Vietnam War

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.

Rating America’s Wars

In “Why We Should (and Should Not) Fight” I say that

American armed forces should be used only to preserve, protect, and defend the interests of Americans.

I ended that post with an assessment of the engagements in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. But what about earlier American wars? Here are my thumbnail assessments of them (the dates indicate years in which U.S. forces were involved in combat):

Indian Wars (1637-1918). This long, episodic battle with Native Americans was justified when the purpose was to defend Americans and justly condemned when the purposes were genocide and theft  of Indian lands by force or fraud. There is probably much more to be ashamed of than to be proud of in the history of the Indian Wars.

Revolutionary War (1775-1783). The struggle for self-government deserves praise whether the motivation was liberty in general or the economic interests of colonial planters, merchants, and manufacturers. The latter is a subset of the former, and the outcome of the war served both ends. In that regard, many of the leaders of the armed struggle also became prominent figures in the establishment of the Articles of Confederation and Constitution. Both documents were aimed at preserving and extending the liberty for which the revolution was waged.

War of 1812 (1812-1815). A leading cause of this war was the imposition by Britain of restrictions intended to impede American commerce with France. That, alone, would have justified the war if Britain could not be dissuaded by peaceful means, which it could not be. The U.S. had other legitimate grievances: impressment of American sailors into the British navy and British support of Indian raids in the Northwest Territory. The War of 1812 was, in effect, a belated and creditable resumption of the Revolutionary War.

Mexican-American War (1846-1848). The proximate cause of the war was the attempt by Mexico to retake Texas, which had won independence from Mexico in 1836 and annexed itself to the United States in 1845. The resulting war enabled the U.S. to acquire from Mexico — for $18,250,000 — land that is now California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, most of Arizona and Colorado, and parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming. The U.S. was right to prosecute the war and entirely reasonable about the terms and conditions for resolving it.

Civil War (1861-1865). The war that is still being fought (with words) by many Americans pitted the morally reprehensible Southern defenders of slavery against Northerners, led by Abraham Lincoln, who hewed to the dubious proposition that secession is impermissible under the Constitution. The Civil War can be justified only in that it ended slavery in the United States, which was not Mr. Lincoln’s original aim in prosecuting it.

Spanish-American War (1898). This unnecessary war was fought on the excuse of Spanish atrocities in Cuba and the still-mysterious sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor. It was in fact an exercise in imperialism through which the U.S. acquired the dubious honor of controlling Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines — altogether more trouble than they were worth. It is especially galling that Theodore Roosevelt rode the Spanish-American War to fame, and eventually to the imperial presidency.

World War I (1917-1918). The immediate cause of the entry of the United States into this war was German acts of belligerence — sabotage and the sinking of U.S. merchant ships. Those acts were aimed at preventing the U.S. from selling war supplies to Britain. Germany, in other words, was sorely provoked, and the U.S. government could not realistically claim to be a neutral party in what was really a European war, with Asian and African sideshows involving opportunistic attacks on German interests in those regions. Had the U.S. stayed neutral and avoided war, Germany might have won, though a stalemate was more likely. In either event, an exhausted Germany would hardly have been a threat to the U.S., and might even have welcomed trade with the U.S. as it rebuilt in the post-war years. All of this was last in the anti-German hysteria of the time, which played well to the super-majority of Americans whose roots were in the British Isles. It is pure hindsight to say that a victorious or stalemated Germany probably would not have produced the Third Reich, but true nevertheless. America’s entry into World War I was a mistake, in any event, but it turned out to be a horrendously costly one.

World War II (1941-1945). While Anglo-American and French politicians pursued the illusion that peace could be maintained through diplomacy and treaties, Adolf Hitler and Japan’s military caste pursued dominion through conquest. The Third Reich and Empire of the Rising Sun failed to dominate the world only because of (a) Hitler’s fatal invasion of Russia, (b) Japan’s wrong-headed attack on Pearl Harbor, and (c) the fact that the United States of 1941 had time and space on its side. Had the latter not been true, Americans could well have found themselves cut off from the world — and much the poorer for it — if not enslaved. World War II clearly ranks just behind the War of 1812 as the most necessary war in America’s post-Revolutionary history.

Cold War (1947-1991). This necessary, long, and costly “war” of deterrence through preparedness enabled the U.S. to protect Americans’ legitimate economic interests around the world by limiting the expansion of the Soviet empire. The Cold War had some “hot” moments and points of high drama. Perhaps the most notable of them was the so-called Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, which was not the great victory proclaimed by the Kennedy administration and its political and academic sycophants. (For more on this point, go here and scroll down to the section on Kennedy.) That the U.S. won the Cold War because the USSR’s essential bankruptcy was exposed by Ronald Reagan’s defense buildup is a fact that only left-wingers and dupes will deny. They continue to betray their doomed love of communism by praising the hapless Mikhail Gorbachev for doing the only thing he could do in the face of U.S. superiority: surrender and sunder the Soviet empire. America’s Cold War victory owes nothing to LBJ (who wasted blood and treasure in Vietnam), Richard Nixon (who would have sold his mother for 30 pieces of silver), or Jimmy Carter (whose love for anti-American regimes and rebels knows no bounds).

Korean War (1950-1953). The Korean War was unnecessary, in that it was invited by the Truman administration’s policies: exclusion of Korea from the Asian defense perimeter and massive cuts in the U.S. defense budget. But it was essential to defend South Korea so that the powers behind North Korea (Communist China and, by extension, the USSR) would grasp the willingness of the U.S. to maintain a forward defensive posture against aggression. That signal was blunted by Truman’s decision to sack MacArthur when the general persisted in his advocacy of attacking Chinese bases following the entry of the Chinese into the war. The end result was a stalemate, where a decisive victory might have broken the back of communistic adventurism around the globe. The Korean War, as it was fought by the U.S., became “a war to foment war.”

Vietnam War (1965-1973). Whereas the Korean War was a necessary war against communist expansionism, the Vietnam War was an unnecessary entanglement in a civil war in which one side happened to be communist. Nevertheless, the U.S., having made a costly commitment to the prosecution of the war, should have fought it to victory. Instead, unlike the case of Korea, U.S. forces were withdrawn and it took little time for North Vietnam to swallow South Vietnam. American resolve suffered a body blow, from which it rebounded only partially by winning the Cold War, thanks to Reagan’s defense buildup in the 1980s. When it came to actual warfare, however, Vietnam repeated and reinforced the pattern of compromise and retreat that had begun with the Korean War, and which eventuated in the 9/11 attacks.

Gulf War (1990-1991). This war began with Saddam Hussein’s invasion of oil-rich Kuwait. U.S. action to repel the invasion was fully justified by the potential economic effects of Saddam’s capture of Kuwait’s petroleum reserves and oil production. The proper response to Saddam’s aggression would have been not only to defeat the Iraqi army but also to depose Saddam. The failure to do so further reinforced the pattern of compromise and retreat that had begun in Korea, and necessitated the long, contentious Iraq War of the 2000s.

The quick victory in Iraq, coupled with the coincidental end of the Cold War, helped to foster a belief that the peace had been won. (That belief was given an academic imprimatur in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man.) The stage was set for Clinton’s much-ballyhooed fiscal restraint, which was achieved by cutting the defense budget. Clinton’s lack of resolve in the face of terrorism underscored the evident unwillingness of American “leaders” to defend Americans’ interests, thus inviting 9/11.  (For more about Clinton’s foreign and defense policy, go here and scroll down to the section on Clinton.)

Which leads us back to the wars and skirmishes of the 21st century.