Sins of Foreign Policy Are Always Clearer in Hindsight

Robert S. McNamara remains one of the most controversial political figures in U.S. history.

Robert S. McNamara remains one of the most controversial political figures in U.S. history.

Things are always easier in hindsight. Ask George W. Bush. Ask FDR. Ask John F. Kennedy. Ask former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. Decisions that seemed so right at the time can later be proven to be so gravely wrong. And you’ll never figure this out until it’s all over. What a shame.

McNamara’s recent death has brought about a rebirth of decades-old debates about foreign policy, the Cold War, and the disastrous American adventure in Vietnam. One cannot help but to think about Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney when McNamara’s name is mentioned. All three men were hated in their day. They misled the American people, lied to them, and told them their decisions would protect them from evil. One lie followed another.

The Kennedy White House believed in the “Domino Theory,” a theoretical prediction that if one nation were to fall to Communism, their neighbors would do the same. If South Vietnam were to fall under Soviet influence; Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, South Korea, and Japan would soon follow. Then Greece, France, West Germany, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan. Then eventually the whole Western world. Then us.

Historians have debated whether the Domino Theory was a plausible reality or just a product of irrational fear of losing American hegemony. And even if all of Southeast Asia were to fall to Communism, what would happen then? Would tyranny, poverty, despotism, and institutionalized atheism overcome our way of life? Would our national security come into serious jeopardy? All these possibilities were considered by the Kennedy administration.

But it is unfair to paint Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, McNamara, and Dean Rusk as the only ones who thought this way. The infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy thought the infiltration of Communism onto American soil wasn’t just a theory, but reality. His Communist witch hunts of the 1950s destroyed many people’s lives and blinded us to believing that the enemies were at our gates, when such fears proved to be nothing but just that: fear.

Much talk has come up about how such smart, intelligent, and enlightened men like Kennedy, McNamara, and Rusk got us so close to nuclear war and later architected a war in Vietnam that would take the lives of 58,000 U.S. troops and close to 2 million Vietnamese. People have argued that they were nothing but a bunch of liberal fascists, much like how Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice are considered right winged fascists.

But maybe all these accusations are a little off. Consider the Cuban Missile Crisis, an event that I believe played a very significant role in beginning the Vietnam War. For thirteen days in October of 1962, the Soviet Union and United States went on the brink of total annihilation. Thanks to “mutual assured destruction,” or MAD for short, both sides had the ability and will to completely obliterate the other side. If one side launched their missiles and destroyed most of their enemy’s homeland, that side had the ability to return the favor. Thanks to B-52 bombers and nuclear submarines, this can happen.

Then Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev didn’t think Kennedy had the guts to kill more people than Adolph Hitler. Hitler had a whole war to slaughter millions. Kennedy just had one simple phone call to make. I hope you shudder when you think about this.

Kennedy later estimated that there was a 33%, or a one in three, chance of nuclear war breaking out at that moment. Rusk believed the odds were much lower. Either way, it was close. The presence of nuclear weapons in Cuba was intolerable. Fidel Castro could not have been trusted to not use them. The Soviets didn’t like our missiles in Turkey, a country just in their backyard. We compromised, mutually agreed to remove our missiles from both sites, and total annihilation was averted. Whew.

But we should not forget the impact of the Cuban Missile Crisis on the thinking of McNamara and Lyndon Johnson, who would later become president after Kennedy’s assassination. If the Domino Theory were to actually happen and all of East Asia were to fall to the Communist bloc, who is to say all of Asia wouldn’t become nuclear? Who is to say mass slaughter like what happened in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge regime wouldn’t become the norm? No one could know for sure.

Let’s now wind the clock ahead forty years and think about 9/11 and the “War on Terror.” Think of the Cuban Missile Crisis as the catastrophic 9/11 that never happened. Political analysts have said that our country has changed its opinion on national defense and foreign policy ever since the Sept. 11 attacks. That might be true to some extent. Bush administration officials have defended their questionable practices of torture, invading two Middle Eastern countries, and domestic spying that these measures are necessary to protect our country from our enemies. Similar measures were done in the 1960s and 70s (and during World War II, the so-called “Good War”) under similar justifications.

I am in no way excusing Bush and his team for approving of torture, the horrors at Guantanamo Bay, and invading Iraq. These were decisions that were motivated by anger, greed, revenge, and pride. But then again, we said the same about Nixon when he increased bombing campaigns over North Vietnam and Cambodia. We said this when President Johnson increased our troop presence in a war that was “unwinnable.” Times might change, but mistakes do not.

But this is all easy to say in hindsight. They say hindsight is 20/20 because we know the outcomes and can accurately judge the wisdom of our decisions. But let us consider the fact that we were this close to total destruction in October 1962. Let us consider that from the comfort of our armchairs in the safety of our living rooms, politics and history seem like a piece of cake. Decisions are simple. Don’t escalate the Vietnam War. Don’t bomb Cambodia. Don’t support Saddam Hussein in his fight against Iran. Don’t approve of the Patriot Act. Don’t allow U.S. interrogators to use waterboarding to get information out of terror suspects. These decisions might seem easy and very straightforward 40 years after the fact, but they did not at the moment.

Robert S. McNamara came from a business background, as he was in charge of the Ford Motor Company before becoming Secretary of Defense. In his world, he was a number cruncher. His world was based on facts, figures, theories, and already proven models of success. That is how the business world operates. In foreign policy, there are also rules. We had just defeated fascism in Europe and the Pacific and were now moving on to defeat the Soviet empire. If it worked before, why can’t it work again?

That is why McNamara thought sending hundreds of thousands of more troops to Vietnam would win the war. That is how we defeated Hitler. The D-Day invasion was a large ground assault that aimed at pushing back our enemies till they gave up. Nixon thought bombing the Viet Cong would force them to surrender. That much ridiculed strategy made sense in Japan, when heavy bombing campaigns, ending in the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, broke their will to fight and made them accept unconditional surrender. Nixon and Johnson thought if it worked in the 1940s, why couldn’t it work in the 1960s?

Bush might have thought the same when he invaded Iraq in 2003. He probably figured it would be a short war and that military occupation wouldn’t be such a big deal. We occupied West Germany and Japan after WWII and look at where they are now. They are now first world democracies. Iraq could have a similar future if they would just get their act together.

President Obama is being criticized by his own supporters of not doing enough to reverse Bush-era policies relating to anti-terrorism. Instead of drawing back our forces in the Middle East, he is increasing them by sending 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. The scheduled June 30 pullout of U.S. troops from Iraqi cities was a timetable agreed to by Bush, not Obama. Had McCain won the election, that pullout would have still happened.

Obama has not been the anti-war president that many of his peace loving liberal supporters have hoped for. He will completely withdraw from Iraq on the Iraqi government’s terms, not his own. He will increase our troop strength in Afghanistan, a country that is becoming very weary of our continued presence there. Meanwhile, back at home, people are getting tired of war. We voted for Obama to change things, not for them to remain the same. I suppose that’s how politics work. They make promises, and they later break them.

But Obama isn’t completely breaking his lofty campaign promises. He is shutting down Guantanamo Bay, but it’s moving a lot slower than some people expected. He promised to shut down military tribunals of terrorist suspects, but he has recently re-approved of them. What does this all mean? Simply put, the world is a lot simpler from the campaign trail. Once you get to the White House, read those daily memos, listen to important people in the Joint Chiefs, Pentagon, CIA, and State Department, the world becomes a little more complex. Just ask Kennedy, or McNamara, or even Bill Clinton.

Our current president is realizing that the world is a little more difficult to handle than he had previously thought. He criticized Bush for making bad decisions that further endangered the American people, but now he realizes that you can’t solve the world’s problems with a push of a button. You have to make tough decisions. Even decisions that are unpopular.

I am not saying that Bush did the right thing to protect us from further terrorist attacks. I am not saying that Robert S. McNamara shouldn’t be critiqued for getting us involved in Vietnam when we had no business of being there. Nor am I saying that Henry Kissinger’s “Realpolitik” Cold War strategy was a good idea. Killing others to save others is never that easy of a concept. We should never consider a war to be our only option to solve our problems. We should be more pragmatic in our approach and realize that our actions do have consequences, despite what we may think at the time.

But, regardless, we should not stick our nose at them and believe we wouldn’t make the same choices if we were in their position. If you had a 50-50 chance of destroying your country and other people’s countries, if falling dominoes were more of a reality than a theory, if your country were just attacked by 19 hijackers, your perspective would change. You wouldn’t look at the world the same way. If you had the weight of the world on your shoulders, those so-called “easy decisions” to do the right thing suddenly becomes much more difficult.

This is not to say that people cannot make the right choice. What one can say is that we should be careful to play the accusatory card before really understanding the circumstances behind the decisions made by important people. We should judge their actions, but we should do it in a spirit of humility, perceptiveness, and intelligence. Without that, we become full of “retrospective snobbery,” where we feel free to condemn the sins of the past before thinking about whether we would truly have done things differently.

We may never get the chance to start a war, but we can certainly talk about what we would do if we could. But we should do this remembering that all actions, both horrible and honorable, are a product of its time. And those of us with the gift of knowing how the future unfolds should always keep in mind that years from now, maybe after we’re dead, our actions will be judged by later generations. If we weren’t too kind to our predecessors, who is to say ours will be kind to us?

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