Presidents and War

This post is prompted by a recent exchange with former think-tank colleagues about H.R. McMaster‘s Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I’ve just started it, having until now steadfastly eschewed rehashes of the Vietnam War since its ignominious end. My assessment of LBJ’s handling of the Vietnam War is based entirely on my knowledge of the war as it unfolded and unraveled, and subsequent reflections on that knowledge. I’ll review McMaster’s book in a later post.

The president’s role as commander-in-chief is a two-edged sword. It was wielded ably by Lincoln and FDR (until the end-game in Europe), and badly by Truman, LBJ, Bush I, Bush II, and Obama.

Starting with Bush II, I believe that he made the right strategic decision, which was to bring the Middle East under control instead of leaving it hostage to the whims of Saddam. (Some will say that Saddam was contained, but — in my view — he was a threat to the Middle East if not to the U.S. as long as he was in power.) That may not have been what Bush intended, but that’s what he could have achieved, and would have achieved if he had committed the forces necessary to bring Iraq firmly under control. Instead, he followed Rumsfeld’s do-it-on-the-cheap advice for too long. Anyway, Bush got bogged down, much as LBJ had done with his “signalling” and gradualism in Vietnam. The 2007 surge might have turned things around, but Bush had run out of political capital and couldn’t commit the forces needed to stabilize Iraq for the long haul (and neutralize Iran), even if he had wanted to.

Obama then followed his anti-colonial impulses and converted potential stability into the mess that we see today.

Bush I set it all up when he declined the golden opportunity to depose Saddam in 1991.

Truman’s handling of the Korean War could be defended as making the best of a bad situation. But Truman’s decision to accept a stalemate instead of taking on the Chinese, as MacArthur urged, was a strategic miscalculation of the first order. It signaled to Russia and China the unwillingness of U.S. leaders to push back against Communist expansion. LBJ reinforced that signal in Vietnam. It took Reagan, who pursued a defense buildup in the face of chicken-little screams from the defeatist left, to push the USSR to its breaking point.

To paraphrase Andy Granatelli, you can pay now or pay later, but pay you will. I fear that the long-run price of the defense build-down under Obama will be high.

Lincoln, the Poet President

Seven score and ten years ago, Abraham Lincoln delivered a “little noted nor long remembered” speech at Gettysburg. The 150th anniversary of that speech is a fitting occasion on which to recall Lincoln’s poetic prose.

Lincoln ended his First Inaugural Address (March 4, 1861) with these words:

…We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (November 19, 1863) is no less majestic:

…we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Lincoln’s eloquence soared again in his Second Inaugural Address (March 4, 1865), delivered just weeks before the end of the Civil War:

…Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

The Hidden Tragedy of the Assassination of Lincoln

Two quotations set the stage:

Left out in Steven Spielberg’s cinematic work of hagiography, Lincoln, is the fact that, as scholar Phil Magness continues to show us, the sixteenth president was devoted until his dying day to a program of African colonization as a component of any scheme of black emancipation. In this, of course, Lincoln was hardly alone. Most of those nineteenth-century Americans–North and South–who condemned slavery believed in white superiority and the inability of the black race to co-exist with the white race in America. Lincoln believed this, as did Thomas Jefferson, as did many lesser known Americans…. [Stephen M. Klugewicz, “Emancipate But Colonize: Abe Lincoln, Matthew Carey, Robert Walsh, and the Antislavery Consensus”, The Imaginative Conservative, April 28, 2013]

In June of 1863 Abraham Lincoln entered into an agreement with the government of Great Britain to colonize recently freed African Americans in its West Indian colonies of Guiana and British Honduras (modern day Belize). [A document discovered in Belize] bears Lincoln’s endorsement of the project and was produced for Frederick Seymour, the colonial governor of British Honduras. It is one of four known first-generation copies. [From an entry at “Current Scholarship by Phillip W. Magness“; see also “New Revelations as the Emancipation Proclamation Turns 150“.]

Imagine life in America had Lincoln lived to finish his second term. A Republican Party less zealous to wreak vengeance on the South might have turned its attention to the colonization project, with these results:

  • Southern blacks would have been spared the cruelty, indignity, and privation that was their lot for a century after the end of the Civil War.
  • The black ghettos of the North — and all that goes with them — probably wouldn’t have been formed.
  • There would be far less crime; far less money spent on police, prosecutors, and courts; and far less money spent on prisons.
  • There would be far fewer illegitimate children and welfare mothers dependent on the dole.
  • Whites and Asians wouldn’t be punished for their non-existent sins by being deprived of jobs, promotions, and college admissions in favor of less-qualified blacks.
  • Honest, hard-working taxpayers wouldn’t be burdened with nearly as much “affordable” housing.
  • The kinds of low-down-payment, low-initial-interest loans that triggered the Great Recession probably wouldn’t have been pushed by members of Congress and federal agencies.
  • There wouldn’t be a powerful voting bloc that supports big government and the welfare state.
  • Congress and State legislatures wouldn’t be cluttered by big-government-pro-welfare-state black lawmakers who owe their seats to the dictates of the Voting Rights Act.
  • “Racism” wouldn’t be an issue; thus, Americans wouldn’t waste their time in “conversations” about race, and “white guilt” would be a nullity — as it should be.