Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security--From World War II to the War on Terrorism
February 2, 2010
JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to thank you for joining us.
Our speaker today is Julian Zelizer, Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton. He will be discussing his most recent book, entitled Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security—From World War II to the War on Terrorism.
In many ways, this book is a continuation of the discussion we had yesterday on the extended powers of the presidency, which arguably began with the evolution of a natural security state which we are now living with today ["Bomb Power," by Garry Wills]. This time, however, Professor Zelizer's presentation will focus more on the interaction between domestic politics and national security.
As our speaker writes, this book will "provide a much more dynamic and complex definition of politics than previous interpretations have offered, one that is less instrumental or predictable, one that is more varied and robust."
Today, with many Americans upset over the political battles taking place in Washington, we often long for a time when there was bipartisan cooperation in our country, especially around the critical issues of war and peace. But an examination of history reveals that what we imagine to have been is in reality something very different.
In Arsenal of Democracy, Professor Zelizer explodes the myth that politics stops at the water's edge. Based on original archival documents and other findings, Professor Zelizer offers new insights into nearly every major national security issue since the beginning of the Cold War—from FDR's masterful management of World War II, to the partisanship that scarred JFK during the Cuban missile crisis; from Reagan's fight against communism to Bush's "War on Terror." In the end, he reveals that a golden age of bipartisanship never existed in our nation's politics. In fact, Democrats and Republicans have used foreign policy debates, especially since World War II, to push their partisan agendas and their electoral interests.
He raises four central questions about national security in American politics that have reccurred since World War II: first, whether it is Congress or the president that drives national security policy; second, who holds the national security electoral advantage, Democrats or Republicans; third, how big do we want our government to be in the pursuit of peace and security; and fourth, what are the benefits of a unilateral as opposed to a multilateral approach to foreign relations—in other words, should the United States go it alone?
Professor Zelizer brings an historian's clear-eyed perspective to help us understand that it is without a doubt that politics, plain and simple, has affected all the major foreign policy decisions of our era.
Please join me in welcoming our speaker, whom you will soon come to know as someone who sets the standards for understanding the domestic politics and national security policy in our country today.
Thank you for joining us.
JULIAN ZELIZER: Thank you. Thank you for having me here. It's a pleasure.
On the evening of December 29, 1940, Franklin Roosevelt made one of the most important speeches of his presidency. Over his nearly eight years in office, with his fireside chats, FDR had used radio, the era's major medium of communication, to explain his policies to the American people.
This time he began: "This is not a fireside chat on war. It is a talk on national security, because the nub of the whole purpose of your President is to keep you now, and your children later, and your grandchildren much later, out of a last-ditch war for the preservation of American independence and all of the things that American independence means to you and to me and to ours."
Germany, Italy, and Japan were growing in military strength. While Congress had constrained the president's ability to take action, Britain was left alone fighting against backward progression. FDR said that the United States had to prepare for war.
FDR concluded his famous address by saying: "We must be the great arsenal of democracy."
"The National Security Address," as the White House called it, had the largest radio audience until that time, even reaching Europe and the Far East.
When FDR spoke about "the great arsenal of democracy," he was thinking primarily of the production of weapons in cities such as Detroit that would be needed to fight this war. But what this arsenal grew into over the next few decades, especially during World War II and the early Cold War, was something much more immense: a complex network of institutions and policies and ideas and political commitments—a permanent national security state.
Its central components included the CIA; the FBI; the National Security Council; the National Security Agency; the Atomic Energy Commission; a vastly expanded Army, Navy, and Air Force; for a time a permanent draft; international financial assistance programs; and a sizable defense budget.
The national security state was built on the foundation of an ideological commitment to continual overseas engagement through diplomacy, war, and covert action.
The attempt to maintain an arsenal of this size would create huge and pervasive tensions in American politics that have lasted well into the 21st century.
The arsenal and the democracy pose threats to each other. For the national security state, the challenge was whether sound policy could be made about war and peace, despite the pressure that naturally emanated from our free electoral system, with parties, elections, interest groups, and more.
For democracy, the challenge was whether the presence of a permanent national security state would create an insulated elite of policymakers who made decisions outside the political process.
During the next six decades since the creation of the national security state, politics never stopped at the water's edge.
Too often there has been a nostalgia that the kinds of fierce battles we see today over national security, such as the instant Republican criticism of President Obama's response to the failed Christmas bombing, are much different than what has taken place in the past. There is a nostalgia for periods such as the late 1940s, when the perception is that Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan and President Truman offered the kind of bipartisan alliance that was normative and which has since vanished. Indeed, it was Vandenberg who coined the term "politics stops at the water's edge."
But these memories tend to capture brief moments in the political history of national security. This book seeks to shatter the myth. I try to show that since we created this national security system, national security has always been a major issue of political struggles, and also politics has shaped the environment in which we form our national security policies. The book tries to provide a narrative, telling the stories about how this happened and what the implications are.
I keep coming back to these four questions raised in the introduction, in terms of which party had the partisan advantage, the ongoing struggle between Congress and the president to control national security policy, the question of unilateralism over multilateralism, and the question of how big do we want our government to be in protecting the home front.
One of the most interesting parts of the stories that I wrote are how different presidents responded to these political pressures. Politics is always a pressure as these policies are forming. In some cases, such as JFK and the Cuban missile crisis or Ronald Reagan and the ratification of INF [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces], I try to show how presidents overcame and resisted the political pressures they were facing, which were much more intense than we remember, as they crafted policy.
But another chapter, which I'm going to talk about in the next few minutes, looks more at how sometimes politicians were subsumed by the political pressures they faced.
Today I want to talk a little bit about Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam. Historians have offered many reasons as to why Johnson intensified America's involvement in Vietnam in 1964 and 1965, his sense of machismo and lack of confidence in his foreign policy abilities, most famously the domino theory, which said that if one country fell to communism, everyone else in the surrounding area would fall as well.
But the explanation which for me came out of the archives most clearly were the political pressures that pushed Lyndon Johnson in this direction, his fear that appearing weak in Vietnam would open him up to the kind of political attacks Democrats had suffered in the 1950s.
Early on, many Democrats warned President Johnson not to go in. During one famous discussion with Georgia Senator Richard Russell in 1964, who was a hawk; he was no means a dove—Johnson wondered what would happen if he tried to exit Vietnam.
"They'd impeach a president, though, wouldn't they?" Johnson asked Russell. "Outside of Senator Wayne Morse, everybody I talk to is telling me to go in. I don't know how in the hell you're going to get out unless the Republicans tell you to get out." The risk of impeachment was clearly an exaggeration. But Johnson's fears were very real in the political context of the early 1960s.
Combined with his acceptance of the domino theory, Johnson, like JFK, faced tremendous political pressure to accelerate, rather than to diminish, America's intervention in Vietnam. He believed that Republicans would capitalize on any sign of Democratic weakness, to build support for a more lethal war that would ultimately be more dangerous to the world. And he felt that he had to succeed in Vietnam in order to protect the Great Society which he was building.
Johnson, again, was a Democrat born out of the 1950s. I think, because of our fascination with the Vandenberg-Truman alliance, we often forget or diminish how partisan 1950s Cold War politics was. Republicans had made a lot of the issues both of anti-communism and the stalemate in Korea during the early 1950s, as well as the fall of China to communism in 1949.
The 1952 election was really, I think, one of the forgotten elections in American politics. It scarred an entire generation of Democrats like Lyndon Johnson. Republicans won control of the White House and of Congress. And again, two of the key issues in that campaign were the failure of Democrats to pursue communists here in the United States, as well as the stalemate in Korea.
Democrats in the late 1950s had rebuilt some of their advantage on national security, in part through the missile gap debates of the late 1950s, where they argued that Dwight Eisenhower wasn't spending enough money on missile defense—Missouri Senator Stuart Symington, Henry "Scoop" Jackson, and John F. Kennedy made this argument—and was actually making America weaker in his desire to balance budgets.
In 1964 Lyndon Johnson was starting to think about reelection. His opponent, it became clear by the summer of 1964, would be Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who was part of a cohort of Republicans who made anti-communism a central theme. Goldwater was arguing that Lyndon Johnson in fact was not going to be trustworthy to protect the nation.
Barry Goldwater was the son of Protestant and Jewish department store entrepreneurs. As a boy, his unimpressive grades had convinced his parents to send him to a military academy, where he thrived. During World War II, he had served in an Air Force unit in charge of carrying supplies, an assignment primarily for older soldiers. His record wasn't much more impressive than Johnson's, but Goldwater was shaped by the arguments of the Republican Right during the 1940s and 1950s, and he was one of the rising stars.
He reluctantly accepted the idea that big government was needed to defend the nation from anti-communism. He said: "As a conservative, I deplore the huge tax levy that is needed to finance the world's number one military establishment. But even more do I deplore the prospect of foreign conquest, which the absence of that establishment would quickly accomplish."
At the Republican Convention in San Francisco, Goldwater famously said: "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."
As for Vietnam, he knew how to get under LBJ's skin: "Yesterday it was Korea," he said. "Tonight it is Vietnam."
Republicans, including Goldwater, were attacking Johnson's Vietnam policies through the spring and the summer of 1964. On the one hand, they said they were skeptical about the war and whether it was really important to fighting communism. On the other hand, Republicans like Nixon and Goldwater argued that as long as the United States was in Vietnam—which they were—they should unleash the full force of the Air Force and its bombing power against the communists. They said Johnson was fighting a middle course and he was reluctant to do this; he was too timid.
These attacks posed a difficult challenge to Johnson, since Democrats had not coalesced around a clear position on Vietnam in the summer of 1964. What emerges from the archival records is the party was quite divided, uncertain, and confused about what to do.
There were many top advisors who privately were not convinced that defending South Vietnam was a tenable or necessary objective. Although most of Johnson's advisors in the Executive Branch were advocating continual military involvement, most congressional Democrats were much more skeptical about what to do.
In December of 1963, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield said: "What national interest in Asia would steel the American people for the massive costs of an ever-depending involvement of that kind?"
In 1964 Conservative Democrat George Smathers reported to the president that when he was on Capitol Hill he was having trouble finding legislators who thought we ought to fight a war in that area of the world.
The most revealing conversations, coming back to where I was earlier, were between Lyndon Johnson and Richard Russell, who was not only a hawk, who was not only conservative; he was also Johnson's mentor throughout the 1950s and a key power on Capitol Hill.
On May 27, Johnson had called the senator to let him know he needed advice on "this Vietnam thing." Russell said to the president, "This is the damn worst mess I ever saw," and he said there was no way to get out of a major war with the Chinese in the jungles. He said the American people were not prepared to send troops to fight.
When Johnson asked him what was at stake, Russell responded: "Not a damn bit to the U.S."
Johnson was receiving memos from advisors about the political ramifications of withdrawal. Johnson told Richard Russell that in places like Georgia they would "forgive you for everything except being weak"—especially with Goldwater raising hell about going on a hot pursuit of more bombing.
Johnson knew that at the time the public didn't know much about Vietnam, but he was worried about how public opinion could turn quickly, again remembering the election of 1952 and the damage Republicans inflicted on the Democratic Party on these issues.
When confronted with proposals for withdrawal, Johnson always remembered the period of the 1950s: "I'm not going to lose Vietnam," Johnson had told Ambassador to Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge, who was also contemplating a run. "I am not going to be the president who saw South East Asia go the way China went." And again, the fall of China in 1949 was a seminal political event in terms of how the parties postured on these issues.
Strategic and political considerations were connected in Johnson's mind. Again, besides electoral politics, Johnson feared that if Republicans gained control of Congress or the White House, they would pose a much deadlier battle. So Johnson's logic was that if he could win and stay in office, he would in fact keep the nation safer.
In the heat of the campaign, Johnson was determined to make sure that the issue did not weaken his chances for an overwhelming victory in November. While many observers dismissed Goldwater as an extremist who had no chance of winning, including Johnson, Johnson had seen enough in his lifetime—including Dewey not beating Truman in 1948, Democrats losing control in 1952—to understand that overconfidence in American politics was foolhardy. The president was hoping for a landslide election that could confirm his legitimacy.
The president took a lot of steps to insulate himself from conservative attack. The major goal was to make it hard for the GOP to make an issue out of Vietnam—on the one hand, by demonstrating he would be tough on war and peace, while also showing he was less likely to drag the nation into an all-out conflict.
A few weeks before the Democratic Convention in late July, Johnson had stepped up secret naval operations in the Gulf of Tonkin, just off the coast of Vietnam, with the hope of intimidating the North Vietnamese and taking the defense issue away from Goldwater—an issue Lou Harris reported on August 4th "is working for the Republicans."
In the early hours of August 4th, there were scattered reports of a second attack on a ship in the Gulf of Tonkin. When Johnson met with members of Congress to inform them about the situation, several Democrats wavered about what to do. Most of the Republicans in attendance called for a tough resolution authorizing the use of force.
Johnson was not convinced an attack had taken place, but he used the incident, as we know, to broaden his powers. The president pushes for a resolution granting him sweeping authority to increase military operations in the region. Electoral calculations were part of his request.
Many Senate Democrats, although we now forget, were very nervous about granting this extension of power. Arkansas Senator William Fulbright, working with the president, had personally assured senators that they could trust the president and that he had told him if he needed more authority, if he was going to send troops in, he would return to Congress to ask for their support.
Fulbright also reminded the Democrats what was at stake, that if they did not stand behind the president, Democrats would be vulnerable to the charges that Goldwater was making. In his memoirs, Fulbright would later remember this. The political calculations he made were one of the great mistakes of his career.
In the end, only two votes of opposition existed to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, but this was after a bunch of maneuvering to overcome these doubts.
Through the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Johnson sent a strong signal to voters that he would not back down in the face of communism. Johnson was elated, as his poll numbers rise within the next few days. Johnson also hit Goldwater hard for proposing to establish an all-volunteer army, charging that Goldwater wasn't taking national security needs seriously.
While Johnson protected himself from hawkish attacks, he simultaneously turned the tables on Goldwater in September of 1964 by saying that Goldwater could not be trusted with the nuclear stockpile.
By late August, many of the nation's most respected journalists, such as Walter Lippmann, were making this warning, that Goldwater would bring the nation into a full-scale nuclear war.
As Johnson explained to House Majority Leader Carl Albert, "According to the Gallup Poll," Johnson said in early September, "the three issues are roughly peace, prosperity and Medicare."
"The party to keep us out of war," Johnson said, "Democrats 44, Republicans 20."
On September 7th the Democratic National Committee played on these perceptions with the famous "daisy ad," which opens with a little girl picking petals off a daisy. She counts the petals to ten, and viewers hear a male voice counting down from ten to zero. The camera zooms in on her eyes and then a nuclear explosion fills the screen. We hear the voice of President Johnson: "These are the stakes. To make a world in which all of God's children can live or to go into the dark, we must love each other or we must die." Another voice then says, "Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay home."
The commercial causes a firestorm. The Republican National Committee accused Democrats of libeling Goldwater. The Johnson Administration agrees to pull the ad from the air. But they already had their effect.
"Through the ad," boasted Bill Moyers, "the Democrats had hung the nuclear noose around Goldwater and finished him off."
In response to accusations that the ad was reckless, Moyers added, "That's exactly what we wanted to imply. And we also hoped someone around Goldwater would say it, not us—and they did. Yesterday was spent by Republicans trying to show Goldwater isn't reckless."
This particular ad was only designed to run one time.
Johnson of course wins by a landslide, winning 61.1 percent of the popular vote and 486 electoral votes. Democrats enjoyed big majorities in the House and the Senate.
Even though he had this major victory, during the next year Johnson's fears would continue.
After the election, importantly, there are many Democrats who are saying, "Take this opportunity to scale back this war." Hubert Humphrey famously writes a memo to the president saying, "1965 is the first year when we can face the Vietnam problem without being preoccupied with the political repercussions from the Republican right." Johnson isolated Humphrey and didn't allow him in his inner-circle discussions on Vietnam.
On March 6th Richard Russell told Johnson: "The Vietnam war scares the life out of me. We just got into the thing and there's no way out and we're getting pushed forward and forward and forward."
But the warnings didn't overcome Johnson's political fears and his doubts and his worry that this could be another Korea.
Even as Republican legislators remain Johnson's strongest congressional allies on Vietnam, they continued to attack him for the policies.
Wisconsin's Melvin Laird, the Chairman of the House Republican Conference, says in June of 1965 that Republicans were "dangerously close to withdrawing their support for Johnson's Vietnam policy because the president was not clear on whether he would accept a large-scale use of ground forces to save face in Vietnam."
Arthur Krock of The New York Times observed: "Republican leaders of Congress have begun to amalgamate into a party line their increasingly critical comments on President Johnson's conduct of the war in Vietnam."
Johnson understood he had limited time to pass social legislation, and he was very worried that Vietnam would ultimately consume his presidency.
In 1965 he was worried about 1966. In 1965 Johnson was worried about the midterm elections.
According to William Bundy: "The president, his advisors, and almost every experienced Washington observer thought that the most serious pressures on American opinion must come in time from the hard-line right wing." "To make a soft move," Bundy said, "and get nothing for it was, it was deeply believed, likely to open the way to the kind of wide-out cry for the extreme measures that had characterized the MacArthur crisis," talking about General Douglas MacArthur in 1951 and the conflict that unfolded over his objections to Truman's policies.
Johnson was acutely aware that after the election he only had a limited time to pass social legislation. This was part of the reason he was willing not to tamper with the direction of Vietnam policy.
According to Wilbur Cohen, Under Secretary of HEW [United States Department of Health and Human Services], Johnson told him, "Every day that I'm in office and every day that I push my program, I'll be losing part of my ability to be influential, because that's the nature of what a president does. He uses up his capital. Something's going to come up, something like Vietnam, something else, where I'll begin to lose all that I have now."
Importantly, Johnson wasn't concerned by the left-wing opposition to the war that was starting to build on the campuses. He was much more focused on conservatives.
During a conversation with George Ball, he said, speaking of teach-ins that were starting at places like the University of Michigan—and I'll edit my comments here—"Don't pay attention to what those little [expletives] on the campuses are doing. The great beast is the reactionary element in this country."
Johnson said he understood the dangers of war, but "if we let communist aggression succeed in taking over South Vietnam, there would follow in this country," Johnson said, "an endless debate, a mean and destructive debate, that would shatter my presidency, kill my presidency, and damage our democracy. I knew that Harry Truman and Dean Acheson had lost their effectiveness the day the communists took over China."
Republicans were not pulling their punches anymore by 1965. "Why are we pulling our best punches in Vietnam?" in fact, Gerald Ford, Minority Leader for the Republicans said.
As Johnson kept increasing the number of troops, most Democrats hesitantly supported him, despite all these private concerns.
Again, Johnson's fears wouldn't subside. Even as William Fulbright in 1966 starts the famous hearings on the Vietnam war and the reasons we went in, Johnson is much more worried about the midterm elections and the potential increase of the conservative coalition of Republicans and Southern Democrats in that chamber, in part because of Vietnam.
Conservative organizations, like the American Conservative Union, were making this a central issue. Richard Nixon, seeking to rebuild his credentials, was traveling around the country raising money and campaigning for Republicans in the final week, making Vietnam a very important theme of his speeches, blaming Johnson for a policy of "retreat or defeat," and criticizing troop levels as inadequate.
According to Arthur Schlesinger, in July 1966, in his private journals, Schlesinger thought there had been a notable change in Lyndon Johnson, particularly as his poll numbers were falling. He said: "I can't resist the feeling that domestic politics, his precipitous decline in public opinion polls, constitutes a major factor in the more hawkish approach that the administration has taken."
He once told Dick Goodwin that there was far—this is Schlesinger talking about Johnson—that there was far more chauvinism in the United States than Easterners understood, and it now looks as if a course of playing the war to the hilt has recommended itself to him as the best way of reversing the polls and bringing about Democratic gains in November.
The midterms were in fact bad for President Johnson. Republicans increased their numbers in the House by 47 seats and by four seats in the Senate. The Conservative Coalition increases in size.
The cover of Time magazine quotes Ray Bliss, Chairman of the RNC [Republican National Committee], at a news briefing, saying: "This press conference will be a little different from my first one when you were asking me if the Republican Party could survive. It looks to me as if we have a live elephant."
The new governor of California, Ronald Reagan, said: "Isn't it time we either win this war or tell the American people why we can't? Isn't it time to recognize the great immorality of sending our neighbors' sons to die with the hope that we can do so without angering the enemy too much?"
So the political battles of the 1950s shaped Johnson and pushed him and congressional Democrats deeper into a military conflict, which would, ironically, have irreparable harm to the Democratic Party and to the ideas of liberal internationalism. Johnson's experiences in the early 1950s, I think, were central to understanding the political fears that he had and how he developed some of his political instincts.
This is just one of the stories that I recount in the book. History has other moments when presidents respond differently, again like JFK and the Cuban missile crisis, but it confirms the constant nexus between politics and national security policy, showing it's nothing new.
National security has always been embedded in our democratic system. We have always struggled since World War II to balance the conflicting demands of democracy and being a superpower status.
The challenges became all that much more intense because after the 1940s we created a permanent national security state, which assured that these issues would always remain at the forefront of public debate.
In retrospect, it has proven difficult, if not impossible, to keep national security above the political fray, given that the nation's differences over politics have involved differences over governance.
Even when the nation is not directly involved in war, political opponents have never hesitated from using these issues about how to best protect the nation as a way to distinguish themselves from their opponents.
The stories provide a complex picture of how politics plays out. I don't offer a kind of quasi-conspiratorial view of the military-industrial complex, but instead look at the conflicting political pressures that all presidents and legislators have faced—electoral, ideological, partisan, and institutional.
I hope the readers of the history come away with a better understanding about the dangers that stem from this relationship as well as some of the beneficial aspects of having national security as part of our political debates. This is a history that doesn't come to an end, but tries to raise questions through the stories of the past about what policymakers will need to do as they try to balance these two basic tensions in our political system.
Questions and Answers
QUESTION: You've touched all the bases. I was impressed with your history of the period of the Vietnam War era. A couple of things that I'd like to mention.
First of all, the conservatives that you're talking about who wanted Johnson to push forward were not necessarily pushing in the way that you suggested. Barry Goldwater, for one, was saying either you get in to win or you get out. That's some of the same discussion we're having now regarding the Middle East. But I think at that point they were reflecting the fears and the concerns that had happened over Korea, when we had gone in, we lost so many people, and we never fought for victory.
In fact, French intelligence thought we were nuts with the way that we had conducted the war in Vietnam. McNamara, Johnson, and the like were reluctant to go north. The French intelligence people were concerned and said, "Well, why don't you take some really strong action against Hanoi, Hai Phong and so on, if you are really going to?"
But Johnson said, "No, we're not going to do that. We're not going to send American boys to fight Asian boys' wars." He did that to win the election in 1964 however, he had to do it. But then he did it again without looking for victory.
Now we're facing the same situation. There is a continuity in American foreign policy, in the ebb and flow, which says: Well, the conservatives will take one view, the liberals on the other; those who want to go involved do, the others don't, and so on.
So how would you apply now all of these concerns regarding the national security state that you've described? We have had a continuity in saying, "We have to reduce our military, our intelligence, and so on," because of the peace dividend, for instance, in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union. But whenever we've done that, we have found ourselves at a disadvantage. We have to rebuild it. And now we're doing the same.
When Obama came in, he said, "We have to somehow change the policies of Bush." Now he finds himself in the same boat.
So taking it from the history that you've described, apply it to the present. Where does Obama go now in concerns with the national security state that you've described and imposing some kinds of policies in the Middle East?
JULIAN ZELIZER: First, on the past, I think that captures the debate very well, meaning the Republican position was to use force aggressively if you're going to use force. That was the issue with Korea and MacArthur. That was the tension with Truman. That was what Goldwater and Gerald Ford were arguing.
The administration did have a middle course, and they argued you can't risk nuclear war to win control of a strategic region.
There were limits to the conservative mobilization. So liberals were actually more aggressive in terms of supporting a draft, to actually raise the troops to fight the war. They were more aggressive in calling for tax increases to pay for the war. They were much more comfortable with certain parts of the mobilization than someone like Barry Goldwater was. So it wasn't clear.
I do think today Obama has been remarkably open to the same kinds of charges that you heard during this period—a lack of clarity about what the mission is overseas, an unwillingness to openly and aggressively use the resources that the nation has. He is in a dangerous political position.
Without outlining what his homeland security vision is, without outlining what his strategy on the war on terrorism is, predictably these arguments start to gain track. It was inevitable they were going to come back, the Richard Cheney type of arguments, and I do think they start to have an effect whenever some kind of crisis emerges.
But it doesn't mean he has to cede that ground. Democrats have had many periods when they in fact—such as under FDR, such as during the late 1950s, or even under JFK in the Cuban missile crisis—were able to make an argument about intervention that is not full-scale but in fact can be just as beneficial. Unless he makes those arguments now, I think it could be incredibly damaging to his presidency.
QUESTION: You referred to Arthur Vandenberg and Harry Truman coming together as a myth. I wonder if you could speak to that. Was this really only a myth? You know, Woodrow Wilson was unable to get support for the League of Nations because Henry Cabot Lodge was not with him, and supposedly Harry Truman made this point of taking Arthur Vandenberg with him to San Francisco. So could you explain that?
Secondly, if I may, this view of the breakdown of bipartisan foreign policy in the past has been explained as Lyndon Johnson lying to the Congress about the Gulf of Tonkin, deceiving the Congress, and that the Congress, or a certain portion of it, lost confidence in the presidency when it came out that it was not true that the United States forces were attacked by North Vietnamese forces in the Gulf. You did not refer to that. Is that a component of this kind of breakdown of relations between the executive and the legislative branches in the conduct of American foreign policy?
JULIAN ZELIZER: On the first one, I want to clarify, it's not a myth that Truman and Vandenberg worked together in 1947 and 1948. The alliance was in fact very important to the creation of the CIA, the national security apparatus.
The myth is that that captures the period. Vandenberg was surrounded by many members of the Republican Party who were truly unhappy with what he was doing. In fact, when Vandenberg in 1949 gets ill and he's less involved in the discussions, that's when instantly a lot of the tensions start to emerge between Truman and the Republicans over China, over Korea. There are these great letters where Vandenberg laments. He says he's such a weak reed because of his illness and he can't be more involved.
What I think the myth is is that that captured this golden age of that time. In fact, in some ways it was more remarkable, that alliance, because Vandenberg was really pushing against what many members of his party wanted to do, and many Democrats too. Many Democrats weren't happy with Truman's outreach.
A kind of standard campaign theme in 1949 in the 1950 midterm campaign was that Republicans are isolationist. That wasn't just an intellectual argument. That was a political strategy. The DNC [Democratic National Committee] regularly gave out voting records of Republicans to tag as many votes as possible that could be labeled as isolationist for the 1950 campaign.
So that alliance did exist. The myth is that that was where the rest of the parties were. And as soon as Vandenberg is removed, I think it's quite damaging because of that.
And again, I think things have become more partisan and you have fewer alliances like that develop.
But those alliances are not the norm.
The second truss between the institutions is very important. There is a sense that LBJ lied to some extent, and that becomes part of the tensions in the 1970s between Congress and the president over national security policy.
I think part of it, though, is a frustration of Congress that they actually knew a lot about the risks of what they did. Someone like Fulbright felt, I think, a bit embarrassed or frustrated that he had gone along with this and not totally seen where this was going to lead.
There is a new book that came out a few years ago which goes over the floor debate in the Gulf of Tonkin. A lot of liberals were making arguments you don't expect, about how can we dangerously give away executive power like this, why are we going into this, was there an attack—all those issues are right there. The tapes between Johnson and Russell are amazing because they're saying things that would come out in 1967 and 1968 on college campuses. It wasn't a secret.
So part of it is lack of trust, but I think that overstates how much they knew in 1964 and 1965. I think part is—I don't know if political embarrassment is the right word, but certainly frustration about the decisions the party took, consciously took, to accelerate that war, including for very political reasons.
But the trust is an ongoing issue. Certainly, with Nixon and Cambodia that would also be very important too.
QUESTION: As you were talking, I was trying to think of other examples where Democrats had succeeded in hanging the nuclear noose, or whatever that expression was, around the Republicans.
I think this was the only one. Whereas I was trying to think about the alternative, where Republicans had succeeded in describing Democrats as soft, and that's almost all of them. And obviously, Obama will now face some of these same charges, and I think some of his policies have been shaped by that.
Now, I think that begs a question about the American people. Both in World War I and World War II the president had a lot of difficulty dragging the American people into war against a profound reluctance. Now you're describing a kind of broad streak of national bellicosity, which every Democrat faces and is endangered by. Why is that?
JULIAN ZELIZER: I do think, if you look at trends, the time when Democrats are able to become politically stronger is when they act more hawkish, not dovish. I think that's absolutely true.
This chapter on the 1950s, again, on the origins of the missile gap debate, and how that was really important, taking on Eisenhower, and all the advantage that had been lost in 1952. That's a hawkish move. It wasn't based on truth. It was based on a false argument.
In the 1970s Henry "Scoop" Jackson and neoconservatives criticized détente—that's a central political battle with Nixon and Ford—saying the Republicans are too dovish and they're engaging in arms negotiations, and going to China, and we're the ones who carry on the tradition of FDR. So, in general, if you're going to bet, it's very hard to bet on a Democrat not taking that position.
There are moments. The other moment I do think we forget about is the first part of Reagan's presidency, where obviously Reagan is going to win reelection. But in that first term what was remarkable in the archives is how much pressure Reagan is facing from advisors to back down a bit from the very hawkish position he took in the first few years and he had done throughout the 1970s.
The pressure comes from a lot of sources—from House Democrats, who are really putting restrictions and pushing back against things like Central America. Public opinion clearly is not in favor of intervention in Central America. There is no poll showing Americans want Reagan to go there.
The International Freeze Movement, which we I think remember as a quirky fringe group, wasn't at all. It was an international group that was drawing millions of people. The Administration is very cognizant of it, and they're talking about in 1982 and 1983: "We need to respond. We have to show how we're the peace party too." "We're going to suffer in the polls," advisors are saying. SDI [Strategic Defense Initiative] is, in part, a response to the Nuclear Freeze Movement—"This is how we will achieve peace."
A lot of that, I think, helps explain some of Reagan's shift by 1983 and 1984. There are other reasons, such as the confrontation over Korean Airlines and the real dangers that emerge. But clearly, political pressures moved Reagan in another direction. The Democrats were pretty forthright about attacking that.
Obviously, Reagan's term ends very differently. He ends not as the hawk but as the dove. He takes the initiative on the breakthrough with Gorbachev. That has now become his legacy, much more than the "evil empire" speech and much more than the kind of abandonment of détente, which is how he came into office.
So there are some examples, but in general I do think the movement says, at least in rhetoric, the American public likes that hawkish rhetoric. I'm not sure in practice. I think there was a notion that after the 1970s we became this "Rambo" country, and every textbook chapter on America in the 1980s uses that movie to capture how Americans thought. But I don't think that's true. I mean we didn't have a draft. We didn't have a lot of support for vastly building up a huge military presence around the world.
I think presidents, including President Bush II, have struggled with this. President Bush I certainly did. He circumscribed Operation Desert Storm. He was very clear that America would not support rebuilding another country. He goes to Congress for a resolution of support, in part, because James Baker says, "You need to do this or else Congress is going to abandon you." It's not a declaration of war, but it's still a decision over Vice President Cheney, who said, "Just ignore them."
So I do think the public pressure outside of the rhetoric actually goes both ways.
QUESTION: Right at this podium yesterday we had an interesting discussion about national security in which it was outlined that seminal events in the country's national security history were done in total secret, such as the Manhattan Project or the taking over of the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, from which the inhabitants were exiled. This was not really with any approval of the Congress. Would you comment on the constitutional basis, or lack thereof, in taking the country to war, which has been undeclared in most cases since the end of World War II, or also the constitutional basis in confronting global terrorism as we speak? And was the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution the constitutional equivalent of a declaration of war?
JULIAN ZELIZER: I think the kind of story line you hear traditionally—I'm sure Garry Wills talked about it—is that 1950 is the turning point, with Korea, and moving away from the World War I and World War II pattern of asking Congress for a declaration of war.
Clearly, it is hard to argue that that happened. I mean we now have presidents deploying troops and conducting many operations through the Executive Branch in total secrecy. I do think for most constitutional scholars it raises questions about a diminished role for a Congress that was clearly the intent of the Framers.
That said, I think that argument sometimes downplays again, as I try to capture in this example, the conscious decisions parties make, even without a declaration of war. So again, the Gulf of Tonkin is interesting because it's not as if Democrats were swept up by the domino theory and blindly give President Johnson this authority for war. He takes us into Vietnam.
It's very clear through the public record, through the private record, many Democrats were aware of the risks of this. They were making decisions for their party. They were making strategic decisions about allowing the president to do this. That is an act of Congress.
I think with Iraq, the recent Iraq Resolution under President Bush was the same thing. One argument is that Congress rolled over to President Bush once again, gave him this authority. Another is both Republicans and certain Democrats made the decision to go along with the resolution, not with a declaration of war, but not to do anything about it at the time, for political calculations, for strategic calculations. That's a democratic choice. That's a congressional choice too. I think we can't downplay that too much.
Clearly, though, relying on a declaration of war raises the bar and it would create more limits on deploying troops and conducting some of these secret operations. But the danger is forgetting that parties were making these decisions consciously.
QUESTION: I wonder if you could indicate your views about the influence of domestic politics versus national security considerations in terms of American policy towards Israel-Palestine from 1948 on.
JULIAN ZELIZER: God, a noncontroversial question. [Laughter]
Look, like any other region almost, every other region, there are political origins to the debates over a national security question. I don't think Israel is unlike Saudi Arabia. I don't think Israel is unlike France or parts of Europe. All debates over national security have emotional, organizational, and institutional roots here in the country.
I think some of the literature on Israel highlights this is an exceptional case, that somehow this a lobby that exists or this is an area where you have political factors behind our policies and in other areas it's pristine. I think that misses the mark.
I also think it's overwhelming or over-determined in terms of how much influence Israeli policy has had. For example, one of the big debates is over the sale in 1982 and 1983 of AWACS [Airborne Warning and Control Systems] to Saudi Arabia. Ronald Reagan had won a very large percentage of the Jewish vote relative to other Republicans. Many in the party, including Elizabeth Dole, who is director of the Office of Public Liaison, was saying, "We can bring American Jews into our coalition." They had been traditionally Democratic.
But in the end the sale of AWACS to Saudi Arabia is a very different direction that the administration takes and is facing conflicting pressure that ultimately overwhelms what supporters of Israel want.
So I think (A) it treats Israel as exceptional. I think that's just wrong. In fact, I think in the book I want to show just that, that all our policies have these roots. (B) It's not clear to me that that is the single factor that is so dominant in American policy.
The final part of that is there's a lot of support for Israel throughout much of the period in this book that doesn't necessitate a lobby. Israel has a lot of widespread support strategically early on, and I'm not convinced that it was because of some lobby that we get this shift in policy. But there are political supporters for Israel. There is AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee]. You can't write that away. So that's how I see that and how I try to disentangle the debate.
I think the Walt-Mearsheimer book is this conspiratorial view that treats it as exceptional and I think it overstates the idea that supporters of Israel are behind the shift of policy after 2001, when there are so many different factors behind the war on terrorism, the way it's fought. It just seems very off to me.
There's a great article in American Political Science Review by a political scientist named Robert Lieberman really going through this, looking at it as a problem with American politics and disputing a lot of what they do.
QUESTION: Will you continue the discussion of the war on terrorism, because there are many facets that you haven't yet had a chance to go into? For example, this was the first time when America was attacked from outside. This changes things. Secondly, the pursuit of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, is this really the way to end terrorism, or are we getting negative reactions? And thirdly, the role of national security internally, where we are finding homegrown jihadists and terrorists. So have fun.
JULIAN ZELIZER: My book isn't a policy primer, so I don't go into is Iraq and Afghanistan the right strategy to combat terrorism or is it causing a blowback that in the end will make things worse. I try to almost compare the politics of the decision to do those wars with the politics I stated today, Democrats coming out of an era where they had been defensive on national security, facing a lot of political pressure; Republicans really shaping the debate much more aggressively. Some of that is the kind of comparison I do.
Obviously, in terms of kind, Pearl Harbor and 9/11 are the two exogenous shocks to the system that do make it very difficult politically to push back against the expansion. And it also flips the parties in interesting ways, which we forget. Part of my book shows one party doesn't always hold the advantage. It flips back and forth. It's much more dynamic than we think.
In the 1990s I have a chapter on Clinton and the Oklahoma City bombing. Clinton proposes a very sweeping domestic counter-terrorism program after that, including things like roving wiretaps, where you can tap multiple phones of one person without getting a court order. The idea is people were starting to switch phones. And he calls for taggants on chemicals so they can trace chemicals.
Who are the big opponents of that? (A) a group of civil libertarians on the left; (B) House Republicans led by Bob Barr, who sink it and force major compromises to eliminate those provisions. I think another effect of 9/11 is that wing of the Republican Party goes away, at least for the last few years.
But going back to the first comment, I do think, because of the danger and trauma of 9/11, like Pearl Harbor, it has put that question on the table in a way that a president can't afford not to, I think, be clear on what their strategy is, because they're going to open themselves up for this kind of attack.
QUESTION: In your opinion, which will determine the results of the next election, domestic or international issues?
JULIAN ZELIZER: Both. More explicit is always domestic. That's always the most—unless you're in a time right after 9/11—bread-and-butter questions: do people have jobs; what happened to health care? Those are always front and center.
It could be national security is more explicit, God forbid, if something else happens, even if you have something failed, like the Christmas bombing; if Afghanistan is expanding in a certain way. But still, I think, perceptions of how a president responds to these issues is part of how Americans judge whether they are good leaders or not.
So it might be that the Christmas bombing effort is not at the forefront of minds in 2010 or 2012, but I think it plays into some of the criticism some will have of Obama, or some will see as his strength, in terms of not instantly reacting.
So I think both are always in contest, even if voters are saying it's just bread-and-butter stuff. But part of it will be determined by events.
It's not hard to see Afghanistan in the end becoming a much bigger—especially with this new budget and the amount of money that's now being spent—being a much bigger part of the puzzle in what voters take to the voting booth.
But there's very few periods—there's a few elections where voters have it registering very low. In 1992 voters say it matters almost not at all, national security; it's all about the economy.
But I still think some of the problems that Bush experienced after Iraq and the return of Saddam Hussein and a lot of public debate over whether he didn't finish the job plays into the perception of him as kind of an ineffective leader. It's still there, even when polls are that low.
JOANNE MYERS: I want to thank you very much for walking us through history.
Thank you so much.
JULIAN ZELIZER: Thank you.