War casualties — up. The president’s poll numbers — down. To an all-time low, in fact. Protesters march in front of the White House. Elections loom. And how does the president respond? By convening a bipartisan group of elder statesman to guide him. Their advice: The war can’t be won. The United States should cut and run.
The president was Lyndon Johnson, and the time was March 1968. A few days after receiving this advice, Johnson announced he wouldn’t run for re-election.
Johnson first assembled his “wise men” in 1965. Democrats and Republicans, they included the coldest of the cold warriors, such as Dean Acheson, George Kennan, Matthew Ridgway, Averell Harriman, John McCloy, Robert Lovett, Omar Bradley and James Gavin. In 1967, they told Johnson to stay the course, stressing a “light at the end of the tunnel.” After the massive 1968 North Vietnamese Tet offensive, that changed.
The White House wise men assembled at the State Department on March 25, 1968, for a series of briefings. Among them was a feisty, brilliant and iconoclastic Vietnam combat veteran, Gen. William E. DePuy. And he had a lot to say.
Tet, he explained, was a disastrous defeat for the North Vietnamese. The insurgent infrastructure in South Vietnam had been crushed and likely would never recover. The regular North Vietnamese had suffered terrible losses and the Americans now had breathing space to train-up and equip the South Vietnamese army so it could take over responsibility for defending the country.
The wise men didn’t buy it. Like many Americans, they were demoralized by Tet. “They seized upon those parts of the briefing which supported their view,” Gen. DePuy later recalled, “and paid little attention to the other parts.” The president took counsel of their fears — and quit.
Many, including Osama bin Laden, however, read history wrong. Tet didn’t break the will of the American people. American troops remained in Vietnam for five more years, and a new senior commander, Creighton Abrams, instituted a Vietnamization strategy that prepared the country to defend itself. It worked. If Congress hadn’t cut off support for South Vietnam after Richard Nixon’s impeachment, the country today would probably still be independent.
As the difficult days of occupying Iraq have stretched into years, wise men — Republican and Democrat — are again speaking. Fear counseling is a growth industry in Washington.
This, however, should be cold comfort for the terrorists. Americans always publicly agonize over going to war and whether they should stay the course. They never take casualties lightly. Every American war is controversial — before, during and after it ends. That is how democracies do battle. But just because we debate doesn’t mean we won’t fight.
Popularity polls don’t wage wars. Nations wage wars, and when their leaders lead, when they’re plain-spoken and determined and have a reasonable plan to secure the nation’s vital national interests, democracies fight well.
More bad news for the terrorists: This president is no Lyndon Johnson. He won’t quit.
There is a place for wise men in Washington. The president needs advice on how to perform the critical tasks still ahead — advancing the political process in Iraq, mitigating the chance of civil war, speeding the placement of Iraqi police and security forces and the pace of economic development, rebuilding infrastructure and pressuring Iraq’s neighbors to help fight transnational terrorism. He doesn’t need fear counseling.
James Jay Carafano, co-author of “Winning the Long War: Lessons from the Cold War for Defeating Terrorism and Preserving Freedom,” is a senior research fellow for national security and homeland security at The Heritage Foundation.