On May 27, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson had telephone conversations about Vietnam with McGeorge Bundy, his national security adviser, and Sen. Richard Russell, chairman of the Armed Services Committee. First, to Bundy, he said: "It just worries the hell out of me. I don't see what we can ever hope to get out of there. ... I don't think that we can fight them 10,000 miles away from home and ever get anywhere. ... I don't think it's worth fighting for, and I don't think we can get out. It's just the biggest damn mess I ever saw. ... What the hell is Vietnam worth to me? ... What is it worth to this country?"
In a second, 20-minute conversation that day with his friend Sen. Russell, he said: "I've got lots of trouble. What do you think about this Vietnam thing?" Russell responded: "It's the damn worst mess I ever saw. ... I'd get out. ... It isn't important a damn bit."
Late in the conversation, President Johnson worried: "The Republicans are going to make a political issue out of it. ... Nixon, Rockefeller and Goldwater all (are) saying let's move (and) let's go into the North. ... They'd impeach a president ... that would run out. Wouldn't they?"
Johnson went on to speak of a sergeant who was a father of six. He ''works for me over there at the house,'' Johnson told Sen. Russell. Then Johnson said: ''Thinking about sending (him) in there ... and what the hell we're going to get out of his doing it? It just makes the chills run up my back.'' LBJ concluded the conversation by saying, "I haven't the nerve to do it, but I don't see any other way out of it." (To listen to those heartbreaking taped conversations, go here.)
As of that spring day in 1964, a total of 201 Americans had been killed in Vietnam since 1956, according to the official records. A few months later, the Gulf of Tonkin resolution was passed by Congress, and the great escalation of our troop levels started. By the time we finally lost the war and brought our boys home, another 57,992 American troops were killed.
Of course, in 1964, only the president knew he was taping his phone conversations. Publicly, Johnson said that it was a war we had to fight and win and that we would win it. Now, of course, we know that he believed we couldn't win even before he sent the first of those 57,992 American boys over there to die. And that he did it because he didn't have, in his words, "the nerve" to follow his best judgment because he wouldn't risk his own political danger, perhaps impeachment.
As painful as it is to consider the consequences of Johnson's decisions, he was, for all his faults, no monster. And even the finest, ethical leaders often find the pressures of politics powerfully encroaching on their best policy judgments. (For example, in order to win, Franklin Roosevelt ran publicly on a peace ticket in 1940, though he privately believed American interests required us to get into World War II.)
Today President Barack Obama is on the cusp of a fateful policy decision. He has argued consistently that the war in Afghanistan is necessary to deny al-Qaida a base of terrorist operations and to stop the Taliban insurrection from destabilizing nuclear Pakistan. But serious doubts are being raised by many policy experts and an emerging majority of the American and British publics as to whether we have a strategy and the materiel to succeed. Even the optimists believe that a successful counterinsurgency in Afghanistan (and needed as much in Pakistan) will require several years of sustained commitment, with substantially more men and materiel and a shrewder strategy (probably requiring modern nation building of a traditional tribal society).
To have a reasonable chance at success, President Obama will have to sustain the effort for years, which will require him to be at least as determined and stubborn on behalf of this war as former President George W. Bush was in fighting the Iraq war -- whatever one thought of Bush's policy wisdom. It may be a lonely struggle at times for the president because his strongest supporters (the Democratic Party, particularly its progressive/liberal wing) are not by philosophy or recent history natural supporters of military action; their support will be based largely on party instincts. The war's natural supporters -- the hawkish right and center of the Republican Party -- inevitably will have at least their enthusiasm ameliorated by their party instincts.
Thus, President Obama has a hard decision to make. Because things are going worse than expected in Afghanistan, it will take longer and require more sacrifice of American blood and treasure to succeed (if we can succeed even then) than was believed to be the case last year. Moreover, political support for the president is likely to be uneven at best.
So in this already politically difficult summer of 2009, President Obama must bring a higher level of intellectual integrity and moral courage to his go/no-go war decision than Lyndon Johnson was capable of 45 years ago. Notwithstanding his prior and current commitment to prosecute the war in Afghanistan -- and notwithstanding the ambiguous political effect of his decision -- he owes it to both himself and the many young service members who soon may be shipping out to make a new, cold calculation of whether he believes that he has a reasonable chance of successfully leading us in this new stage of the war. I don't envy him his job at the moment.