President Johnson and other presidents, who had taken the country into seemingly endless wars, had often lied to the American people. It was the people who paid for these wars in countless ways.
The Bundy brothers, William and McGeorge, two Johnson advisers and the architects of the Vietnam War, were supporters of an America acting as policeman of the world. They gave their opinions years after the war.
Was the Vietnam War justified and was President Johnson honest with Americans?
“Well it depends on your point of view,” said William Bundy, who served as a State department undersecretary during the Vietnam War. “He (Johnson) was at certainly in my judgment at least as honest as many things that Franklin Roosevelt did in 1941. The trouble was this turned out badly and therefore looks much worse in history.”
Bundy’s brother, McGeorge Bundy, was Johnson’s national security adviser. Yet, years later, he became yet another former Vietnam hawk who seemed to have some doubts. He would testify to Congress in favor of legislation to limit the president’s ability to go to war without Congressional authorization. McGeorge Bundy had come a long way from his years of criticizing Senator Robert Taft’s isolationism.
Vietnam is yet another tragic war with a nation America didn’t have to fight, but such are the costs of world leadership and empire as this series has repeatedly documented. War is often a product of empire but also, more commonly, it is the result of blundering. It is the flawed belief that an intellectual or political elite, a “Best and Brightest,” knows best and we should follow their counsels in matters of war and peace. This tragic miscalculation is demonstrated by numerous historians writing about World War I, which was originally known as the Great War.
The Vietnam War was no “Good War” or “Splendid War.” There were no euphemisms that could sugarcoat its terrible costs: It wrecked the American economy. It turned young against old. It led to riots in major American cities. It continued the process of wrecking the constitutional balance that had once limited American presidents from acting like imperial monarchs who could unilaterally declare war. It destroyed many Americans’ faith in government, especially in the president who led the nation into war.
Indeed, the president of the United States during most of the Vietnam War, the same as President Wilson at the end of his second term, became a very unpopular man. By 1968, in some quarters president Lyndon Johnson, who just four years before had won a huge victory, was now detested. He, like Wilson and Truman before him, left office under a cloud of unpopularity that ended their careers.
The United States—-the same as France during the Algerian crisis—almost came apart. Wars can do that to a nation. Yet when the Vietnam War was eventually over in 1975, something familiar happened. Communist Vietnam and Communist China started fighting again. This was a rivalry that pre-dated Marx, Engels and Adam Smith.
The heritage of a president going around Congress and even popular opinion continued after the Vietnam War. Presidents, both Republican and Democrat, were citing the “unitary theory of the presidency.” This imperial presidential philosophy was still strong decades after Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson. We see this philosophy in both Iraq wars. Indeed, those three were all democratic presidents. Still, Republican presidents, who sought war on their terms, also started citing their actions as precedents.
Gulf War I
Iraq, with the mixed message from the U.S. Ambassador, forcibly acquired Kuwait, with many of its young men uninterested in defending the country. President George H.W. Bush announced “this will not stand.” He summoned a coalition of forces to take back Kuwait. He pledged to ask Congress for its approval, but did it really matter? No, it didn’t. He was determined to go to war, one of his advisers later admitted.
Dick Cheney, defense secretary in the first Bush government, later wrote in his memoirs, “President Bush wrote that if the vote had been negative, he still would have ordered the troops into battle.” Cheney, a former House member who also said he “loved” serving in Congress for a decade, argued that Bush had to go ahead with the Gulf War for the same reason that FDR had to go around Congress just before World War II. Congress, in the period between September and December 1941, Cheney wrote, had proven it couldn’t act effectively during periods of national crisis.
The vote in Congress for the first Gulf War was narrowly in the president’s favor. The U.S. killed tens of thousands of Iraqis. At the end of the war, Bush celebrated what he said was a great American victory (Something his son, George W. Bush, would also do in his presidency after his father’s. Later both seemed hollow victories). In an indication that a spark of the old American tradition of non-interventionism may still exist, George H.W. Bush also told fellow republicans that “leadership means standing against the voices of isolation.”
Apparently, the ghosts of Senator Robert Taft still spooked Bush. Taft’s prescient warnings in the 1940s were that an America as the policeman of the world would end up fighting “an endless war for an endless peace.” These warnings, this increasing feeling among many Americans that the country was overextended and should stop trying to police the world, still scared some in the American national security establishment even as they celebrated the first Iraqi War victory. It was a strange victory. It brought problems, not the least of which were economic.
The United States government, so hard up that it had to cage money from its allies to pay for the war, went into a recession. The latter often follows war. Bush was defeated for re-election in 1992. His defeat was caused, in part, because of disillusionment with the war. And disillusionment often is the result even of so-called victorious wars or splendid wars or good wars.
Post-war questioning has virtually become an American tradition. Victory has a bittersweet flavor. For example, thousands of Kurds—who had a sorry experience of failed promises of help from the West over many generations—fought with the coalition forces, then were slaughtered after the war once Hussein made peace.
Gulf War II
In 2003, George W. Bush was convinced that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction. So the U.S. went to war again. In the war, America was risking precious lives, treasure and constitutional values that are wearing away, allowing presidents to act as if Congress and the Constitution are invisible. Americans, in various polls, say they didn’t want more interventions around the globe.
President George W. Bush, who had surrounded himself with pro-war advisers after the 9/11 terrorist attack at the World Trade Center, seemed determined to go to war, no matter the evidence, according to his first Treasury Secretary, Paul O’Neill. President Bush, who former state department official George Kennan called “profoundly shallow,” admitted in his memoirs that the weapons of mass destruction were never found. (“Nobody was lying. We were all wrong….No one was more shocked or angry than I was when we didn’t find the weapons. I had a sickening feeling every time I thought about it.”).
Bush, a graduate of an Ivy league business school, was also “wrong” about economic history. In his memoirs, he also seems to have thought that FDR solved the Great Depression, Bush said he followed FDR’s counter cyclical/cheap money policies. These included bailing out preferred financial institutions policies once the market meltdown started in 2008.
These easy money creation policies were to be continued by his successor (Who, by the way, sent 30,000 more troops to Bush’s other war in Afghanistan. President Obama, challenged by former senator George McGovern, as reported in his book “What It Means to Be a Democrat,” said that’s what the “generals” told him to send the additional soldiers. McGovern replied that the American people elected Obama, not the generals). Easy money eventually had its costs: A financial meltdown triggered in large part by the cheap money policies of the Federal Reserve, nearly caused a depression in 2008.
Also contributing to the meltdown was the problems of a few huge, favored financial institutions. These were institutions that usually shared at least two characteristics: They engaged in proprietary trading and they contributed huge amounts to Senator Barack Obama when he ran for president the first time in 2008.
President Bush’s successor, President Obama, recently advocated American bombing in the Syrian Civil War. Some republicans sided with a president that they otherwise detest. They said “we must protect the prestige of the presidency.” However, millions of Americans flooded Congress with anti-war messages. Public opinion polls continue to show that Americans want their government to intervene less around the world. Mainstream media, many of which had pushed for the war against Iraq in 2003, often bemoans the rebirth of “isolationism.”
President Obama, who according to the memoirs of his former Defense Secretary ran for president because he “was bored in the Senate,” backs down on Syrian bombing. Later, after a U.S.-backed regime in Iraq runs into problems, the president will send troops back to Iraq.
The U.S. entered 2015 with danger points around the world. It considers sending more forces to Eastern Europe and the Far East, as a right-wing Japanese government talks tough about standing up to China. It moved U.S. forces up to the Russian border in a dispute over Ukraine that results in the West imposing an embargo on the Russian Federation.
The American foreign policy establishment, in both major parties, tries to ignore the critics, branding them as “isolationists” because they believe that the United States should stop acting as the world’s policeman. Yet despite the continued military presence of the United States in many parts of the world, peace always seems out of hand for America. It is a country with alliances and enemies all around the world.
The endless war warnings of foreign policy critics through the 20th and 21st centuries never seem to go away.
Gregory Bresiger is an independent business writer who has written Personal Finance for People Who Hate Personal Finance and MoneySense. Visit his blog at GregoryBresiger.com. He has a graduate degree in history from New York University. He is the author of the Road to the Permanent Warfare State.
(i) The title of this series comes from the pamphlets of the mid-Victorian, Little Englander MP, Richard Cobden. A radical and a free trader, Cobden opposed all the wars of his time. His opposition to the Crimean War led to his defeat on the hustings, although he was later returned to parliament. Cobden called war “a monster.” See “The Political Writings of Richard Cobden” (New York: Garland Publishing, 1973). See Vol 2, p. 503 for “What Next and Next?). For more on Cobden and the Little Englanders, see my article in the Journal of Libertarian Studies at mises.com
(ii) “The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy and William Bundy, Brothers in Arms,” Kai Bird, p 340 (Touchstone Books, New York, 2000).
(iii) “The Color of Truth,” p 398. For more on how great powers stumble into wars, see these books: “The Guns of August,” Barbara Tuchman, (Dell Publishing, New York) “The Sleepwalkers; How Europe Went to War in 1914,” Christopher Clark (Harper, New York, 1913).
(iv) The latter is a remarkable book because it verifies how a British government foreign minister, Lord Edward Grey, entered into a foreign alliance with the French with most of the Asquith government not having any idea what had happened or the extent of the obligation to France. Grey said the Anglo-French entente was unwritten, but was still binding.
(v) “Flawed Giant, Lyndon Johnson and His Times,” Robert Dallek, p 526, (Oxford University Press, New York, 1998)
(vi) “My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir,” by Dick Cheney (Simon & Shuster, New York, 2011), p 208, and p 204.
(vii) “A Republic, Not An Empire, Reclaiming America’s Destiny,” (Regnery, Washington, D.C., 1999) Patrick J. Buchanan, pp 47-48,
(viii) See “Wall Street Journal,” April 30, 2014, front page article “Americans Want to Pull Back from the World’s Stage.”
(ix) “The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House and the Education of Paul O’Neill,” Ron Susskind (Simon & Shuster, New York, 2004)
(x) “George Kennan, a Study in Character,” John Lukas, Penguin Press, New York)
(xi) See “Decision Points, p440. Here, Bush, speaking at the impending market meltdown, announces “You can be sure that I’m going to be a Roosevelt and not a Hoover.” Apparently George W. Bush never understood that FDR’s big spending policies never restored prosperity. See “America’s Great Depression” by Murray N. Rothbard.
(xii) Alan Greenspan, in his memoirs, admits that cheap money policies caused problems for the American economy. He writes, “I was aware that the loosening of mortgage credit terms for subprime borrowers increased financial risk, but I believed then, as now, that the benefits of broadened home ownership are worth the risk.” p 233, “The Age of Turbulence,” Alan Greenspan, (Penguin Press, New York, 2007).
(xiii) “He (Obama) once told me that he ran for president because he was so bored in the Senate.” The quote is from “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War.” Robert M. Gates, (Knopf, New York, 2014).