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Tug of War | The Nation

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Tug of War

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Lyndon Johnson arrived in the Oval Office even less keen on fighting a major war in Southeast Asia than his predecessor had been. But LBJ retained most of Kennedy's national security advisers, who were more eager than ever to press what they viewed as the US advantage over the Communists. As early as December 1963, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was promising American officials in Saigon that "we will escalate the conflict to whatever level is required to ensure their defeat."

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Andrew J. Bacevich
Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, is the editor of the...

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Persuading a reluctant President to endorse that proposition took the next fourteen months. The high points included Congressional passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Porter persuasively depicts this episode not as LBJ pulling a fast one on Congress so much as the hardliners conspiring to circumvent Johnson's inhibitions about bombing the north. Toward that end, the odious McNamara deliberately withheld from his President details indicating just how ambiguous the Tonkin Gulf incident had been.

After Johnson won the presidency in his own right, the hardliners ratcheted up the pressure. Again, their insistence on further escalation was driven by an unshakable confidence in US military superiority. In the fall of 1964, national security adviser William Bundy went so far as to assure Johnson that "both Hanoi and Peiping are anxious not to become involved in the kind of war in which the great weight of US weaponry could be brought against them." The other side could be counted on to shrink from the prospect of fighting Americans.

Action was seen as having no downside, while inaction implied weakness. By January 1965 Johnson's top national security advisers were all but taunting him for being pusillanimous. The people of South Vietnam "see the enormous power of the United States withheld," wrote McNamara and McGeorge Bundy in a joint memo, "and they get little sense of firm and active U.S. policy." To persist in what they described as an "essentially passive role" would "lead to eventual defeat and an invitation to get out in humiliating circumstances"--for which Johnson, not they, would take the blame. The time had come, McNamara and Bundy insisted, to "use our military power in the Far East...to force a change in Communist policy." This time Johnson capitulated: Operation Rolling Thunder commenced; contingents of US Marines, followed by an ever swelling number of Army troops, began coming ashore.

Persuasive in its own terms, Porter's study raises several important second-order issues. The first issue poses the question: Who exactly is in charge? The second relates to what we might call the actual sources of American conduct. A third suggests the need to recast the entire narrative of the cold war.

Depending on whether or not their own guy happens to be in office, most Americans tend either to celebrate presidential leadership or to bemoan the excesses of an imperial presidency. In either case, at least since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, Americans have assumed that the occupant of the Oval Office actually runs the show--that Presidents command the loyalty of their subordinates, exercise effective control over their Administration and make decisions that others faithfully implement. Perils of Dominance suggests that this model is largely a fiction. All three Presidents considered in this study engaged in a continuous struggle to retain the reins of authority. Of the three, only Eisenhower achieved even a modicum of success. In each case, as Porter notes, "the national security bureaucracy acted as an independent power center within the US government with the right to pressure the president on matters of war and peace."

The political competition that gets all the ink is the visible one pitting Democrats against Republicans. The competition that matters is the largely hidden one between Presidents ultimately accountable to the people and "unelected national security managers" accountable to no one. These national security chieftains constitute a sort of permanent war party. When hawking their wares, they speak movingly of their commitment to freedom, democracy and human rights. When they step away from the podium and the TV cameras, values take a back seat to considerations of power. For McNamara and the Bundy brothers in their day, as for Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz in our own, the prospect of gratification lay not in husbanding power but in using it. In fevered minds, the imagined risks of inaction loom large; the benefits of action loom larger still. Applied to a world not nearly as malleable as the national security elite imagines, this logic yields not only Vietnam but also Iraq.

Finally, there is the historical period remembered as the cold war. A bipolar order, West versus East, the United States committed to a defensive posture called "containment": Perils of Dominance calls all of these into question. Reality, this account suggests, was far more complex and ambiguous, certainly in the 1950s and '60s but by implication in the 1970s and '80s as well. Teasing out that more complex version of US policy in the postwar decades just might shed light on America's transformation from defender of the Free World to militarized global hegemon. Gareth Porter has gotten that project off to an exceptionally fine start.

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