Ronald Reagan and the Imperial Presidency | The Nation


Ronald Reagan and the Imperial Presidency

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Ronnie Dugger
Ronnie Dugger is the author of The Politician, a biography of Lyndon Johnson, and other books and articles, the...

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The fiftieth anniversary celebrations of Johnson’s Great Society agenda should not overlook the travesties of the war. 

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The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan also provoked Reagan's call, early this year, for the stationing of U.S. troops in Pakistan. Discussing what the U.S. advisers would do in Pakistan, he said, "They would go to the country we have a treaty with, Pakistan, and that training could be provided there." Next he suggested stationing U.S. warplanes in Pakistan to signal Russia that continued aggression would lead to confrontation. Asked how many planes he had in mind, he said it could be no more than a squadron.

Then Reagan said he would be willing for the United States to abandon its efforts to prevent Pakistan from developing an atomic bomb, if, in return, it would agree to let our planes in. Did this mean he was not opposed to Pakistan acquiring a nuclear bomb? "Yes," he replied. Two hours later, attempting to counter the shockwaves his statement set off, Reagan revealed that he thinks the United States might as well stop resisting the spread of nuclear weapons: "India next door has them [nuclear weapons]. And India is very hostile to Pakistan.... What I am saying is that we have not succeeded [in halting proliferation]. The United States seems to be the only nation that is trying to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons."

Vietnam--the 'Noble Cause'

A further idea of how Reagan would employ U.S. military power if he was President can be gleaned from his attitudes during the Vietnam War. He went as far as anyone holding high office in calling for all-out war on North Vietnam. In October 1965, for example, after Lyndon Johnson had sent in troops and U.S. bombing of North Vietnam had become a pattern, Reagan said, "We should declare war on North Vietnam. We could pave the whole country and put parking stripes on it and still be home by Christmas." In the fall of 1967, Reagan said the United States should "impose its full resources to end it as soon as possible"--should "commit all the power we need to win a victory as quickly as possible."

Unmistakably, his mind had turned to nuclear weapons. Did he propose they be used in Vietnam? "No one would cheerfully want to use atomic weapons," he said. "But the last person in the world that should know we wouldn't use them is the enemy: He should go to bed every night being afraid that we might." The Korean War was halted, he recalled, after the United States "let the word get to the enemy by way of certain neutral sources that we were considering the use of atomic weapons."

Trying to fight in Vietnam with foot soldiers was wrong, he said, "when there are forces like Russia and China--Asia, generally--that can outman us." Instead, "the full technological resources of the United States" should be used, he said. Again--nukes? "Well...nuclear weapons, we hope, would not be resorted to," he said in 1967. In midsummer 1968, with peace in the wind, he said nuclear weapons were "neither necessary nor desirable in this conflict," though he thought we should not have assured everyone they would not be used. When the peace talks with the North Vietnamese got underway he said the United States should set a deadline in the negotiations and if it wasn't met, "kick the devil" out of them. Threatening invasion would be "a pretty good threat to hold over their heads" in the Paris peace talks, he said; and he implied he'd prefer the atomic threat by alluding again to Dwight Eisenhower's message to the Chinese in 1953 that the United States was going to "review its options with regard to weapons, theaters of operation, manners of fighting, and so forth." Reagan said, "The same thing...should be true in the Paris negotiations." As the Nixon Republicans took over the war, the Governor out on the Coast fell relatively quiet. But the sudden collapse of the South Vietnamese and the chaotic U.S. pullout reheated his bellicosity. Congress had lost Vietnam by acting "more irresponsibly than any Congress in our history" and had "blood on their hands," he said in early May 1975. By the month's end he was asking, "Can anyone think for one moment that North Vietnam would have moved to the attack had its leaders believed we would respond with B-52s?... B-52s should make a moonscape out of North Korea if South Korea is attacked."

Last August, Reagan was roundly cudgeled in the national press for an alleged blooper. At the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Chicago, he said: "For too long, we have lived with the 'Vietnam Syndrome.'... It is time we recognized that ours was, in truth, a noble cause." But the surprise was the media's surprise. Evidently the memories of reporters are even shorter than the memories of the people. As far as is known, there is not one scrap of evidence anywhere that Ronald Reagan has ever thought Vietnam was anything but a noble war. This tells more about his approach to the outside world than anything else can. Perhaps this is why most people preferred thinking he had blundered to realizing he had said what he believes.

When Johnson sent the Marines to Santo Domingo in 1965, Reagan did not comment, perhaps because he agreed. With Johnson's restraint when the North Koreans seized the U.S.S. Pueblo and her crew, however, Reagan violently disagreed: ''I cannot for the life of me understand why someone in the United States Government, particularly the President, has not said, 'That ship had better come out of that harbor in twenty-four hours or we are coming in after it.' " If the ship and men were not out pronto, he said he would tell Pyongyang, "We're coming in to get them, and we'll use planes, guns, torpedoes, whatever it takes."

A few days later, asked if there might not be retaliation against the crew, he replied, "if you are going to be overly concerned...as to whether the enemy is going to retaliate in any way...what number do we set the limit on? How many of our citizens can be kidnapped by a foreign power before...[we] do something about it?" Perhaps this attitude explains the truculence of his more recent proposals about the hostages in Iran. At any rate, Reagan later said he had not meant that he would have sent American warships into Wonsan Harbor to take back the Pueblo by force. The United States should have moved within the first twenty-four hours, he now said, possibly by blockading North Korea's shipping or by seizing one of its ships on the high seas. Johnson's decision not to act immediately, in Reagan's view, was "a continuation of the appeasement that started a long time ago." Johnson continued to forbear to attack, and the ship and crew were safely returned.

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