Garry Wills: What Is at Stake in This Election

Roundup: Historians' Take

Garry Wills, in the NY Review of Books (Nov. 4, 2004):

What was the last election with great stakes in play? I suppose 1968. It was similar to this race, but (as it were) upside down. Both involve the problem of admitting a tragic mistake. The mistake in 1968 was a belief that where the French had failed in a long and committed colonial adventure in Indochina, we could replace them and succeed. We could do so, we thought, because we were not colonialists but supporters of indigenous freedom against world communism. We came with" clean hands."

The current mistake is a belief that we could enter the Mideast with clean hands as supporters of democratic values in the whole region, in opposition to world terrorism. We would do so with Donald Rumsfeld's swift military in-and-out operation to put friends like Ahmed Chalabi in charge and withdraw—just as we could use Robert McNamara's"surgical" and" counterinsurgent" operations to keep friends like Nguyen Van Thieu in charge of Vietnam before withdrawing. Both mistakes reflected an ignorance of the respective regions, a false view of America's reception by those being"helped," and an underestimation of American resistance to longer-term commitment than was first proposed.

Our election is an upside-down version of the 1968 one because the incumbent party was then most disposed to admit the mistake of Vietnam, though it had led us into the quagmire. President Kennedy's closest advisers had egged on President Johnson to sustain the war—but it was proving unsustainable, as Lyndon Johnson's withdrawal, the Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy presidential bids, and Hubert Humphrey's wobbling demonstrated. Had Humphrey won, his party would not have supported vigorous extension of the war—it had already admitted the mistake. Nixon, by contrast, though he vaguely referred to a plan for ending the war, had constituencies not disposed to that course. The anti-Communist rationale for the war was so strong that even when Nixon achieved his opening to China, Republicans who opposed that move said they would not stay with him unless he continued his commitment to the war—as he did throughout his first term. Only after many more casualties on both sides, and no accomplishment of our war aims, was the mistake finally (indirectly) admitted.

Today it is the incumbent party that refuses to admit the mistake made in the preemptive war on Iraq. Its ideological stake in the venture resembles that of the out party in 1968, while the current out party, despite Kerry's wobbling of the Humphrey sort, has a cumulative opposition to the war like that of the Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy insurgents in 1968 (their equivalents now being Howard Dean, Wesley Clark, and Dennis Kucinich). What will be done in Iraq remains unclear for both parties; but a sane policy must begin from a grasp of the mistake that was made, an understanding of which the Republicans seem incapable.

Will it take us decades and thousands of deaths to see our error in Iraq, as it did to see our error in Vietnam? It may well do so under another Republican term....

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