Mr. Obama, his supporters say, is a “gloomy realist” who has learned history’s lesson: that American military power, no matter how great in relative terms, is ultimately of limited utility in conflicts that are, at their root, political or ideological in nature…But that history also shows that a President’s attitude and analytical assessment, no matter how gloomily realistic, are not necessarily an antidote to ill-advised military action. Foreign intervention has a logic all to itself…
Fifty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson authorised a strategic bombing campaign against targets in North Vietnam, an escalation of the conflict in Southeast Asia that was swiftly followed by the deployment of American ground troops. Last month, President Obama expanded a strategic bombing campaign against Islamic insurgents in the Middle East, escalating the attack beyond Iraq into Syria.
Will Mr. Obama repeat history and commit ground troops? Many analysts believe so, and top officials are calling for it. But the President has expressed skepticism about what American force can accomplish in this kind of struggle, and he has resisted the urgings of hawks inside and outside the administration who want him to go in deeper. Mr. Obama, his supporters say, is a “gloomy realist” who has learned history’s lesson: that American military power, no matter how great in relative terms, is ultimately of limited utility in conflicts that are, at their root, political or ideological in nature.
It’s a powerful, reasoned position, amply supported by the history of America’s involvement in Vietnam. But that history also shows that a President’s attitude and analytical assessment, no matter how gloomily realistic, are not necessarily an antidote to ill-advised military action. Foreign intervention has a logic all to itself.
Today we think of Lyndon Johnson as a man unwaveringly committed to prevailing in Vietnam. But at least at first, he shared Mr. Obama’s pessimism. He and his advisers knew they faced an immense challenge in attempting to suppress the insurgency in South Vietnam. “A man can fight if he can see daylight down the road somewhere,” he said privately in early March 1965. “But there ain’t no daylight in Vietnam.” Johnson also knew that the Democratic leadership in the Senate shared his misgivings, and that key allied Governments counseled against escalation and in favor of a political solution.
On occasion the President even allowed himself to question whether the outcome in Vietnam really mattered to American and Western security. “What the hell is Vietnam worth to me?” he despaired in 1964, even as he was laying plans to expand American involvement. “What’s it worth to this country?” At other times Johnson was quite capable of arguing for the geopolitical importance of the struggle — he was adept at tailoring hisVietnam analysis to his needs of the moment. But the overall picture that emerges in the administration’s massive internal record for 1964-65 is of a President deeply skeptical that the war could be won, even with large-scale escalation, and far from certain that it was necessary even to try.
So why did Johnson take the plunge? In part because he was hemmed in — not merely by 15 years of steadily growing American involvement in Indochina, but, more important, by his own and his advisers’ use of overheated rhetoric to describe the stakes in Vietnam and their confidence in victory. Moreover, he had personalised the war, and saw any criticism of its progress as an attack on him, compromising his ability to see the conflict objectively. We know the results. In the very week in which he professed to see “no daylight” in the struggle, Johnson initiated Operation Rolling Thunder, the graduated, sustained aerial bombardment against North Vietnam; also that week, he dispatched the first combat troops. More soon followed, and by the end of 1965, some 180,000 men were on the ground in South Vietnam. Ultimately, the count would top half a million.
True, it’s hard to imagine Mr. Obama ordering a Johnson-style surge of combat forces to Iraq or Syria. The circumstances on the ground are dissimilar, and he sees the world and America’s role in it differently than Johnson did. By all accounts he is less inclined to personalise foreign policy tests, and less threatened by diverse views among his advisers. In these respects he is much closer in his sensibility and approach to another Vietnam-era President, John F. Kennedy. He consistently rejected the proposals of civilian aides and military leaders to commit combat forces to Vietnam, but he also significantly expanded American involvement in the conflict during his thousand days in office, complicating the choices open to his successor. Whether he could have continued to walk that line, as Mr. Obama is trying to do, is an unanswerable question.
But the point is not about biography; rather, it’s about the inability of a President, once committed to military intervention, to control the course of events. War has a forward motion of its own. Most of Johnson’s major steps in the escalation in Vietnam were in response to unforeseen obstacles, setbacks and shortcomings. There’s no reason the same dynamic couldn’t repeat itself in 2014. And there is a political logic, too: Then as now, the President faced unrelenting pressure from various quarters to do more, to fight the fight, to intensify the battle. Then as now, the alarmist rhetoric by the President and senior officials served to reduce their perceived maneuverability, not least in domestic political terms. Johnson was no warmonger, and he feared, rightly, that Vietnam would be his undoing. Nonetheless, he took his nation into a protracted struggle that ended in bitter defeat.
“I don’t think it’s worth fighting for, and I don’t think we can get out,” a sullen Johnson told McGeorge Bundy, his national security adviser, in 1964. One can only hope the same sentiment is not being expressed in the Oval Office today.
(Fredrik Logevall is a professor of history at Cornell and the author, most recently, of “Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam.” Gordon M. Goldstein is the author of “Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam.”)