My Turn: Presidents wage war to land themselves in history books

Posted: Monday, August 01, 2005

Several months before the attack on the World Trade Center, I had the opportunity to spend three days with Ramsey Clark, attorney general of the United States during the presidency of Lynden Johnson. While most of our time was spent working on a project, I took full advantage of the opportunity to question Clark about the internal workings of the White House during the turbulent Vietnam War years.

My particular concern was the state of mind of President Johnson. During operation Rolling Thunder, the sustained bombing of North Vietnam that took place from 1966 to 1969, President Johnson regularly selected targets for American aircraft to bomb. On several occasions I wrote after-action reports to President Johnson describing the damage done to "his" targets by aircraft from Carrier Air Wing Nine. I shared with Clark my dismay at how ineptly President Johnson had micromanaged the war effort.

As an insider in the Johnson Administration, Ramsey Clark was in a position to intimately observe the inner workings of the Johnson Administration. He told me that he was aware that President Johnson was selecting targets from the White House. Clark noted that LBJ was enamored with the military power at his disposal. According to Clark, Johnson had a strong desire to be remembered as a wartime president.

"If the Joint Chiefs of Staff had to romp across Eastern Europe, Johnson would have gone along with it," he said.

Clark felt that the Vietnam War provided Johnson with an opportunity for the military action and historical greatness he longed for.

I asked Clark to summarize the most important lesson that we could learn from the decade of the 1960s. Clark's response was both insightful and prophetic in the light of subsequent events.

According to Clark, the greatest threat to American security will not come from abroad, but from future presidential wars. Presidents, he told me from his personal experience, are well aware that it is the wartime presidents who are remembered in the history books.

According to Clark, the founding fathers of our republic were very careful to give the power to declare war to the Congress of the United States. Clark maintained that during the latter half of the 20th century, American presidents have repeatedly violated the spirit and intent of the Constitution by going to war by presidential mandate.

Clark felt that there was a distinct possibility that the Bush/Cheney administration might misuse American military power to achieve historical greatness. He pointed out that both Bush and Cheney had been careful to avoid personal involvement in the Vietnam War. As both these men aged, Clark felt that the desire to compensate, to become wartime leaders, might assert itself.

Recent events appear to validate Ramsey Clark's observations. The initial American response to the 9/11 attack achieved remarkable success. American military forces attacked al-Qaida in Afghanistan and removed the Taliban from power. Radical terrorists were stunned by the accuracy and effectiveness of American military power. The speed and efficiency of the Americana response to the 9/11 attack blunted the appeal of radical terrorism. Our actions were respected throughout the world.

Then President Bush launched another war. His justification of the invasion of Iraq - so that we do not have to fight them at home - contradicts the conclusions of most Middle Eastern intelligence analysts. According to Gen. Wesley Clark, former commander of NATO forces in Europe, since the American invasion Iraq has become a recruiting and training ground for terrorists. Terrorist violence in Iraq and around the world is increasing at an alarming rate. As General Wesley Clark stated, "This war was a mistake."

• Paul Berg, who operates Thunder Mountain Learning Center, served with Naval Intelligence during the Vietnam War.

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