Blogs > Cliopatria > Turning point

Sep 19, 2007 12:04 am

Turning point

[Mr. Kaiser is the Stanley Kaplan Professor of History and Leadership Studies at Williams College, and the author of American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War (2000). ]

The President's call for an indefinite presence in Iraq faces the United States with one of the most critical choices in its history, climaxing a process that began forty years ago in Vietnam.

The fourth great crisis of our national life is upon us. The first (1774-1794) created our republic; the second (1857-68, or 1857-72 in the South) preserved it; and the third (1929-45) made us a leading world power. Ever since Strauss and Howe published The Fourth Turning at the end of 1996, their readers have been speculating about when the crisis would come, and what it would be about. President Bush’s speech last Thursday, in my opinion, answered those questions. We now know the issue that the next ten years will decide: the nature of the United States’ role in the world in general and the Middle East in particular. We shall either emerge, for good or ill, as the world’s remaining imperial power living in a long-term garrison state, or we shall step back and begin to allow the world to take care of itself again.

The issue of our world role is comparable in importance to that of slavery in the nineteenth century, and it has undergone a comparable revolution. Both slavery and world power were legacies of the last crisis. The Founding Fathers in the 1780s hoped and believed that slavery might disappear on its own, abolished it in many northern states, and banned it from the Northwest Territories. In the same way we demobilized our forces in the late 1940s and, until the Korean War, had very little thought of staging large forces overseas. Twenty-five years into the “Civil War saeculum,” as Strauss and Howe called it, slavery suddenly became a huge issue for the first time, in the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The aged Jefferson watched the controversy with horror “This momentous question, like a firebell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed, indeed, for the moment. But this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper. I can say, with conscious truth, that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would to relieve us from this heavy reproach, in any practicable way. . . . I regret that I am now to die in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776, to acquire self-government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be that I live not to weep over it. If they would but dispassionately weigh the blessings they will throw away against an abstract principle more likely to be effected by union than by scission, they would pause before they would perpetrate this act of suicide on themselves, and of treason against the hopes of the world.” When Lincoln, nearly two decades later, observed that the men of distinction among his contemporaries would never be satisfied with “shoring up the existing edifice” that Jefferson and his generation had created, he might well have read that letter, which had been published in 1829.

The counterpart to the Missouri compromise in our own time was the Vietnam War. As I have shown in my last book, the United States government had decided that it would fight Communism almost anywhere in the 1950s, but the crisis in Vietnam in 1964-5 put that resolve to the test, and Lyndon Johnson went ahead. In so doing he drew a new “line coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political” through our body politic, and particularly through the postwar Boom generation that was asked to fight the war. The Boomer left turned its back on war and on the whole political system its fathers had created and built a citadel in academia. The Right, after a temporary eclipse, embraced imperialism and strength. But meanwhile, the older generations—Johnson’s contemporaries the GIs, and the Silent generation, the parallel to the Compromisers (Webster and Clay) of the nineteenth century), eventually wound up the Vietnam War and avoided any similar adventures for about fifteen years—in the same way that slavery, after the Missouri compromise, was kept in the background for another twenty years, forbidden even to be discussed on the floor of Congress. Certainly we remained a world power, but we also abandoned the military draft. Within the military those who had lived through Vietnam kept us out of anything similar until 1990 (and, if they could have, would probably have avoided that war as well.)

The slavery question revived as a result of the Mexican War, leading first to the Compromise of 1850—the last desperate stroke of Clay’s generation, bitterly resented by most of Lincoln’s contemporaries, the Transcendentals, on both sides—and then four years later to the Kansas-Nebraska Act that upset the Missouri Compromise. The Gulf War of 1990-1 was our Compromise of 1850. The Congress barely authorized it and the country watched it with terror, but wise leadership kept the war short and not very disruptive. Yet the younger hawks—the Wolfowitzes and Perles and William Kristols and, as it turns out, George W. Bush—were deeply disappointed with its indecisive results, just as younger southerners would have preferred secession to compromise in 1850, and younger northerners bitterly resented the Fugitive Slave Act that was part of it.

9/11 was the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the prototype civil war that followed—the catalyst that made the old rules obsolete and put the critical issue squarely on the table. And the Iraq War was the Dred Scott decision, even though it has not yet provoked John Brown’s raid. Both announced the complete repudiation of previous traditions. Dred Scott threw out all attempts to restrict slavery, and the Iraq War repudiated the United Nations and the principles of international law which our fathers had fought to establish. But neither, oddly, was really enforceable. Dred Scott woke up the North. The Iraq War has failed, in part at least, because we had much less than half the forces that would have been necessary to make it successful.

Last Thursday, President Bush once again tried to drag the whole country in his wake.

“This vision for a reduced American presence also has the support of Iraqi leaders from all communities. At the same time, they understand that their success will require U.S. political, economic, and security engagement that extends beyond my presidency. These Iraqi leaders have asked for an enduring relationship with America. And we are ready to begin building that relationship -- in a way that protects our interests in the region and requires many fewer American troops.

"The success of a free Iraq is critical to the security of the United States. A free Iraq will deny al Qaeda a safe haven. A free Iraq will counter the destructive ambitions of Iran. A free Iraq will marginalize extremists, unleash the talent of its people, and be an anchor of stability in the region. A free Iraq will set an example for people across the Middle East. A free Iraq will be our partner in the fight against terror -- and that will make us safer here at home. . . . .

“Whatever political party you belong to, whatever your position on Iraq, we should be able to agree that America has a vital interest in preventing chaos and providing hope in the Middle East. We should be able to agree that we must defeat al Qaeda, counter Iran, help the Afghan government, work for peace in the Holy Land, and strengthen our military so we can prevail in the struggle against terrorists and extremists.

“So tonight I want to speak to members of the United States Congress: Let us come together on a policy of strength in the Middle East. I thank you for providing crucial funds and resources for our military. And I ask you to join me in supporting the recommendations General Petraeus has made and the troop levels he has asked for.”

The consensus for which the President is calling obviously does not exist, even within his own national security establishment. Several press reports have now made clear that General Petraeus is virtually the odd man out among the senior military, most of whom want a rapid, substantial withdrawal from Iraq to rebuild the military. But the Republican candidates-especially Rudy Giuliani, who is now getting foreign policy advice from Norman Podhoretz, and John McCain—will fall in line—and the Democratic candidates, including Hillary Clinton, will have to respond. And if a Republican wins, he will have to put up or shut up--which probably means an attempt to reinstate the draft and double the size of the Army and Marines in order to secure the Middle East.

No candidate as yet has articulated a real vision of a different foreign policy, as I tried to do here in my entry of April 14 on The people and the Congress want the war ended, but they are not articulating what that would mean or where we would go from there. Depending on developments in the next year, the Democratic presidential candidate may find it more prudent not to do so. But the need to find a new rationale for non-intervention cannot be delayed after January 20, 2009. In so doing, a new President can draw upon an important historical parallel from the history of another nation—but that is a subject for another day.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Robert Lee Gaston - 9/25/2007

We cannot overlook the fact that since Vietnam the United States has acted in areas of the world other than the Middle East.

The following examples come to mind. First, there was Regan’s aid to the Contras and counterinsurgency support to Costa Rica and El Salvador. Then we had the Clinton abortive attempt at nation building, at the behest of the United Nations in Somalia. Another was the Clinton Balkan war to establish another European Moslem state, (at the behest of NATO?) Then there was our intervention in Haiti (to some undetermined end).

Finally, there seems to Democratic congressional pressure building to have a greater military role Africa, which could lead to several generations of very bloody little military interventions.

In any event, I would not sell my defense contractor stocks quite yet. However, if a Democrat is in the White House I would look for a revitalized Pacific Architects and Engineers to replace Halliburton. (Just a little inside joke for the Vietnam vets.)

In the end, any crusty old platoon sergeant or gunny can tell you the same thing a crusty old centurion could have told you some time ago. That keeping Rome’s peace is not too peaceful.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 9/24/2007

"We shall either emerge, for good or ill, as the world's remaining imperial power living in a long-term garrison state, or we shall step back and begin to allow the world to take care of itself again."

I don't think so at all.

If we emerge from the garrison state and come home leaving the Middle East a much better place, this would not be allowing the world to take care of itself, but instead would have been delivering repairs to that part of the world. Given all the oil sitting under Iraq, it is not difficult to picture her emerging as a stable, prosperous and friendly nation, i.e., a force for civilization instead of barbarism, as a result of our repairs.

It is hardly a new Rubicon we stand before, either. Following your "third great crisis," (1929-1945, which "made us a world leading power"), we imposed a long-term garrison state on Germany and Japan--until we largely came home, but not before converting both of those countries from barbaric to prosperous and friendly nations. We have reason to be proud of the repairs we made in Germany and Japan at that time, and one day we may be equally proud of the repairs we are now making in Iraq.

Ralph E. Luker - 9/16/2007

David, As usual, this is an excellent commentary. I hope you will pursue this kind of analysis in op-eds that will alert readers beyond History Unfolding, History News Network, and Cliopatria to the crisis that you see before us.