Ira Chernus  


President George W. Bush is responding to national disaster by assuming the mantle of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. But waiting in the wings is the tragic hero of this history-repeats-itself drama: Lyndon B. Johnson. Being a wartime president is trickier than it seems.

Bush hopes that the widespread talk of another Pearl Harbor will let him appear as the new Roosevelt, demanding unconditional surrender. Yet, after briefly flirting with a crusade to wipe out terrorism forever, the Bush administration retreated to a much more limited war aim. We will have achieved victory, according to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, when terrorism is controlled enough to make Americans feel safe. But if there is no unconditional surrender, how shall we know when to feel safe? This is the question we lived with for four decades of cold war. Now it is back. It looks like the war on terrorism will resemble the cold war more than World War II.

The Bush administration wants to depict the president as another Harry Truman. Truman shook off public fears that he was a weak leader by launching a multi-decade crusade to save freedom from an insidious global threat. When Bushís speechwriters had him say, "We have found our mission and our moment," they were surely thinking of Truman announcing the cold war, in his Truman Doctrine speech of March, 1947. "Every nation must choose between alternative ways of life," communist or "free," Truman declared. Bush, too, insists that the present war is between two ways of life, only one of which is free, with no neutrality allowed.

By 1952, the Korean War put an end to dreams of destroying communism, and Trumanís approval ratings were steadily declining. Ending in truce rather than unconditional surrender, Korea taught the nation that in a cold war the only possible outcome is stalemate, not permanent safety. When the war ended in 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed that the U.S. had won because it had stopped communist aggression. Victory now meant not conquering the enemy, but merely stopping the enemy from conquering us. Yet Eisenhower warned the nation that the struggle would continue, for all practical purposes, forever.

The "new kind of war" that President Bush describes seems strikingly like the old cold war. It may sometimes involve attacking a single nation in conventional warfare, he says. But it will rely more on covert operations, diplomatic and economic pressure, and sheer intimidation. Any nation on our side will be called a friend of freedom, no matter how repressive its internal politics. Already we see a conservative administration rapidly expanding federal powers and requesting massive federal spending.

As in the cold war, most Americans now feel united by a seemingly clear but open-ended, ongoing mission. However, as in the early Ď50s, when Senator Joseph McCarthy and his followers scoured the nation for hidden communists, millions of us wonder whether to be suspicious of our neighbors (as many as eight million of whom are Muslim). And despite all our vigilance, we can never expect total victory, as the administration already admits. So we can never feel fully secure. This war is, in the presidentís own words, "a task that does not end."

Sooner or later, the new cold war could easily lead us to another Vietnam. The enemy populace can take to the hills, or the urban skyscrapers, and wage guerilla war. Then U.S. strategy might well erase the line between enemy soldiers and civilians. The world is already uneasy about a war in which many civilians die. In the U.S., too, public support could fade rapidly -- especially if the body bags start coming home.

A nation that began, on September 11, pursuing a World War II fantasy will not easily tolerate the limitations and frustrations of an ongoing cold war. The fantasy is all the more fragile because so few really believe it. Since the early cold war years, our real national goal has been, not ridding the world of evil, but merely making ourselves feel safe. The cold war never achieved that goal. It merely sowed the seeds of our present vulnerability and frustration.

Another cold war will only breed more vulnerability and frustration. A war begun to unite the nation could easily tear it apart, as Lyndon Johnson learned with his war in Vietnam. Johnson hoped to win another term in 1968. Instead he retired from office, fearing unbearable dissension if he ran again. He went down in history, not as the great domestic reformer he hoped to be, but as a tragic war president. The next time Bush goes home to Texas, he should visit Johnsonís final resting place and ponder deeply. It is LBJís ghost that is waiting in the wings.