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Bush Should Consider the Fate of Wartime Presidents

by Ira Chernus on Oct 9, 2001

Ira Chernus

President Bush is responding to national disaster by assuming the mantle of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. He would do well to consider the fate of less successful wartime presidents, not only Truman but Lyndon B. Johnson. Leading a nation to war is trickier than it may seem.

The frequent references to Pearl Harbor inevitably call up memories of FDR. But Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has acknowledged that the war on terrorism “undoubtedly will prove to be a lot more like a cold war than a hot war.” When Bush’s speech writers had him tell the nation, on Sept. 20, “We have found our mission and our moment,” they were surely thinking of Truman’s announcing the Cold War in his Truman Doctrine speech of March 1947.

“Every nation must choose between alternative ways of life, “communist or free,” Truman declared. Truman shook off fears that he was a weak leader by launching a multi-decade crusade to save freedom from an insidious global threat.

Bush, too, has insisted that the present war is between two ways of life, only one of which is free, with no neutrality allowed. If Bush’s political advisers are hoping for the same success, they may have forgotten how Truman’s presidency ended. Waging war in Korea, he did not demand unconditional surrender (as FDR did in World War II). He settled for a truce. Korea taught the nation that in a cold war the only possible outcome is stalemate, not permanent safety. As dreams of destroying communism died, Truman’s approval ratings steadily declined.

When the war ended in 1953, President Eisenhower proclaimed that the United States had won because it had stopped communist aggression. Victory now meant not eliminating the enemy, but merely stopping the enemy from eliminating us. Yet Eisenhower warned the nation that this was an ongoing task, for the enemy would always threaten. The struggle would continue, for all practical purposes, forever.

Sept. 11 was the clearest proof that, despite the fall of the Soviet Union, the Cold War gave us no real security. The Cold War created the new enemy. Al-Qaida and similar Muslim groups were enabled, perhaps even created, by the CIA to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Many of the grievances that brought them together were fallout from the U.S. effort to keep Soviet influence out of the Middle East.

Now we face the prospect of more insecurity. Asked what would constitute victory in the coming war, Rumsfeld answered: when terrorism is controlled enough to make Americans feel safe. But if there is no unconditional surrender, how shall we know when to feel safe? Once again, we must act as if the peril is permanent. This war is, in Bush’s own words, “a task that does not end” — not because the enemy is so persistent, but simply because permanent victory is ruled out from the beginning.

A cold war brings other kinds of peril, too. Once again, terribly repressive regimes are being dubbed “friends of freedom.” Once again, a conservative administration is rapidly expanding federal powers and military budgets.

A cold war may unite most Americans around a seemingly clear but open-ended, ongoing mission. The foreign policy establishment has spent a decade searching for a new, post-Cold War paradigm; now perhaps it has found it. However, as in the early ’50s, when Senator Joseph McCarthy and his followers scoured the nation for hidden communists, millions of us wonder whether to be suspicious of our neighbors (upwards of eight million of whom are Muslim).  And despite all our vigilance, we can never feel fully secure, as the administration admits.

The Bush administration talks of guerrilla war. Has it forgotten Vietnam? Guerrilla war erases the line between enemy soldiers and civilians. The world is already uneasy about a war in which many civilians die. In the United States, too, public support could fade rapidly — especially if the body bags start coming home.

A nation hoping for a crusade against evil may not easily tolerate the limitations and frustrations of an ongoing cold war. Since the early Cold War years, our real national goal has been, not ridding the world of evil, but merely making ourselves feel safe. The Cold War never achieved that goal. It merely sowed the seeds of our present sense of vulnerability and frustration, and told us to learn to live with it.

Another cold war will only breed more vulnerability and frustration. A war begun to unite the nation could easily tear it apart,as Lyndon Johnson learned with his war in Vietnam. Johnson hoped to winanother term in 1968. Instead he retired from office, fearing unbearable dissension if he ran again, and went down in history as a tragic figure.

The next time Bush goes home to Texas, he should visit Johnson’s final resting place and ponder deeply. It is LBJ’s ghost that is waiting in the wings.


Ira Chernus is a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a writer for History News Service.