Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. George Santayana
The 30-year US involvement in Vietnam (technically an involvement: war was never declared) is universally regarded today as a terrible mistake. It ended in defeat, after an estimated 500,000 Vietnamese killed; 58,000 US soldiers, many of them conscripts, dead and 300,000 wounded physically (many more mentally, resulting in a high post-war suicide rate); the savage blow to US prestige, just when, after the second world war, its standing was perhaps at its highest ever (along with Vietnam, the US also lost its virtue); the damage to the environment with the destruction of villages and infrastructure, the use of poisonous defoliants; the use of napalm on villages, the massive high-level bombing, the massacres of civilians carried out by US soldiers, of which My Lai is the most notorious example; all of this was watched by a horrified world. US prestige has never recovered. Nor has its economy. The £150 billion spent, when corrected for inflation, is in the same ballpark as the $3 trillion estimate for the Iraq war, and had a predictable effect on the economy with an increase in national debt and a weakened dollar.
It is therefore important to know exactly how this tragic foreign policy blunder occurred.
First and foremost, this was an executive war. The US government gradually became tied in by the decisions of successive presidents and their intimate advisers until so enmeshed that finally the Senate meekly granted more men, more money, more materiel when the executive demanded it. Opposition to the war was slow to gain any momentum. These were Cold War days, and the war was continued, even though experts advised that it was unwinnable (shades of Afghanistan!), partly because Vietnam could not be left to be taken over by Commies, partly because US prestige became heavily involved, and partly to save the face of the executive, in particular president Lyndon Johnson. When reading over the history, it is sickening to discover that the vicious war was continued for years against expert advice, for reasons that included election dates.
In the beginning, US aid was involved. Not aid to Vietnam, which had seized the opportunity after the war to declare a People’s Republic, but aid to France, which wanted to re-establish colonial rule, and continue its century-long exploitation of that rich country. When a post-war French force set sail to establish control over Vietnam, it was in American ships. The French found a nation intent on self-determination. After the initial opposition had been crushed, the Viet Minh vanished into the villages, and Ho Chi Minh fled to the north, which China administered, and set up the Provisional Government in Hanoi.
It is worth noting that if left alone, the Vietnamese would have had a government which would have included communists, but which would have been strongly nationalist, resisting takeovers from communists or anyone else. The ‘domino’ theory (if Vietnam falls to the communists, other SE Asian states will follow) on which US involvement was based was flawed from the outset. Once upon a time the US fought a war of liberation for their own independence from Britain, yet US policy over all the years of their occupation of Vietnam failed to take this obvious, powerful motivation into account, and so seriously underestimated the resistance of the Viet Cong.
Part Two: Exit the French; enter the Americans
Roosevelt, following the best American ideal, was strongly opposed to the French recolonisation of Vietnam after the war. He wanted a transition to self-government, overseen by the United Nations. The idea that the Vietnamese might be left alone to organise their own future does not appear to have been considered, even by Roosevelt. The responsibility to set Asians on the right path was still felt to be the white man’s burden. But Roosevelt died before the war’s end, and history changed course. With American opposition withdrawn, the French forces set sail in US ships, some in uniforms of US issue and carrying US weapons, and began the process of setting up French administration in Vietnam.
They encountered fierce opposition. Before the arrival of the French, the Viet-Minh, a coalition of groups with nationalist aspirations, had already announced the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. From the beginning voices predicted that France’s war against an elusive, guerrilla foe was unwinnable. The French commander, General Leclerc, surveyed the situation, noted the power of the nationalist movement and reported back to his political masters, ‘It would take 500,000 men to do it, and even then it could not be done’. In view of what happened over the next decades, his original assessment proved remarkably accurate.
In America events in Vietnam were seen though the lens of the Cold War. This was the time of the communist victory in China, of extended Soviet control in Eastern Europe. In 1948 the USSR absorbed Czechoslovakia. In 1949 NATO was formed, and USSR exploded its first atomic bomb. In 1950 Senator Joseph McCarthy announced his list of communist infiltrators, and for the next four years provoked anti-communist hysteria in America. In May 1950 president Truman announced the first grant of $10 million of military aid to France, who were seen to be holding the line against the commies. With USSR and China recognising Ho Chi Minh’s government in the north, and the West, including US, recognising the puppet Bao Dai government as legitimate rulers of ‘independent’ Vietnam, the scene was set for the tragedy that followed.
From the outset US military chiefs warned that ‘Once United States forces and prestige have been committed, disengagement will not be possible short of victory’. This fear of loss of face was to be a powerful spur to continuing the war, against advice from experts sent to assess the situation on the ground, and even when opportunities came to disengage. The CIA warned that ‘Even if the United States defeated the Viet Minh field forces, guerrilla action could be continued indefinitely’.
French forces were having a hard time against just such an adversary, and French public opinion against the long and costly war was growing. Political pressure for a negotiated settlement mounted. US aid to the French increased. In three years, 350 shiploads of arms had been delivered, in addition to financial aid, all to no avail. Then came the terminal catastrophe of Bien Dien Phu. 12,000 French troops had been sent to fortify this northern city, situated in an area controlled by Viet-Minh, who were able to cut off French supply lines and destroy the airstrip . The action culminated in a comprehensive defeat that effectively ended their war. 50,000 French troops had been killed, 100,000 wounded. Even so, when Dien Bien Phu forced the French to admit defeat after six long, costly years, the US Executive decided to step into the breach, against advice of their own experts.
Why was this? Though the military assessment was dire, the US Executive, behind closed doors, decided that politics must overrule everything else. US ground forces were stealthily committed, and the war in Vietnam, costly to even the huge US treasury, and morally even more so to US standing in the world, which was to end twenty years later in ignominious defeat, commenced.
Part three: The United States gets its hands dirty
The subtitle is unfair. The Senate, let alone the American people, were not involved in the decision to commit US armed forces in Vietnam. It was only after the military were deep in the morass, and needed Senate authorisation for increased funding, that the US government had to make a decision – and by then extrication without loss of face was almost impossible. Yet the watching world, seeing pictures of children burned by napalm, villages exploding in flames from US bombs, witnessing the massive bombing of the North, the use of poisonous defoliants, reading the accounts of the trial of William Calley, and of the massacre of hundreds of helpless villagers at My Lai, were aghast at the brutality the great superpower was capable of. The reputation of the US, self-styled leader of the free world, and with some justification for the title, was severely damaged, and has perhaps still not recovered to this day. Yet the American people had no hand in any of these atrocities, and in the end – it took a very long time – it was the American people, through massive protests against the war, who were instrumental in stopping it.
This was a war started behind the closed doors of successive Administrations, and continued through five US presidencies. What was the perspective of those few, on whom the hard decisions fell? What influenced their decision to keep the US involved, even when each was presented with opportunities for withdrawal?
Truman’s administration set the whole process in motion after the world war, by countermanding Roosevelt’s oft-stated adamant opposition to the French recolonisation of Vietnam. Not only did the US withdraw its opposition – with huge amounts of military aid it actively supported the French war to regain its former colony. Though such support ran counter to expressed US ideals, a stronger motive overruled the distaste. The French were seen as a bastion against the creeping tide of communism. The Viet Minh included communists, but their aim was a Vietnam free of occupation. The US vision of Vietnam was as a ‘domino’ that might fall and cause the fall of others, extending in the most extreme scenarios to the fall of the whole of Asia, New Guinea, Australia and New Zealand! As the example of Laos was later to show, this was a mistake, and bitterly did both Vietnam and the US pay for it.
This ‘domino’ theory pervaded thinking in all successive administrations, but in addition there were two other major motives in the continued commitment in Vietnam. One was a loss of US face on the world stage – a consideration hardly worthy, or even true (a UN-mediated withdrawal would have improved US standing), but one which, being human, successive administrations thought cogent. The other was the personal thought, expressed in clear words by two of the presidents and no doubt entertained by the others, that ‘America is not going to lose its first war under my presidency!’ Such is the degree that human failings enter into the large decisions that determine human history.
Democracy was meant to spread decision-making to involve our representatives, but in practice, when it comes to decisions of war and peace, democracy has proved little different from dictatorship. Today there is much talk of improving our democracy by reducing executive power, and perhaps some improvements will actually result. The history of Vietnam demonstrates the need.
Subsequent history of the tragedy of Vietnam is interesting (if you have a strong stomach!), and next I would like to briefly summarise the main incidents and decisions made by the remaining four presidents involved, as the war extended towards its 30th year.
Part 4: Vietnam under Eisenhower
The story of how each of the four succeeding presidents handled the situation that Truman bequeathed, the problem of US involvement in Vietnam, is of compelling interest. There were differences in style: each president failed in a different way.
‘I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.’ Thus ex-General of the US Army, and newly elected President, Dwight D Eisenhower. Eisenhower famously coined the phrase military-industrial complex to describe the military beast he saw growing in his country after the war, though he would be surprised at its gigantic size and power in America today.
In another famous quote, he said, ‘Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed . .’ Given his understanding and his loathing of war it is strange, then, that President Eisenhower did not take the opportunity to take America out of the developing mess of Vietnam. This was a time before US troops had been officially committed, and when advice from experts, including CIA assessment, warned that a military victory in a land aspiring to become a free nation would be difficult to achieve, and, if achieved, of little value when imposed upon a hostile people.
Nevertheless, Eisenhower was uncharacteristically hawkish about Vietnam. It was he who first used the phrase ‘falling dominoes’ to describe the notion that if Vietnam should fall to the communists, other neighbouring nations would soon also collapse. Though he did not commit US forces, he did sanction considerable US military aid to the occupying French forces, and to the southern Vietnamese army after the French had been defeated.
On one point Eisenhower was firm – he was unequivocally opposed to committing US forces in Vietnam without Congressional approval: a scruple that did not deter his successors. Under Eisenhower, the fanatically anti-communist John Foster Dulles was Secretary of State. Dulles was famous for his outspoken ‘brinkmanship’, warning that if China interfered in Vietnam ‘massive retaliation’, generally understood to be a nuclear strike, would follow. Half the world thought Dulles was bluffing, and the other half feared he was not. This was also the time of the rise of Senator McCarthy, of reds under the bed, anti-communist hysteria.
The perception of the red bogey constrained Eisenhower. He felt he could not ‘lose’ Vietnam: too much US prestige had become involved. Yet he did have an opportunity to get out, which he did not take. After the French forces had withdrawn, a Geneva accord was signed and the country divided along the 19th parallel pending general elections. As the north outnumbered the south and could be relied upon to vote almost as a single block, Diem, knowing he would certainly lose, refused participation when the time came. As US aid was contingent on Diem holding to his part of the bargain, and as Diem had been shown to be weak, corrupt and inefficient, with a strong opposition from within his own government, Eisenhower, whose personal popularity was very high, could have withdrawn US forces at that point, and so prevented the tragedy that was to unfold over the next two decades.
In his memoirs Eisenhower was to write of his doubts on Vietnam: ‘The mass of the population supported the enemy’, and that ‘American aid could not cure the defect’.
Correction to casualty figures. Our member Roshan Pedder has pointed out that the casualty figures given in Part One of 45,000 US soldiers was probably too low. US National Archives and Records Administration (www.archives.com) gives 58,193, from ’56 to ’98 (presumably including post-war deaths of the wounded, and suicides). Vietnamese deaths, stated as 500,000, probably exceeded 2 million (see www.historycommons.org/timeline.jsp?timeline=vietnam)
Part 5: Vietnam under Kennedy
The Vietnam inherited by the new administration was messy, but not as dire as it was later to become. US military was not yet directly involved, and aid had been limited to money and military equipment sent first to the French, and then after their war had been lost, to the southern government presided over by the US-installed Diem. Though Kennedy had picked a talented, bright team, there was no questioning that Vietnam must be held as a ‘bulwark’ against the red hordes, even though Kennedy himself, when a senator, had visited Vietnam and had said that to act ‘in defiance of innately nationalistic aims spells foredoomed failure’. Nevertheless, when in office, this is what he did.
A diversion into neighbouring Laos, which lay alongside Vietnam, is now necessary. This small, elongated country, in shape ominously like a domino, was at this point in turmoil. In charge was Prince Souvanna Phouma, a neutralist in cold war politics. His half-brother rival was leader of the Pathet Lao, the Laotian equivalent of the Viet Minh. The brothers were negotiating a coalition that would have neutralised their country, but the West was disturbed by the communist nature of Pathet Lao. Once in charge, would they let in the red hordes? Eisenhower thought so, and so briefed his successor. Laos was a prime domino that must at all costs be prevented from falling.
Kennedy asked for military advice from General Lemnitzer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and was shocked by his assertion that if China or North Vietnam interfered in a US action in Laos, they could be contained by the use of nuclear weapons. Still recovering from the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the failed US-supported invasion of Cuba, Kennedy decided to accept neutralisation of Laos without US intervention. His decision proved justified. No communist invasion of Laos followed.
The US handling of Laos was a shining example which was disregarded when it came to Vietnam. The situation there continued to deteriorate. ‘The guerrillas now control almost all the southern delta,’ reported Theodore White to the White House. ‘I could find no American who would drive me outside Saigon without military convoy.’
A mission of Joint Chiefs and the CIA, sent to visit South Vietnam, recommended immediate deployment of 8,000 troops to halt the deteriorating situation. The Southern troops lacked motivation, while the Viet Cong were fiercely determined to achieve a free Vietnam. The problem was, once US troops were committed, victory had to be certain, and there was no lack of advisors predicting severe military difficulties. The president’s brother Robert Kennedy advised getting out of Vietnam at once. J. K. Galbraith, sent to assess the situation, reported back that US troop involvement should be resisted because ‘our soldiers would not deal with the vital weakness’. He could see no military solution: ‘We are now married to failure’. An internationally negotiated settlement aiming at the neutralist Laotian model was essential. De Gaulle now proposed such a solution, but rather than seizing this chance to get out, Washington was annoyed at the ‘interference’.
In spite of all this advice, and without Congressional authorisation, US troops began to be deployed. By mid-1962 US ‘Special Advisers’ forces numbered 8,000, and 10 months later had more than doubled to 17,000.
On 1st November 1965 the generals’ coup took place. Diem was assassinated. One month later, President Kennedy was also in his grave..
Part six: All-out War: the Johnson years
When Lyndon Johnson became president after Kennedy’s assassination, the US involvement in Vietnam soon became a full-fledged war in all but name. The incident in the Gulf of Tonkin, now widely believed to have been invented, when two US navy ships reported that they had been attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats, provoked the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (7/8/1964) in which the US senate voted the president ‘all necessary means to repel armed attack’ to protect US forces, in effect granting a blank cheque for Executive war.
Johnson was a clever politician, with a constant eye on his own career prospects. Though quite determined that ‘I am not going to be the first president of the United States to lose a war’, and in agreement with the Joint Chiefs that the moment had come to enter upon a full-scale war, he recognised that for the 1964 election he must be seen as the peace candidate. His opponent, Goldwater, was a scarily extreme hawk. Johnson played successfully on anti-war sentiment as the peacemaker, got elected by a landslide, and made his preparations for war.
A campaign of bombing was decided upon, to try to bolster Southern morale and break the will to fight of the North, as well as having the purely military objective of stopping supply and infiltration.
War was the choice, despite the chance offered at this time to end the conflict. UN Secretary General U Thant was told through Russian channels that Hanoi was interested in talks with the Americans. A ceasefire was proposed, but was met with stalling in Washington. U Thant announced to the world that further bloodshed in S E Asia was unnecessary, and that only negotiation could ‘enable the United States to withdraw gracefully from that part of the world’. The bombing commenced, ending the last chance of a graceful exit from Vietnam.
Johnson feared that a negotiated settlement, likely to lead to a neutralist Vietnam at best, and communist control at worst, would be seen as wounding to his personal reputation, and wounding to US reputation, in that order. The stated raison d’etre for the war, the domino theory, was discounted by the CIA, whom Johnson now asked for an assessment. Confirmation came from a Working Group consisting of Joint Chiefs, CIA, and Defence, which warned that the US could not guarantee a non-communist Vietnam without risking war with China, and even possible use of nuclear weapons. These advisory bodies had no perceptible impact on the Johnson administration. The strategy was to be an escalation of the bombing until Hanoi caved in. On 9th June 1965 ‘combat support’ of the South forces was authorised, and Johnson announced an additional 50,000 US troops. By the end of that year, the total US forces numbered 200,000. There was to be now no turning back, no more negotiations; the undeclared war would have to end in defeat or victory.
The attempt to destroy Viet Cong, and their suppliers in the North, became brutal. Watched by a horrified world, napalm was used on villages, long-acting poisonous defoliants were sprayed over great tracts of forest to make supply lines visible, crops were ruined to create famine, and search and destroy missions on the ground sometimes ended in massacres of civilians, as at My Lai.
In the beginning American public opinion was equivocal. True, there was anti-war feeling, but there was also a strong belief that their country was taking an heroic stand against communism. To want the boys to come home seemed unpatriotic, and undermining of morale. The realisation that this foreign war was unnecessary, and brutal, was slow to take hold.
As more soldiers were committed, a draft became necessary. By mid-1967 the number of US soldiers reached 463,000. The brutality on the ground began to be reported in the press; anti-war demonstrations became massive; Johnson’s popularity dived. The Saturday Evening Post declared in an editorial, ’The war in Vietnam is Johnson’s mistake, and through the power of his office he has made it a national mistake’. (Years later, when George Bush declared war on another nation in his capacity as ‘Commander in Chief’, it was clear that this lesson still had to be learned.) Johnson’s political antennae were sensitive, and rather than face a humiliating deselection at the Democratic conference in favour of Robert Kennedy, as the selection date neared he surprised the nation by declaring that he would not be a candidate.
The war had another terrible five years to run.
Part seven: The end of the affair. The Nixon years.
Richard Nixon was elected on a promise of ‘We will end this one and win the peace’, by a public increasingly disillusioned with the cold war rhetoric that had kept America in Vietnam for the last 25 years. His plan and promise was to ‘bring the boys home’, and this was to be achieved by ‘Vietnamisation’ of the conflict – sending even more weapons to the Southern army (ARNV), whilst increasing the high level bombing of the North to savage levels, reducing Hanoi and Haiphong to rubble.
One problem with this plan was that it didn’t work. The ARNV were, and were known to be, a demoralised force, and the prospect of battling with the Viet Cong to save American lives did not appeal to them.
As with all the other presidents, Nixon had the chance, and was advised, to extricate his country by withdrawing with a minimum of negotiation, but did not do so for the usual reasons – loss of face on a personal and on a national level. The anti-communist rhetoric that had kept the conflict going all these years continued to be the barrier to its termination.
Nixon’s Secretary of State Kissinger (bizarrely later the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize) was as autocratic as his boss, and as in thrall to the idea of victory as had been Johnson and his predecessors. Together they concocted plans and carried them out without reference to Congress. Aiming at Viet Cong supply lines, neutral Cambodia was first bombed, and then invaded. The invasion prompted a surge in Khmer Rouge recruitment, setting the stage for the killing fields.
It is hard to invade a country secretly, and the incursion into Cambodia was soon major news in the US press. Huge ‘Peace Now’ marches began to fill the streets. Vietnam veterans tossed away their medals publicly, and a crowd of 100,000 besieged the White House. The reaction of Nixon to the growing demand for peace was rage, and he began the wiretapping and burglary of ‘peacenik’ Ellesberg, which came to nothing, but a method that eventually escalated to Watergate, and the first-ever resignation of a US president.
In 1971 Laos was also invaded to cut supply lines, a costly adventure increasing anti-American feeling. Morale amongst remaining US forces sank. Drug taking became rife, and there were now instances of ‘fragging’ – murder of officers by their own men when ordered into battle, using hand grenades.
At long last there were rumbles from Congress, all these years a mere spectator in the Vietnam tragedy. Polls now revealed a majority in favour of getting out of Vietnam, even if that meant defeat. Yet – and this is hard to take – the public were so encouraged by the ‘peace is now at hand’ propaganda that Nixon was re-elected, in a landslide. The weakness of the Democratic candidate McGovern, who unfortunately said he would ‘go on his knees to Hanoi’ to end the conflict, has been blamed.
In January ’73 the Democratic caucus of both houses voted for ‘an immediate cease-fire’, and cut-off of all funds for military operations. At this time Watergate disclosures were being heard in Judge Sirica’s courtroom, and the Nixon administration proposed calling off the bombing and for a peace treaty. US conditions to preserve Thieu’s Southern government and removal of Northern troops from the South, which had kept the war going for the last 4 years, were now abandoned, and a peace treaty signed in Paris on 27th Jan 1973 that was little different from the settlement made in Geneva 19 years before.
With further US involvement precluded by the Senate’s cutting-off of funds, within two years the unification of Vietnam by victory of the Northern forces set the seal on the US defeat that had cost so many lives, so much money, and had damaged US prestige around the world.
Part 8 : Summary
To recapitulate, the 30-year US involvement in Vietnam (technically an involvement: war was never declared) is universally regarded today as a terrible mistake. It ended in defeat, after an estimated 500,000 Vietnamese killed (some estimates are double); 58,000 US soldiers, many of them conscripts, dead and 300,000 wounded physically (many more mentally, resulting in a high post-war suicide rate); the savage blow to US prestige, just when, after the second world war, its standing was perhaps at its highest ever (along with Vietnam, the US also lost its virtue); the damage to the environment with the destruction of villages and infrastructure, the use of poisonous defoliants; the use of napalm on villages, the massive high-level bombing, the massacres of civilians carried out by US soldiers, of which My Lai is the most notorious example; all of this was watched by a horrified world. US prestige has never recovered. Nor has its economy. The £150 billion spent, when corrected for inflation, is in the same ballpark as the $3 trillion estimate for the Iraq war, and had a predictable effect on the economy with an increase in national debt and a weakened dollar.
All five US presidents involved had chances to withdraw their country from the escalating war in Vietnam.
If Roosevelt, who was strongly opposed to French recolonisation of Vietnam, had lived another two years, the story of Vietnam would have been very different. On such quirks of fate does history depend.
Harry Truman, a man not usually associated in the public mind with the Vietnam tragedy, comes out badly. He initiated the problem. It was Truman who reversed Roosevelt’s strongly expressed aversion to permitting the French to recolonise Vietnam after the war. He reversed U S policy and actively aided the French, even providing the initial transport in U S ships, and millions of dollars military aid to help the French re-establish their grip on their former colony. He was motivated by Cold War thinking that had already become established. President de Gaulle’s blackmailing threats (that France might be taken over by the communists without de Gaulle’s strong hand) were not resisted, and the French control and exploitation of Vietnam was put forward as a bulwark against the tide of communism. Had Roosevelt lived a little longer, the whole tragedy would probably have been averted. Either the French would have gone ahead without US backing, and been thrown out more quickly than happened with US backing, or else they would not have embarked upon the venture at all.
It ought also to be emphasized that at no time was the US Congress involved in any of the decisions on Vietnam, until late in the Johnson presidency, when it was only then to be coerced, some say tricked, into passing the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which officially handed over all power to the Commander in Chief, Johnson.
It is also tragic that military means were adopted. In the great confrontation between democracy and communism, the power of the good example would surely have been more powerful than guns. Freedom is an obvious good, toward which oppressed people everywhere strive. The US did not have the courage of its expressed convictions, but instead resorted to military force. Rather than thinking about dominoes, they should have remembered Berlin in the days when it was shared by the occupying powers, where the traffic was all one way. It was the tide of citizens pouring over the border to the West that forced the East Germans to build the wall. In Vietnam the massacres on the ground and from the air by the occupying forces had the effect of stiffening resolve, and giving to the US the role of oppressor.
The reduction of Congress to mere observers demonstrated an obvious deficit of US democracy. Instead of a transparent process of democratic decision-making, a succession of presidents involved their country slyly in a conflict that was a war in all but name. In modern days the error has been repeated, signifying a flaw in the system. Iraq, Afghanistan were forced upon the American people and the world by individuals with enormous power.
In this short summary of the war in Vietnam I have largely relied upon the excellent analysis of historian Barbara Tuchman, whose classic The March of Folly was first published in 1984, and is still readily available today (try Amazon.com).
Part Nine: Remedies.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Gandhi observed that in the end public pressure was always effective in removing dictators. ‘There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it, always.’ It is something of a paradox that our democracy, a superior form of government, is sometimes more resistant to improvements than tyranny. Democracy was meant to provide an alternative to kings, an enhanced form of decision-making, after open discussion by those we elected to be our representatives. But today’s democracies do not operate in this way. As we have seen, the war in Vietnam was conducted by the administrations of five successive US presidencies. Bypassing Congress, disastrous decisions were made behind the closed doors of the Executive, and presented, suitably wrapped, to the American public. Ominously, the deficit in democracy went largely unnoticed. Have lessons been learnt?
Unfortunately not. Thirty years later an American president responded to a terrorist strike in New York by declaring war on an entire country, even though that country had offered to give up the terrorists sheltering therein: an appalling decision that he was empowered to make. In an emergency, democracy was not considered a safe means of decision-making, and suddenly the nation needed a ‘commander-in-chief’. Again, as with Vietnam, inappropriate military means were chosen. Shortly after the invasion of Afghanistan, Iraq was also invaded. Another Executive decision, in spite of much warning, and this time in the face of much public opposition. Today it is clear that the decision to go to war in Iraq was hatched on a Texas ranch by US president Bush and UK prime minister Blair, and then presented to their respective parliaments in such a way that it seemed an anti-war vote would put one’s country at risk (the UK’s parliament was told that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction that could be launched ‘within 45 minutes’). Two more costly, bloody Executive wars, still unresolved today, and matching Vietnam in dire consequences. Today President Obama had to decide whether to send thousands more troops to Afghanistan, or to make a phased withdrawal. He seems to have fallen between the two stools. It is unquestioned that it is his decision. Why is there no faith in the transparent decision-making that would be characteristic of a proper democracy, where in theory the prime minister is merely primus inter pares, the first amongst equals?
A pessimistic view is that democracy is too good a system for us. It does not cater sufficiently for our desire for charismatic, decisive leaders. We demand, and will only elect, leaders of the most dangerous kind, and in an emergency hand over power to them just as if they were dictators, albeit elected ones. Perhaps we accept without questioning this flaw in our democracy because it suits our inner need for a strong leader for the clan. Here in Britain, the leader possesses all the powers of the royal prerogative, the powers once wielded by ancient kings to appoint ministers, make treaties, and decide on their country’s foreign policy. In the US, the president has at least equal power.
It is tempting to blame leaders when they make bad, costly mistakes, but this is unfair. Their job could only be done by superman himself, and in real life there are no supermen. Those in fact to blame are we, the people. Perversely, given a system of government capable of magnificent results, capable of ensuring that for the first time in history war might be finally abolished, we reject democracy and choose superman. We seem to enjoy the position of underlings. Today there is some pressure for change, to give back power to parliament from the Prime Minister and his appointed Executive, but there is not as much desire for change as you would expect from a people who really believe in democracy, and perhaps the proposed reforms will come to nothing, despite the tragedies inflicted upon us from our elected dictators.