It would be informative to reflect on the words of one who's been there before.
Bill Moyers has announced the ending of his acclaimed Journal, sometime in 2010. Before he passes from the scene, and at this moment that our 44th President crosses the bridge of no return in Afghanistan, I wanted to record the cautionary tones of one crossed a similar bridge with our 36th President.
Moyers introduced his most recent Journal with these words:
Our country wonders this weekend what is on President Obama's mind. He is apparently, about to bring months of deliberation to a close and answer General Stanley McChrystal's request for more troops in Afghanistan. When he finally announces how many, why, and at what cost, he will most likely have defined his presidency, for the consequences will be far-reaching and unpredictable. As I read and listen and wait with all of you for answers, I have been thinking about the mind of another president, Lyndon B. Johnson.Moyers replays excerpts of recorded telephone conversations LBJ had with personal advisors and friends which convey his tortured conscience:
I was 30 years old, a White House Assistant, working on politics and domestic policy. I watched and listened as LBJ made his fateful decisions about Vietnam. He had been thrust into office by the murder of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963-- 46 years ago this weekend. And within hours of taking the oath of office was told that the situation in South Vietnam was far worse than he knew.
Less than four weeks before Kennedy's death, the South Vietnamese president had himself been assassinated in a coup by his generals, a coup the Kennedy Administration had encouraged.
South Vietnam was in chaos, and even as President Johnson tried to calm our own grieving country, in those first weeks in office, he received one briefing after another about the deteriorating situation in Southeast Asia.
....Granted, Barack Obama is not Lyndon Johnson, Afghanistan is not Vietnam and this is now, not then. But listen and you will hear echoes and refrains that resonate today.
And nine months I'm just an inherited-I'm a trustee. I've got to win an election. Or Nixon or somebody else has.....Bill Moyers concludes,
The Republicans are going to make a political issue out of it, every one of them, even Dirksen....
.... I will tell you the more I just stayed awake last night thinking about this thing, the more I think of it, I don't know what in the hell it looks to me like we're getting into another Korea [...] I don't think it's worth fighting for and I don't think we can get out. And it's just the biggest damned mess that I ever saw.
.... What the hell is Vietnam worth to me? What is Laos worth to me? What is it worth to this country?
.... It's damned easy to get in a war but it's gonna be awfully hard to ever extricate yourself if you get in.
..... all of my military people tell me and my economic people that we cannot do this to the extent of the commitment we have now. It's got to be materially increased. And the outcome is not really predictable at the moment.....
Well, I opposed it in '54. But we're there now, and there's only one of three things you can do. One is run and let the dominoes start falling over. And God Almighty, what they said about us leaving China would just be warming up, compared to what they'd say now. I see Nixon is raising hell about it today. Goldwater too. You can run or you can fight, as we are doing. Or you can sit down and agree to neutralize all of it.
Anytime you got that many people against you that far away from your home base, it's bad.
Now in a different world, at a different time, and with a different president, we face the prospect of enlarging a different war. But once again we're fighting in remote provinces against an enemy who can bleed us slowly and wait us out, because he will still be there when we are gone.As I listen to these recorded telephonic conversations, I conclude that LBJ was more interested in appeasing the Republicans than the Communists. In other words, his short term political interests took precedent over his best guess as to the long term interests of his country.
Once again, we are caught between warring factions in a country where other foreign powers fail before us. Once again, every setback brings a call for more troops, although no one can say how long they will be there or what it means to win. Once again, the government we are trying to help is hopelessly corrupt and incompetent.
And once again, a President pushing for critical change at home is being pressured to stop dithering, be tough, show he's got the guts, by sending young people seven thousand miles from home to fight and die, while their own country is coming apart.
And once again, the loudest case for enlarging the war is being made by those who will not have to fight it, who will be safely in their beds while the war grinds on. And once again, a small circle of advisers debates the course of action, but one man will make the decision.
We will never know what would have happened if Lyndon Johnson had said no to more war. We know what happened because he said yes.