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
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 win
another 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, Boulder, and a writer for History News Service.