The reason why reflections on history is part of being a thinking citizen is because judgements from hindsight about past events are invaluable and make us better thinkers about similar events today. This week in history US President Lyndon Johnson said:
‘We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys out to be doing for themselves.’
By the time of that statement the US was already heavily involved in South Vietnam. The statement was also made two weeks before the presidential election when the anti-war narrative was prevalent, almost eminent, in public discourse. President Johnson, line his predecessor, was ready to intervene wherever necessary in stemming the progress of Communism. It was they who took America into Vietnam, and it would not be for another decade when the US would pull out.
What can we learn from this? First, President Johnson backtracked his policy in making the statement, only to go back to sustaining the war for years after. Did make that statement just to win an election? The fact of the matter is that he did win the election and he failed to withdraw troops from Vietnam. Does any of this sound familiar?
Secondly, if we were to give Johnson the benefit of the doubt and think that he had every intention of pulling out of Vietnam immediately, then this is yet another ageless lesson we can learn about war – that it does not go according to plan. No one expresses this better than Churchill who, in one of my favourite quotes from his World War 1 memoires, says; ‘Let us learn our lessons. Never, never, never believe that any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on that strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events. Antiquated war offices; weak, incompetent or arrogant commanders; untrustworthy allies; hostile neutrals; malignant fortune; ugly surprises; awful miscalculations; all take their seat at the counsel board of the morrow of the declaration of war. Always remember that however sure that you can easily win, that there would not be a war if the other man did not think he also had a chance. ‘
Thirdly (and this is where we can apply hindsight), how many promises about war have been broken? More importantly, how many wars since Vietnam did statesman at least talk like it was going to be straightforward but ended up being lengthy and complex? I can think of two – Bosnia and Sierra Leone. Furthermore, how many wars before Vietnam could Kennedy and Johnson have learnt from? Do we seriously never learn from history.
I should state that I’m not making an evaluative judgement about whether or not people should intervene martially in certain situations. Maybe it was right to go into Vietnam, into Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, etc. ThinkCitizen isn’t here to make judgments for you but to help you think for yourself. What I am saying is that we are often taken for fools when our leaders make promises, especially if they are on the campaign trail. To that, a ThinkCitizen is very well armed with a knowledge of history.