Most thoughtful commentators bemoan the decline of bipartisanship and the coarsening of political discourse in the United States. The president promised to reach out to the opposition and hoped for 80 Senate votes for his stimulus bill. But he disregarded all Republican suggestions for the bill and acquiesced in its Pelosification into a groaning, creaking, Democratic gravy train.
I remember, as a very young person, the august comparative tranquillity of the Eisenhower era, when the president requested national air time only for matters of indisputable national interest. He never abused this privilege, and there was no call for equal time. The morning after his addresses, two giant, finned Cadillac limousines would convey the Democratic leaders of Congress, Speaker Sam Rayburn and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House to assure the president and the media of the rock-solid support of Congress.
At the heart of the degeneration from that level of trust is an embittering partisan difference over the national interest, built on competing versions of recent U.S. history. Those Democrats who think about these things believe that the Kennedy administration’s response to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was a masterpiece of crisis management, an almost scientific path to a bloodless triumph. They believe the Kennedys would never have plunged into Vietnam, that Lyndon Johnson, despite his inestimable services to civil rights and the growth of the compassionate welfare state, blundered into a hopeless war (urged by the same people who had advised Kennedy during the Missile Crisis), and that he misled the public and provided a cautionary tale showing why the U.S. should commit forces to foreign combat only in precisely limited multinational operations of unquestionable virtue.
They believe that President Nixon took over the Vietnam War as his own, also misled the nation, and squandered 30,000 American lives in a shameful pursuit of a “decent interval” between the U.S. withdrawal and the collapse of the Saigon regime. According to this account, the Democrats forced a brave termination of the war with a shutdown of all aid to South Vietnam, and then redeemed the integrity of the U.S. government by forcing the departure of Nixon, a uniquely sleazy and villainous president. This version was frozen and fed to the public by the national media, who touted themselves as the heroic exposers of “imperial” government misfeasance, in Vietnam and Watergate.
Kay Graham’s version of what her late husband called the “rough first draft of history” became liberal holy writ. It was genuflected to like the Infant of Prague, and defended with the tenacity of the garrison of the Alamo. The conservative talk-show personalities who have grown like dandelions in opposition to this orchestrated groupthink, and the media controlled by Rupert Murdoch (Fox and the Wall Street Journal), are reviled as rabble-rousing muckrakers. (Murdoch is a more astute political maneuverer than has been seen in Washington for decades.)
The same liberals tend to believe that Ronald Reagan was “an amiable dunce,” though a “great communicator” and “Teflon man” (as opposed to a great orator and clever statesman). They claim Gorbachev ended the Cold War and Reagan seduced the country with a fools’ paradise of vulgar and easy self-gratification. It need hardly be added that George W. Bush has passed into these canons as a belligerent, pig-headed, semi-literate oaf.
Taken as a whole, this is a vulnerable catechism. We now know that there were 40,000 Soviet soldiers in Cuba in October 1962, and that the nuclear warheads were already in the country and could have been installed and fired in 24 hours. A disaster was avoided not by the portentous calibrations of Kennedy’s entourage, but by the president’s own, inspired, intuition. And it was no great strategic victory; in exchange for Soviet non-deployment in Cuba, the U.S. began the destabilization of the Turkish alliance by removing its long-deployed missiles in Greece and Turkey.
Lyndon Johnson had basically thrown in the towel in Vietnam in October 1966, when he offered Hanoi reciprocal withdrawal of forces from the South. If Ho Chi Minh had not thought that he could militarily defeat the United States, he would have accepted that offer, and crushed the South six months after the U.S. withdrawal. Johnson would not have tried to reintroduce ground forces, but Ho wouldn’t give the U.S. any cover for its disengagement; he was determined to humiliate it completely.
In April 1972, between Nixon’s historic visits to China and the USSR, the South Vietnamese defeated the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong invasion and offensive, with no U.S. ground support but with heavy air support. This formula might have kept South Vietnam afloat for 15 years, until international Communism collapsed. In his Silent Majority speech of November 1969, Nixon said that North Vietnam could not “defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that.” This is what happened, and the Democrats and the national media have been in steadily more implausible denial for over 30 years.