USE PAYS A PRICE FOR IGNORANCE OF HISTORY
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Harry S Truman, one of America's greatest presidents, never stopped being a student of history.
In his memoirs, Truman said he learned early on that "almost all current events in the affairs of governments and nations have their parallels and precedents in the past. It was obvious to me even then (as a grade schooler) that a clear understanding of administrative problems presupposes a knowledge of similar ones as recorded in history and of their disposition."
Truman was a voracious reader of history from childhood on and he believed that this, more than anything, prepared him to be president.
"Long before I ever considered going into public life I had arrived at the conclusion that no decision affecting the people should be made impulsively, but on the basis of historical background and careful consideration of the facts as they exist at the time," wrote Truman. "History taught me that the leader of any country, in order to assume his responsibilities as a leader, must know the history of not only his own country, but of all the other great countries, and that he must make the effort to apply this knowledge to the decisions that have to be made for the welfare of all the people."
Our current president seems not to have learned this. If he had, we might not be in the mess that we're in now in Iraq.
The parallels between President Bush in September 2003 and Lyndon Johnson in March 1968 are worth examining.
Granted, there are many elements of the experience of the Vietnam War that aren't applicable to what's happening in Iraq. The Cold War is over, and no one talks about the struggle against communism anymore. The fighting in Iraq is nowhere near as bloody as it was in Vietnam, and U.S. forces in Iraq aren't facing an organized and well-supplied foe as they did in Vietnam. And all sides of the political spectrum are in agreement that there has to be some sort of American presence in Iraq, albeit in conjunction with the United Nations.
But there are plenty of similarities. Johnson inherited the mess in Vietnam from President Kennedy, the mess which Kennedy inherited from President Eisenhower. In 1964, there was a chance that we could have - in the words that Vermont Senator George Aiken said a couple of years later - declared victory and got out. Instead, the decision was made to escalate. As U.S. involvement grew, so did the realization that we were slowly being sucked into an unwinnable war.
President Bush apparently didn't heed the main lessons of Vietnam - mainly, don't go off into a war without a clear reason for doing so and don't go to war unless you have a clear exit strategy.
There was little doubt that U.S. forces would prevail in an invasion of Iraq. But no one in the White House or the Pentagon seemed to bother to plan for what would follow the initial victories on the battlefield. Calls for additional troops for the post-war occupation were ignored in the pre-war planning. Warnings that the post-war occupation might degenerate into a low-level guerrilla war were ignored.
Echoes of the old "domino theory" could be heard in President Bush's Aug. 31 speech. One of the big reasons that was always given for fighting in Vietnam was that we needed stem the tide of communism. If the commies took over southeast Asia, the logic went, the next place we'd be fighting them would be in Santa Barbara.
President Bush justified the invasion of Iraq by saying that "we are fighting the enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan today so that we do not meet him again on our own streets." But the guys taking pot shots at U.S. soldiers in Iraq aren't going to be booking flights to New York City anytime soon. The resistance in Iraq, as it was in Vietnam, is homegrown. If there are any fighters allied with al-Qaeda in Iraq, they are there for the chance to kill Americans without having to go through the bother of forging visas and sneaking into the U.S.
President Bush also seems to have missed the big economic lesson of Vietnam - the cost of waging a war that has no clear end date will eventually harm the U.S. economy.
Lyndon Johnson tried to get away with it. The U.S. economy was robust enough in the 1960s that Johnson believed the nation could wage war in Vietnam and still be able to pay for Medicare, Head Start and the other assorted programs of his "Great Society." But the seeds of the inflation and rising interest rates of the 1970s were sown by Johnson's decision to have both guns and butter. Ultimately, it couldn't be done without massive deficit spending.
President Bush isn't dispensing any butter, except for the huge tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations that he pushed through Congress. But he thinks we can come up with an extra $87 billion (an estimate that experts say is about $60 billion too low) to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and not have to rescind the tax cuts.
The cost of this is easy to see. The Congressional Budget Office just pegged the federal deficit for fiscal year 2004 at a record $475 billion and estimates that the deficits by the end of this decade will total nearly $1.4 trillion. That's quite a turnaround from the $5.6 trillion surplus that the CBO projected at the beginning of this decade.
With the 2004 election coming up fast, President Bush now finds himself in the position that Lyndon Johnson was in in 1968 - stuck in an increasingly unpopular war that has spun out of his control.
Thirty-five years after the most horrible year in American history, we again are watching our nation stuck in a foreign land on a mission that was launched with good intentions but soon turned into a quagmire.
Johnson did the honorable thing in 1968. Faced with a divided nation that came to see the Vietnam War as an unwinnable folly, he chose not to run for re-election.
It's highly unlikely that President Bush will do the same. But a guy can dream, can't he?
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).