Commander in Chief

How Truman, Johnson, and Bush Turned a Presidential Power into a Threat to America's Future

Geoffrey Perret

Farrar, Straus and Giroux Paperbacks


This is a story of three unwinnable wars in an age of unwinnable wars: Harry Truman and Korea, Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam, and George W. Bush and Iraq. The end result will be that in another generation, roughly twenty-five years from now, the Global War on Terror (or GWOT) will still be under way. The answer to the suicide bomber will still be sought. When the inhabitants of John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” gaze around from their place on the high ground as the world burns, they will wonder, Whatever happened to American power? They may well ask.
The last classical war was World War II. For more than two hundred years major wars had clear beginnings and clear endings. Since 1945, we have had a new kind of revolutionary war—wars that develop rather than erupt, wars without declarations of war, wars without surrenders. Their beginnings are murky, their conclusions unclear. They are tests of stamina rather than strength, more likely than not to sow the seeds of future wars. And since 1945 the United States has chosen to place itself in the forefront of fighting them.
As it did so, the role of commander in chief was thrust at critical moments onto men who took counsel of their fears, beginning with Harry S. Truman. In three wars of choice, Truman, Johnson, and George W. Bush followed what was essentially the same script. At a time of high emotion they acted on their own visceral responses, ignoring the advice of the military and of major allies.
Truman made the decision to intervene in Korea without consulting anyone, and when he did so, he also intervened in the Chinese civil war, something he had vowed not to do. Why? Because in June 1950 the White House was facing something close to hysteria in the mainstream press and on Capitol Hill over “Who lost China?” and over Senator Joe McCarthy’s claim that there were “205 known Communists” in the State Department. Truman was also under direct attack from Republicans in Congress for being indecisive in fighting the Cold War. When the North Koreans thrust across the 38th parallel, a deeply emotional president struck back, for all the wrong reasons.
Similarly, the assassination of John F. Kennedy had an impact on the American psyche that had to be lived through to be understood. That impact affected the emotionally volatile Lyndon Johnson as much as anyone. Without believing for a moment that the United States could win in Vietnam, Johnson chose to turn a small brushfire war into one of the twentieth century’s biggest conflicts. Emotion was stronger than judgment, and in the end, not even Johnson could make sense of why he had done what he did. Yet the answer was not hard to find: once again domestic politics had overruled national security.
Finally, after September 11, Americans needed an Arab and Muslim country on which to take revenge. George W. Bush’s visceral response was, “Can we attack Iraq?” For him, Saddam Hussein was a long-standing obsession, dating from before his presidency. He believed the story that Saddam had tried to assassinate his father during a visit George H. W. Bush made to Kuwait in 1993. Saddam, to him, became “the guy who tried to kill my dad.”
He resented, too, the criticism of his father for leaving Saddam in power at the conclusion of the Gulf War. Overthrowing Saddam would, finally, put that right.
Bush was also trapped by an inflated paradigm. “We are at war,” Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld told him, and Bush agreed. A war in which America could bring all of its military power to bear would have appealed to any president at that moment. But not every president would have acted on it. Bush had trapped himself by believing in an assassination attempt that may have been manufactured by the Kuwaitis. Foiling an assassination plot—could gratitude be greater than this? George Herbert Walker Bush had saved Kuwait. That debt was paid because Kuwait had saved him. To the son, however, there was still a score to be settled.
Embracing the war paradigm, George W. Bush was playing to his enemy’s strengths, not to his own. It meant that he had to promise “total victory” even though he was fighting what is a political and religious movement rather than a military force. Emotional and political realities pushed him into Afghanistan. Iraq would have to wait. But it would not have to wait for long.
Three wars—Korea, Vietnam, Iraq—all launched at moments of national crisis, all of them unwinnable.
They were unwinnable for many reasons, but the place to begin is this: in North Korea, North Vietnam, and Iraq, the enemy always held the strategic initiative. The most powerful country in the world found itself dancing to its enemy’s tune, not its own. At times it was possible to seize the tactical initiative—crossing the 38th parallel, launching an aerial blitz against North Vietnam, flattening Fallujah. But the loss of the strategic initiative rules out the path to victory implicit in the military paradigm; namely, that one country imposes its will on another. Instead, the country that has chosen to wage the war finds itself wrestling with an insoluble challenge: a political victory requires a military victory first, because there can be no effective government without security and stability. But a military victory requires a political victory first, in the form of a government strong enough to establish a state monopoly on violence.
As commanders in chief seek military success, only to fail, then lurch off in search of political gains and fail again, time is used up. And time is not neutral. It strengthens the enemy. Knowing that, the enemy is never in a hurry. The longer the struggle lasts, the better their prospects. As America’s distant wars grind on from year to year, internal divisions grow, nourishing a national debate that ultimately becomes acrimonious and divisive. Eventually, when public opinion realizes that a war is unwinnable, the war becomes unsustainable, whatever the party in power, whoever is commander in chief. If he won’t end it, Congress will.
With commanders in chief, the political is always the personal. Truman’s stormy relationship with MacArthur mattered in the Korean War. Lyndon Johnson’s commitment to a war he did not believe in owed much to his desire not to be blamed for “losing” Vietnam—as Truman had been blamed for losing China—and to rivalry with the dead JFK, to prove that he was tougher than Kennedy.
George W. Bush—inheriting a war that his father had seemingly won yet could not conclude—sought to outdo his father and become, unlike Dad, a great president. What the first President Bush had failed to see was that the invasion and liberation of Kuwait was only the opening round in a fifty-year war. Liberating Kuwait meant that American troops would one day patrol the streets of Baghdad. It was only a matter of time. Still, it was the son’s decision to invade Iraq. It was not a decision he had to make, and he was under no pressure to make it.
These modern wars are managed rather than won. It is possible to lose them, yet impossible to achieve victory. All have stubborn roots in the poisonous creeds of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: colonialism, nihilism, communism, and fascism. A decade ago, all four creeds appeared to have been vanquished, yet none of them had really gone away.
The turning point in the present struggle to maintain American power was Korea. This was the true curtain-raiser on the twenty-first-century challenge. Korea offered many wars in one—a war of aggression by one country against another; a war of national liberation; a civil war among the Koreans; a proxy war between the United States, the Soviet Union, and China; and a revolutionary war within Korean society. Above all, wars of national liberation are also identity wars. For many Koreans and for many Vietnamese, the whole meaning of being Korean or Vietnamese was to fight the Americans; for many a Muslim, being a Muslim means fighting the Americans, to the point of welcoming death. To die fighting the Americans has become the ultimate in identity politics.
The importance of identity in these liberation struggles was memorably expressed by Manuel Quezon, who spent his life trying to get the United States out of the Philippines and became the first president of an independent Philippines: “I would rather live in a hell ruled by Filipinos than in a heaven ruled by Americans.”
The three major wars that this book considers were also wars against developing Third World birthrates. In Korea, the combined birthrates of China and North Korea meant that more than three million young men turned eighteen each year. Even though the United States killed more than a million Koreans and Chinese over the course of three years, it did not dent the inexorable rise in population.
In Vietnam, American intervention brought the deaths of more than a million Vietnamese, but the combined Chinese and North Vietnamese birthrate meant that the enemy could fight on despite horrendous losses. The Chinese deployed half a million troops in North Vietnam over the course of the war, and they were prepared to send many more. The prospect of using nuclear weapons was by then out of the question. The Chinese acquired their first usable nuclear weapons in 1965 and were already at work on a hydrogen bomb.
Finally, in Iraq, the United States is facing an insurgency that has widespread popular support. More than 250,000 young Iraqi males turn eighteen each year, and beyond Iraq, there is an aggrieved Sunni community of more than a billion people. The Iraq insurgency will never run short of manpower, money, or munitions; nor will terrorist groups across the Middle East.
There is a limit to the number of people that the United States can kill, capture, or incapacitate. In Iraq, it can kill tens of thousands, possibly more than a hundred thousand, but not millions, not in the name of liberation, not in the presence of television and camcorders. There are limits to what even a superpower can do without turning the entire civilized world against it.
International terrorism is only one head on the hydra that has America by the throat. The invasion of Iraq has created an insurgency that will increasingly link up with the world of international terrorism. Terrorism with a global reach is what Americans fear most, yet it is only one manifestation of the hydra. The global war on terror is another version of buy one war, get several more for free.
International terrorism makes sense only when viewed in the round, as one element in a global guerrilla war. Across the global south, we own the day, the guerillas own the night; we hold the cities, they hold the countryside; our firepower is always far greater, yet they have the strategic initiative; our military cannot be defeated, but our will can be eroded. Finally, we need to remember that guerrillas are notorious for losing every battle but winning the war.
This is also a struggle between cultures, a war between races, a war between the rich North and an impoverished South; a continuation of a 2,500-year-old struggle between East and West; a conflict that pits rich countries that are aging against poor ones where half the population is below the age of twenty-four. What is unique is not that such struggles are occurring, but that they are converging.
Fighting this new, multifaceted war, which manages to be both local and global, depends heavily on intelligence. Yet in the age of unwinnable wars, intelligence has been turned inside out. Traditionally, intelligence was about knowing an enemy’s capabilities and unearthing his intentions. We knew how strong the Imperial Japanese Navy was on December 6, 1941, but we were not aware of its plan to attack Pearl Harbor. In 1962 the president’s advisers knew the fine detail of Soviet military strength, but they were caught by surprise when Khrushchev put missiles into Cuba.
The most important intelligence—that on intentions—was always the hardest to find. Yet now we face an enemy whose intentions are obvious. What eludes us are his capabilities. These become apparent only when we sift through the debris of explosions.
The United States, like other nations, exercises its power in four ways. There is political power, which is the power of the state over its citizens, clients, and subjects. In a liberal democracy, where the power of the state is diffused throughout society, the result is political stability. Allied with political power is military power. The third type of power is economic, and the fourth is the power of culture. The great advantage of power, in its various guises, is the ability to shape events. Yet the historic moment when all four types of American power were at their peak has come and gone.
The start of America’s comparative decline can be dated precisely. It began with Truman’s succession to the presidency on the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12, 1945. When World War II ended four months later, the United States bestrode the world like a colossus in red, white, and blue. It accounted for at least half of the world economy. It possessed a monopoly on the atomic bomb. It was the most admired and envied country in the world, not only for its riches and military prowess but for its political stability and vibrant cultural life.
On becoming president, Truman had a clear idea of what his responsibility was: to keep the United States at its current peak of power. But that was impossible. As other countries recovered from the war, America’s absolute supremacy would be eroded. Yet Truman, in trying to freeze a moment in time, had the encouragement of nearly all his advisers, the support of Congress, and the votes of the people.
America faced obvious limits. The Soviet Union was a barrier; so too was a band of impoverished states that formed a large arc from the Baltic to Egypt and from Egypt to Korea. The strategy for dealing with the Soviets was an atomic-armed alliance, NATO, plus a dominant American position in the United Nations. Truman abandoned Roosevelt’s policy of nonintervention. Across the global south, his strategy for dealing with troublesome minor states was to try to control them by force.
The belief in frequent and sometimes massive American intervention created the intellectual framework for waging unwinnable wars. Since 1945 the United States has intervened nearly eighty times in more than a score of countries—on average, an intervention every nine months. Sometimes it was an operation to overthrow a government deemed a threat to American interests. At other times, it was to prop up a weak government that would advance those interests.
The cumulative risks were high, but the biggest risk of all was never anticipated. In the course of fighting three unwinnable major wars, the secret of American power has been given away. History turns on such revelations.
The Roman Empire was barely a hundred years old when, in the year a.d. 41, its most important secret was exposed. In a historic moment of confusion, the elite force that protected the emperor, the Praetorian Guard, proclaimed the timid, stuttering, and bookish Claudius the new emperor. From that moment, it was the Guard that held the supreme power in Rome. The old ruling families, in power for centuries, were powerless against the Praetorians.
In March and April 2003 the world discovered the secret of American military power: anarchy is stronger than any American president or any American army. There had been a glimpse of this truth in
Somalia in 1993–94, but Iraq was the ultimate demonstration. Shortly before the invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein is reported to have distributed thirty-five hundred copies of the film Black Hawk Down to senior officers in the Iraqi army, the Baath Party, and the secret police. The chaos from Iraq has spread, is spreading, and will continue to spread. In time, that ever-widening pool of chaos, striking deep roots in unstable parts of the world, will confound American power.
As the War on Terror lurches from decade to decade, it will distract attention from far greater threats. Nothing decisive can be done to com-bat global warming or curb nuclear proliferation without American leadership. These, not terrorism, are the dangers that threaten the survival of the human race.
The Global War on Terror is itself unwinnable. We cannot make terrorists stop; they must choose to stop. Major terrorist organizations such as the IRA, the Shining Path, and the Tamil Tigers became irrelevant without being defeated. War weariness affects guerrillas too. Even so, Americans will have to settle for a lot less than the “total victory” George W. Bush promised them.
The United States will also have to learn to live with being third in a global economy where the European Union and China are both richer than it is. There is also a fourth important player in the new Great Game—Russia.
As the world’s largest producer of both oil and natural gas in an energy-desperate age, Russia’s great power ambitions have come roaring back. Within a few years, most countries in the European Union will be so dependent on the Russians for their energy supplies that Moscow will have enormous leverage. China too will court the Russians for their oil.
Alone in the history of the world, the United States has a program for global supremacy. It can be found in the 2002 National Security Strategy (NSS) of the United States and in the governing doctrine of the United States military: “full-spectrum dominance.”
American policy is to allow no rivals. That means that the Chinese will not be allowed to become dominant in East Asia, even if it means attacking China. The Russians will not be allowed to dominate Central Asia, even if it means going to war with Russia. Appearing to have learned nothing, President Bush laid out exactly the same program, full of menace and vainglory, in the National Security Strategy, 2006. If this policy is pursued seriously, it will mean an America at war with most of the world. If, having been proclaimed, this dominance is not now pursued seriously, it will be seen as a bluff, and American influence will fall even faster.
However rich they become, neither the Europeans, the Russians, nor the Chinese will become direct rivals of the United States. They will nibble U.S. supremacy down to a nub, with American help: military interventions in poor countries pave the road to exhaustion. The NSS 2002 and 2006 provide the road map for getting there.
While the United States, with its post–9/11 sense of victimhood, trundles angrily down that road, the Europeans will devote themselves to shoring up what remains of the West while the Chinese continue to pursue what they see as their predestined role to dominate East Asia and recover Taiwan. The struggle for tomorrow’s world will not be military, but political, cultural, and, above all, economic.
Americans are now almost alone in believing that war is a progressive force. There were fewer wars being waged by nation-states in 2006 than at any time since 1945. In fact, there was only one—the war in Iraq. Yet mired in the Iraqi morass, the United States continues to put its faith in military power as it struggles to defeat the Iraqi insurgency and prop up a weak government located mainly within an American military base—the Green Zone—and shielded from Iraq’s people by American troops. As is commonplace across the Third World, this is a government that exists only on television. The real power in Iraq will therefore remain in the mosques.
The Europeans, the Russians, and the Chinese will not create an informal alliance to thwart American power. They don’t have to. They will instead position themselves on each issue in accordance with what is good for Europe or Russia or China. There will be times when Europe has, in effect, the swing vote on American power. The United States and China may be on a collision course. The Europeans are not destined to clash with anyone. They will be free to support China against the United States if that serves their interests—for example, selling arms to China in exchange for multibillion-dollar Chinese purchases of Airbus aircraft. They will be free at the same time to support the United States against China if that serves their interests. Either way, the United States will have much less ability to shape events and to impose its will than it had before the invasion of Iraq. The Iraqi blunder has accelerated America’s comparative decline by at least a generation.
The old days are fast becoming a dream. American claims to being a benign superpower, acting for the good of the world, may have been plausible during the Cold War. But few people outside the United States now take them seriously, and over time, Western Europeans will replace governments that seem subservient to a fading and faltering United States.
The pursuit of unilateralism has not only done lasting damage to American credibility, but it has also split the West and undermined virtually every major global institution devoted to advancing the rule of law, beginning with the United Nations and reaching down to the latest creation, the International Criminal Court.
Great powers are always likely to follow the imperatives of power more often than the imperatives of law, yet the United States stands unique in its methods among modern empires. As the British Empire grew, it pursued the rule of law first and the planting of British values second. This was not wisdom at work, but pragmatism.
The British settled the areas they conquered. To make these dangerous places safe for British women and children, the force of law was the only realistic choice. There were too few soldiers to rely on the law of force. Over time, British values—representative democracy, entrepreneurship, freedom of speech and the press, an end to slavery—took root around the world, including in the United States.
As it pushed westward toward the Pacific, the United States began with the same approach. The American epic, played out in a thousand movies and novels, is of a nation bringing the law to an untamed frontier. In the law’s wake came the schoolhouse, the newspaper, the labor union, and, eventually, McDonald’s.
Beyond its shores, however, America inverted the formula: spread democratic values, and the rule of law will follow. Americans by and large had—and still have—little curiosity about the rest of the world and no intention of settling there. Rather than exporting its people, it exported its cultural and political values. The world readily embraced them. Jeans and baseball caps, the T-shirt and Friends, watching Ameri-can movies and learning to play basketball became a new language of the world, the language of modernity.
But the rule of law did not follow. All too often, what small, poor countries got was the law of force, first from their own governments and then, in many parts of the world, from the United States.
As Europe, China, Russia, and the United States go their separate ways, American presidents will find themselves freer than ever to pursue unilateral action, including “preventive” wars. Ironically, however, an America that really is free to act alone probably won’t—another manifestation of its increasing inability to shape events.
Thus irony rises on irony. The wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq each began as a president lashed out at his foes, at home and abroad, but these soon became struggles to sustain American supremacy. Each venture ultimately failed, bringing the United States lower. And now, humanitarian disasters such as Haiti and Darfur—crises far short of fighting a war—advertise to the world how limited is the maneuvering room that the United States possesses. Once a superpower ceases to act like one, it soon ceases to be one.
Excerpted from Commander in Chief: How Truman, Johnson, and Bush Turned a Presidential Power into a Threat to America’s Future  by Geoffrey Perret. Copyright © 2007 by Geoffrey Perret. Published in February 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.