. If we listen to them ... none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong."
President Obama could rue the day he listened to his military chiefs instead of the many Americans who doubt that an expanded war in Afghanistan is worth the cost in lives and dollars. As in past wars, should guns and butter prove to be incompatible, playing havoc with commitments to national health insurance, rigorous financial regulations and environmental protections, it could wreck his administration.
Presidential historian Robert Dallek's new book, The Lost Peace: Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope, will be published next year.
(1963: President Johnson confers with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara on Vietnam./AP file photo.)
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