Venerable historian Garry Wills recently posted a piece revealing his role at an off-the-record meeting President Obama convened with nine professional historians over a year ago. Though a frequent critic of President Obama’s policies, I reacted to Wills’ piece with a kind of tingling cognitive dissonance: sympathy for the President and, frankly, disdain for the profession I admire enormously.
Wills breaks his silence because “there has been no follow-up on the first dinner” (and if Wills’ account is accurate, I can understand the president’s reluctance to break bread again), “and certainly no sign that he learned anything” from the June 2009 dinner. Oh my, the professors’ lectures failed to impress! The president will have to settle for a Gentleman’s C.
The whiff of self-aggrandizement in the piece is understandable — Wills has written over 40 books, more than the average American has read. He is a truly distinguished historian and acquires his self-importance honestly. I forgive the “Barack really should have listened to me” petulance of the piece.
I find it harder to forgive the squandered opportunity of professional historians bringing to bear the wisdom of their craft for the benefit of a president eager to learn. Credit to the president. In principle, a gathering of accomplished historians “to discuss what history could teach [the president] about conducting the presidency” is a tremendous idea.
In practice, the gathering seemed to have little to do with history and much with current-events talking points — in some cases, counter-historical talking points.
The “main point the dinner guests tried to make” that night, Wills tells us, was “that pursuit of war in Afghanistan would be for him what Vietnam was to Lyndon Johnson.” No other issue “rose to this level of seriousness or repeated concern.” As Wills elaborates: “the President might have been saved from the folly that will be his lasting legacy. But now we are ten years into a war that could drag on for another ten, and could catch in its trammels the next president, the way Vietnam tied up president after president.”
Really? Our best historical minds gather at the president’s invitation, and their most urgent contribution to the President’s understanding was a counter-historical cliché? I want so much to write about urgent contributions from history that might have been. But too much of what was demands attention.
First, regarding Afghanistan and Vietnam, in the former, we successfully ousted the brutal Taliban from power and made possible truly historic democratic elections that installed the beginnings of democratic governance in Afghanistan. We are now fighting a counter-insurgency and contending with a kleptocracy — but a government that steals beats a government that throws acid in women’s faces for being insufficiently modest.
In Vietnam, even though we won the Tet Offensive and crippled the Viet Cong, we were limited to fighting against an invasion of South Vietnam and were never able to target and take out the brutal North Vietnamese government because of the specter of nuclear retaliation from the Communist bloc. We’ve already won in Afghanistan what we were never permitted to win in Vietnam.
Second, the specious historical comparison between Afghanistan and Vietnam only becomes plausible if the United States scurries out of Afghanistan — vindicating Ho Chi Minh’s declaration that “we don’t need to win military victories, we only need to hit them until they give up and get out” — and then the Taliban or Al Qaeda takes over, and the tyranny that ensues results in a million Afghans being sent to “re-education camps,” where tens of thousands die, a million more become refugees, basic freedoms disappear, and more people die in the first years of the new regime than ever died during all the years of the war. That’s beginning to look like a proper comparison of Afghanistan and Vietnam.
And it looks very much like the legacy that President Obama politely declined in his dinner with the historians. Credit to the president.
Third, the subtext of Wills’ “Afghanistan quagmire” rant is another counter-historical canard about Afghanistan being the “graveyard of empires,” an impossible conquest. But what is now Afghanistan has been conquered easily enough by Alexander the Great, the Kushans, the Sassanids, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, the Moguls, the Turkmen bandit Nadir Shah, and the British. The only significant failure in Afghanistan was the Soviet Union, which may have something to do with the remarkable incompetence and brutality of the Soviets, and the determination of another superpower, America, to empower the opposition.
Moreover, America is in Afghanistan not to conquer and subjugate it, much less occupy it, but to drain the swamp of extremism that gave rise to 9-11, and to ensure Afghan self-determination. That is an historically honorable foreign policy, compared to all other powers that have invaded Afghanistan.
Fourth, “the way Vietnam tied up president after president”? Coming from an untutored citizen, such a statement would be just a bit reckless. Coming from a professional historian, it’s malpractice. The Vietnam War “tied up” President Johnson. No president before him was especially occupied with the Vietnam War because American presence in Vietnam before Johnson was limited to academics and advisors. Kennedy certainly didn’t expend any political capital on Vietnam, and Eisenhower before him counseled Kennedy not to get too involved. The presidency after Johnson’s — Nixon’s — administered the withdrawal from Vietnam, and by the way, he won a second term. So Vietnam tied up a president, not president after president.
Fifth, the meme of “tied up” implies, counter-historically, a presidency rendered impotent by a foreign “quagmire.” Yet Johnson’s presidency was astoundingly successful in its progressive agenda (the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, federal aid to education, etc.). Johnson, thoroughly-schooled in Texas politics and the byways of Congress, knew a thing or two about how to get legislation enacted. Never mind Vietnam.
Indeed, Andrew Leonard at Salon makes the interesting and sobering point (with intended commentary on present times) that the rightwing backlash against Lyndon Johnson in 1966, the mid-term elections two years after his landslide victory over Barry Goldwater, reflected the success of the Johnson agenda. The unspoken corollary, historically speaking, is that Johnson was undone not because he had failed to achieve quite extraordinary things domestically, but because he faced a revolt from the leftwing of his party over Vietnam and concluded that he could not win nomination as a Democrat for the presidency.
In other words, Johnson might have been a very successful and re-electable liberal president, but for his party’s stubborn distaste for, and determination to end, the Vietnam War. As we see no similar, much less viable, “revolt” in the Democratic party against Barack Obama — quite the contrary, the president’s policy in Afghanistan may be the only thing that gains him and his party some support from independents — it’s just, again, bad history to compare Afghanistan and Vietnam.
Sixth, the Left — if not the esteemed historians eating with the president in 2009 — is generally wiser now. In a 1995 Wall Street Journal interview with former North Vietnamese Colonel Bui Tin, a member of the North Vietnamese general staff who received the unconditional surrender of South Vietnam’s President Duong Van Minh on April 30, 1975, he was asked if the American antiwar movement was important to Hanoi’s victory.
Said Colonel Tin: “it was essential to our strategy.” He continued:
“visits to Hanoi by Jane Fonda and former Attorney General Ramsey Clark and ministers gave us confidence that we should hold on in the face of battlefield reverses. We were elated when Jane Fonda, wearing a red Vietnamese dress, said at a press conference that she was ashamed of American actions in the war and would struggle along with us… Those people represented the conscience of America … part of its war-making capability, and we were turning that power in our favor.”
The Far Left would be fine with a reprise. The nearer Left — including Barack Obama — doesn’t want the second war lost by America again its doing. Credit to the president. Shame on the historians.
Kendrick Macdowell is a writer and lawyer living in Washington, DC.