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Obama's Afghanistan decision evokes LBJ's order on Vietnam buildup

Obama's Afghanistan decision evokes LBJ's order on Vietnam buildup

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LBJ's decision to pour troops into Vietnam in 1965 was revealed in its fully tragic dimensions when presidential tapes released decades later showed that he had never believed the war was winnable. I looked at the lessons of history to examine the choices President Obama was making with regard to Afghanistan.
LBJ's decision to pour troops into Vietnam in 1965 was revealed in its fully tragic dimensions when presidential tapes released decades later showed that he had never believed the war was winnable. I looked at the lessons of history to examine the choices President Obama was making with regard to Afghanistan.

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Published by: Michael Lindenberger on Nov 25, 2012
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11/19/12Obama's Afghanistan decision evokes LBJ's order on Vietnam buildup | National Politics and Election 1/3dallasnews.com/news/politics/…/20091205‑Obama‑s‑Afghanistan‑decision‑evokes‑LBJ‑4234.ece
By MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGER / The Dallas MorningNews mlindenberger@dallasnews.com
Published: 06 December 2009 03:08 AM
Obama's Afghanistan decision evokes LBJ's order on Vietnambuildup
Hovering in the shadows of President Barack Obama's decision last week to ramp up the nation's war effort in Afghanistan, even as he promises to bring it to aswift conclusion, are ghosts of another decision, made 44 years ago by a Texan in the White House.In 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson took ownership of a war he, like Obama, had inherited. Gen. William Westmoreland wanted more troops in Vietnam, and after aprotracted debate within the White House, Johnson sent them.Over the next three years, he would send hundreds of thousands more and launch a carpet-bombing campaign against North Vietnam. Johnson's presidency - andmany argue, Johnson himself - were destroyed long before America could finally, 10 years later, quit Vietnam.Obama's decision to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan has reawakened those memories of Vietnam's early days, and brought unsettling comparisonsfrom an array of historians who have spent their careers studying Johnson."Iraq and Afghanistan stand in the shadow of Vietnam," said historian Robert Dallek, a Johnson biographer. "It becomes inescapable that people are going to havedoubts and questions about the wisdom of trying to control so distant and foreign a place."Many of those doubts, historians now know, were shared by Johnson himself, as revealed by White House tapes of telephone recordings released to historiansover the years. Listening to them again this week chilled some of the men who know best what that decision cost Johnson."It waseerie," said historian Harry Middleton, a former Johnson WhiteHouse aide who led the presidential library that bears Johnson's name in Austin for 30years."As these discussions are taking place this week, we can hear echoes of conversations from our past. ... I am quite fearful about it, as I do have thefeeling that well, we've been down this path before."That's a view shared by former Sen. George McGovern, whose stand against the Vietnam War helped him capture the 1972 Democratic nomination for president,only to lose badly to President Richard Nixon."I think this is a dreadful mistake on President's Obama's part," McGovern said. "It makes me sad. I am for him. I worked for him, and I still think he is a brilliantman. But it looks to me like Vietnam all over again."Campaign issueJohnson had campaigned in 1964 on a premise that Vietnam was not an American war, and ran decidedly to the left of hawkish Barry Goldwater. But immediatelyupon winning his first full term, pressure mounted to use the U.S. military more aggressively to support the struggling South Vietnamese government.By early 1965, Westmoreland had requested more troops. Inside the White House, Johnson sought opinions from key officials and confidantes alike. Most were infavor of sending the troops, but some warned it was a fateful mistake, Middleton said."1965, when he decided to honor Gen. Westmoreland's request for a massive infusion of troops and to really change the mission of those troops from an advisoryrole to combat, he held a number of meetings in the weeks leading up to that decision, and solicited a number of points of view. ... Clark Gifford, a close friend of the president, said, 'We send in 100,000 troops, they'll match us with a hundred thousand of their own. I see nothing but catastrophe for our country.' "Johnson was aware from the beginning how ruinous the decision could be for his presidency, historians said last week."Johnson did not make this decision casually or with kind of a flick of his wrist. He understood that putting in 100,000 troops in July of 1965 and then to continueto escalate in '66, '67, that these were big, important and decisive decisions of his administration and for the country," said Dallek, author of Hail to the Chief: TheMaking and Unmaking of American Presidents.Still, the arguments against sending troops were drowned out by the prevailing Cold War-era fear of the global spread of communism."In the end, what was far more persuasive ... came from [Secretary of State] Dean Rusk," Middleton said. "Rusk said if we didn't go and we lost the war, then thatwas tantamount to World War III. That was tremendously persuasive to everyone there."Rusk recalled those early debates in a 1969 oral history now stored at the LBJ Library."Not only would Southeast Asia be overrun, but the fidelity of the United States under its security treaties all over the world would be brought into question. In Asiawe have treaties with Korea, Japan, the Republic of China, the Philippines, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand," he said. "If those who would become our enemiesmade the judgment that our participation in those treaties was merely a bluff, then those treaties would have no deterrent effect."
11/19/12Obama's Afghanistan decision evokes LBJ's order on Vietnam buildup | National Politics and Election 2/3dallasnews.com/news/politics/…/20091205‑Obama‑s‑Afghanistan‑decision‑evokes‑LBJ‑4234.ece
McGovern said he remembered those debates, too, from his perch as a freshman senator who had opposed the Vietnam involvement as early as 1963."That domino theory was a powerful factor," he said. "It has a kind of sweet logic to it. You look at a catastrophe in the making, but they say there will be an evenbigger catastrophe. If we don't stop them there, then we're going to have to fight them in Taiwan, the Philippines, Hawaii, or New York or Dallas, Texas."Parallels nowThe arguments put Johnson in a corner, and he feared being seen as a president who lost a war, historians said."I'll tell you, the more that I stayed awake last night thinking of this thing, the more I think of it, I don't know - it looks like to me we're getting into another Korea,"Johnson said in 1964 during a tape-recorded conversation with national security adviser McGeorge Bundy. "It just worries the hell out of me. I don't see what wecan ever hope to get out of it, once we're committed."McGovern, who campaigned hard for Johnson, said he had expected Johnson to pull back after gaining the presidency in his own right in 1964."I had thought President Johnson would probably stand firm until after the election, and then being a shrewd politician which he was and a highly intelligent man,he would figure out how to get us out of the situation. ... But I had some compassion for him, as I was sure he went through agony."Obama went to great lengths last week to cast his decision to send more troops to Afghanistan in an entirely different light than Johnson's decision in 1965. Afghanistan is not Vietnam, Obama said in his address to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.Republicans generally praised the decision, both in Washington and elsewhere. Even Gov. Rick Perry, who would not even watch Obama's inauguration inJanuary, told supporters in Dallas last week that Obama did the right thing. Texas has lost 48 troops in Afghanistan and nearby theaters, second only toCalifornia.R. Nicholas Burns, U.S. ambassador to NATO and later undersecretary of state for political affairs for President George W. Bush, said Obama's decision was theright one, and said it triggered sighs of relief in foreign capitals throughout Asia and elsewhere."This is a major moment in his presidency. I imagine there is a lot of pressure on him because he knows these decisions write the history of his four years inoffice," Burns said. "Since the close of the second world war, this country has been the lone guarantee of stability in the world. ... We cannot shrink from our responsibilities because there is no other country on a global basis that can do what we do."The fear factor Professor George C. Edwards of Texas A&M University, founder and former director of the Center for Presidential Studies, also said Obama is right. Vietnam and Afghanistan are different, he said."If I was president, I would have made a decision to keep up the pressure there," he said. "I think there is less potential that the Taliban can put together a strongenough force that will cause us to send enormous numbers of troops. ... They can't engage in massive warfare, as the Vietnamese were able to."Still, decisions about war are often made out of a kind of fear, Edwards said. Worries about the dominoes in Vietnam, for instance, or about the possibility of anuclear-armed Saddam Hussein before the invasion of Iraq, or worries about terrorists seizing Pakistani weapons - all of these doomsday scenarios weigh heavilyin favor of a president sending troops on a mission like the one in Afghanistan. As president, "you are scared of it," Edwards said. "It's very tough to overcome that. ... It's a very tough situation for presidents. All of these decisions are madeunder conditions of great uncertainty."Dallek says the risks of escalation are always enormous - for the country and for the president."History tells us that the only real decision a president has is whether to fire the first shot, so to speak. Once you get in there, you have our troops in there, and itbecomes very hard to withdraw. Can you shut this down? Just walk away? No. it becomes an impossibility. In a sense, Obama is putting all his chips in."Burns said he has faith in the generals fighting the war in Afghanistan, and in their counterinsurgency strategy. But if it doesn't work, he said, they and Obama willsimply "have to find the courage and the wisdom to develop a new strategy that does."McGovern sees in that an eerie echo of the war he opposed since he first was elected senator in 1962."We're headed down the same road," he said. "And [Obama] is not going to get out of there with only sending 30,000, and we are not going to come out in 2011.Two years from now, he's going to look up and say, 'Gosh we have lost 5,000 troops over there, we can't pull out now.' It's a no-win proposition. And in Afghanistan, nobody has ever been able to prevail in that deserted and mountainous country."WHAT THEY SAID Afghanistan and Vietnam parallelsGeorge McGovern, 1972 Democratic candidate for president, who campaigned and lost on a platform against the Vietnam War:"I always ached for Johnson during the Vietnam period. I didn't know then as I do now that he was actually opposed to war. ... He despised that war right from thebeginning. ... He knew it was a mess and knew it was a mistake."R. Nicholas Burns, Harvard professor of diplomacy and former U.S. ambassador to NATO under George W. Bush:"I am a citizen and taxpayer, too, and I know we can't be everywhere. But we must be at those places where we think we have vital national interests. I actuallythink this Afghanistan engagement is more critical for us than the Iraq war. ... I am not a historian, but our interests in Afghanistan seem to me to be more vitalthan those we had in Vietnam in the '60s."Harry Middleton, former LBJ staffer and for 30 years the director of his presidential library in Austin:"I've attended a hundred dinner table conversations with President Johnson - or if wasn't that many it seemed like it - where he would push back from the tableand ask again and again, 'What could we have done differently?' I think he went to his grave knowing full well how extremely costly his decision had been for both

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