Presidents and conflicts

When I was a kid, you could be pretty sure our president – whether Republican or Democratic – would stand up to the Russians, or anyone else who threatened to extend tyranny by force.

In those long-gone days, American presidents weren’t conflict-averse.  Most had seen combat, and – like other men who have gone into harm’s way – understood that war is hell.
Though a sometimes necessary hell.

Today, as the world again confronts the prospect of naked aggression by Russia – a has-been super-power which remains an autocratic, gangster state – America’s president seems to have gone AWOL.

In such times, it might be useful to survey the kind of men who once led our country – as opposed to those we’ve been choosing in recent decades.

A pattern emerges.

Harry Truman was our first Cold War president.  I can’t remember Truman, myself – though he was president for the first two years of my life.  

But Truman, a veteran of WWI, was feisty and unafraid.  When push came to shove, he stood taller than anyone we’ve had in the White House since.

Confronted by Stalinist expansionism, Truman adopted the Marshall Plan, championed  NATO, and embraced George F.  Kennan’s “containment strategy.”

When the Soviets tried to isolate West Berlin, Truman’s response was the Berlin Airlift.  

And then, there was  Korea.

But if Truman was the toughest post-War President, he set the pattern.

Eisenhower, a career soldier, stood up to the Soviets all around the globe.  To be sure, he didn’t help Hungarian reformers in 1956 – but Hungary was understood to be part of the Soviet sphere of influence, and US intervention would have risked a nuclear WWIII.

Kennedy, a Navy war hero, got off to a shaky start – but he found his stride when the Soviets tried to install missiles in Cuba.  JFK took us to the brink – and made Khrushchev blink.

LBJ had avoided anything like overseas service in WWII – except for a single bombing mission flown as an observer.  But as President, he didn’t duck confrontation.  In hindsight, Vietnam was a huge mistake, but Johnson didn’t hesitate to put boots on the ground to stop what most then believed to be Communist expansionism.

True, LBJ blinked when Soviet tanks rolled in to end “Prague Spring” – but again, those were the rules  of the day.  All in all, you can question Johnson’s judgment, but not his willingness to stand tall.

In a short piece like this, it’s impossible to do justice to Richard Nixon.  Suffice to say that the old Cold Warrior played a tough, ruthless, pragmatic game on the international front – as he did domestically.

No one took Nixon lightly, and his  successor, Gerald Ford – a Navy veteran of WWII – played a lower-key version of Nixon’s tough line.

Jimmy Carter, Annapolis graduate and Navy man, did not serve in combat – but his service included something equally courageous – shutting down a nuclear reactor in partial meltdown.

Throughout his single term, Carter – as a matter of principle – preferred diplomacy, at which he was skilled.  His lifelong commitment to peacemaking has made him the greatest of ex-Presidents.

Carter was stumped by the Iran hostage crisis – but he showed wisdom by refusing to intervene when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.  

Here, his successor, Ronald Reagan, followed Carter’s lead – and they turned out to be right.  Since ancient times, Afghanistan has been the graveyard of invading armies – and the Soviets’ aggression proved the beginning of the end for the USSR.  

America was well out of it.

Otherwise, Reagan – for all his bombast – proved a paper tiger.  Having never served overseas during WWII, Reagan liked remote-control warfare, such as bombing Libya or having the Navy bombard Lebanese militants.

When Reagan did order boots on the ground, in Lebanon, a truck bombing of a U.S. barracks killed 241 Marines.

Reagan’s response was to cut and run – and to order, within a week, a surprise invasion of that military colossus, Grenada – changing the subject from the Lebanese fiasco.

After Carter’s sincere peace-making and Reagan’s Hollywood bluster, we had one more president who understood the appropriate use of military force – George H. W. Bush, the last war veteran to occupy the Oval Office.

When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Bush “41” rallied an international coalition and taught Iraq’s dictator the meaning of “shock and awe.”

But the senior Bush was no warmonger.  It was his careful diplomacy – rather than Reagan’s rhetoric – which allowed the Soviet Union to crumble slowly and harmlessly, leaving the United States  as the world’s sole super-power.

Which brings us to the chronic hesitation of Bill Clinton, the cocksureness of Bush “43,” and the conflict avoidance of Barack Obama.

Sadly for the Ukraine, it is Mr. Obama – not Truman, Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Bush 41 – or John McCain – who must decide how to confront Russian adventurism in Eastern Europe.

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