Watching General Petraeus give the annual Iraq war update reminded me that his counterpart from 40 years ago, General Westmoreland, didn’t have such a central political role. The cabinet ministers and White House advisors to Presidents Johnson and Nixon did, and Dean Rusk and Robert McNamara, then later Melvin Laird and Henry Kissinger, had to trudge regularly up to Capitol Hill to explain to legislators what they were doing in Vietnam.
One particularly hostile bloc back in the late 1960s was comprised of the recalcitrant southern segregationists like Fulbright of Arkansas and Stennis of Mississippi who regularly put Johnson’s people’s feet to the fire, no doubt feeling little sympathy for the president who had sided with Martin Luther King against them.
They also expressed remorse—something making a comeback on Capitol Hill these days—about being bamboozled into supporting the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that gave Johnson his war-making authority, disguised as authorization to respond quickly to attacks at sea. Ah, the lessons of history—I guess Biden, Edwards and Hillary C all skipped that chapter.
But I don’t recall seeing the uniformed guys playing such a role in defending state policy back then, which probably is an indication of Johnson’s continued credibility, despite everything, compared to Bush’s team at Fantasyland. Since W’s folks can’t be taken seriously, all that’s left is to wheel out a guy with high sidewalls and every hair in place to hold back the deluge of dissent and disbelief in hopes that the metallic lustre on his epaulettes will hypnotize the critics.
Then what? As the miserable, failed exercise grinds on year after year with no resolution, the military weakening steadily and the economic impact finally kicking in, where is the next firewall to put off the inevitable reckoning? What happens when the no-peace, no-victory status quo becomes untenable? Nixon’s solution was multifaceted: murderous bombardment, escalation into neighboring Cambodia, ‘Vietnamization’ (or leave the mess to the locals), then interminable negotiations and finally the inescapable retreat presided over by Gerald Ford, the accidental president. If that scenario is any guide, this war story has many chapters yet to run.