Mark Moyar: 'Worst in History'? Jimmy Carter forgets how the Democrats botched Vietnam

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Moyar is the author of "Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965" (Cambridge University Press, 2006).]

Jimmy Carter made a remarkable statement late last week in telling the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that "I think as far as the adverse impact on the nation around the world, [the Bush] administration has been the worst in history."

It was an unprecedented comment from an ex-president, someone who isn't a disinterested observer. Mr. Carter may be trying to spare his own administration the "worst in history" label, which it fully deserves.

As president, Mr. Carter managed to alienate nearly every major country in the world and did so without asserting American power in ways that might justify that alienation. No other president has crammed as many foreign policy debacles into a four-year period. The Sandinista takeover of Nicaragua and the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis are but two examples of many. Near the end of his term, it should be remembered, Mr. Carter's approval rating fell to 21%, the lowest in the history of polling.

Of course, the reason Mr. Carter, and others, rank President Bush at the bottom is the Iraq war. Mr. Carter himself did not get the country into a war during his presidency, likely because he lacked the fortitude. If we want a useful comparison with presidents who did get us into a difficult war, we need look no further than the two men who put the United States into its last protracted conflict, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Kennedy commands much admiration among the literati, in part because his Vietnam decisions have been misunderstood. Four-and-a half decades after Kennedy dramatically deepened America's commitment to South Vietnam, we are just now learning critical facts about his actions. This alone might cause us to beware of sweeping pronouncements about a president and his place in history while he is still in office.

New evidence shows that Kennedy reluctantly allowed Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge to instigate the disastrous coup against South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in November 1963, the event that did the most to draw the U.S. into the war. Lodge, a liberal Republican, favored a coup because Diem was not handling South Vietnamese dissidents the way an American politician would. During October 1963, in violation of presidential orders, Lodge secretly encouraged a group of South Vietnamese generals to revolt, igniting the conspiracy that produced the coup three weeks later.

Lodge did not notify Washington of his actions, but one week before the coup, top administration officials caught wind of it. Although Kennedy was incensed, he did not stop Lodge. In the summer of 1963, Kennedy had appointed Lodge, a prominent Republican with presidential aspirations, to be ambassador to Vietnam to shield himself from Republican criticism if the situation in Southeast Asia worsened. But this maneuver shackled Kennedy. The president couldn't fire or rein in Lodge for fear that in 1964, a presidential candidate Lodge would accuse him of mismanaging the crisis. Like too many Democrats today, Kennedy put a higher priority on undermining Republicans than on advancing America's interests abroad. The coup went ahead and the South Vietnamese went from winning the war to losing it because of the ineptitude of the new rulers....

At this point, it appears that the Iraq war resulted from decisions that the president sincerely believed would benefit the U.S. and the peoples of the Middle East. If that is what history concludes, President Bush won't be considered the"worst" American president -- he will certainly deserve more respect than war presidents who undermined the American cause by putting re-election before the national interest.

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    More Comments:

    Jeffery Ewener - 5/27/2007

    Well said. The fact is, while the Democrats certainly bear responsibility for the Vietnam waste (though Nixon managed to prolong it 7 more years), they also managed to achieve a few good things -- the Civili Rights legislation, the Great Society initiatives, and other attempts at real progress for Americans (while also overthrowing any democratically elected foreign government ehy happened to disagree with). Bush has absolutely nothing on the plus-side of his ledger, nothing to show for 8 years of tough talk, pandering and stupid decision-making.

    Mike Schoenberg - 5/26/2007

    There are so many things wrong with Buch and Co. that it's a miracle a modern Martin Luther hasn't posted 95 wrongs.

    1) Katrina-still unatended to
    2) The fact that global warning is given the short shift and when scientists, not the most liberal group say wake up-conservatives poo-poo it...
    3) Runsfeld and his idea of a small army now discreted
    4) The fact that our troops were sent in without proper equipmnet- unprodected Humvees etc. and that their families had to raise money for them
    5) And related to that last note the fact that the general population hasn't had to make any sacrifices in the way of higher taxes, instead this is gooing to be a burden for later generations.

    The list could go on with the Attorney General firing to the Valerie Plume scandal- again with the latter the whole justification for the war built on lies and more lies.