Why Bush Won't Repeat Lyndon Johnson's Errors

IT won't happen this time. Remember how President Johnson persuaded us that we could have both guns and butter during the Vietnam war? And how his failure to ask for taxes to pay for that long and costly conflict started us off toward a massive budget deficit that now has climbed into the hundreds of billions?

Well, congressional leaders are talking about a income surtax to pay for the guns in the Gulf. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, who heads the House Ways and Means Committee, told reporters over breakfast recently that this surtax will be coming whether or not a shooting war develops. Maintaining troops poised for such action is costly, too.

Would Americans accept such a tax? Mr. Rostenkowski said he thought so. But then he added a note of caution: US taxpayers would only stand for such a sacrifice if they believed that the other countries involved in the Gulf confrontation would be doing their part, as well.

Here he mentioned the Saudis, who, he said, would have to ante up more billions before Americans would stand for a tax related to the conflict with Iraq.

At a Senate committee hearing that very morning Secretary of State James Baker assured questioners that Saudi Arabia would, indeed, be contributing its fair share to the Gulf defense effort in the upcoming year.

What is clear is that the public is being told the truth about the size of the tab for the US military response in the Mideast. Americans know that some economists are saying the cost of the operation could soon rise as high as $1 billion a month.

If that isn't enough, taxpayers are learning from the Congressional Budget Office that the federal budget deficit will set a record this year and be even higher next year, despite the budget agreement reached just a couple of months ago.

It has been said that, had the public been aware of how hard the Vietnam war would eventually hit economically, it would have applied an early restraint on Johnson's military buildup and bellicosity.

There's little doubt that the promise of guns and butter at the same time enabled Johnson to push ahead with that terribly costly war.

So it is a somber, more enlightened public and Congress that now squarely faces the economic facts about the buildup of American forces in the Gulf. This time the ``sacrifice'' is fully perceived. This time some way will be found to pay for the guns now - and not face the pain later on.

This very awareness among Americans - of how much this confrontation is costing them financially - will act as a restraint on President Bush. He will feel this curb, particularly, if he keeps the troops in Iraq for a protracted time, or if he gets the US involved in a long, no-win shooting war.

It is relevant to note that Bush, like Johnson, is free of another restraint - the one that would come if most people in the US power structure had children among the troops in the Gulf. Instead, the voluntary army contains a disproportionate number of blacks and members of other minority groups.

As in Vietnam (when many middle and higher income families found ways of shielding their children from the draft), the children of the poor and disadvantaged are poised to fight and perhaps be killed in the Gulf.

In World War II, I held one of the lowest draft numbers and went into military service nine months before Pearl Harbor. The adjustment from civilian life certainly wasn't an easy one. But I never had cause to complain about the way that army was being assembled.

At my first base, Chanute Field, Ill., I saw college graduates sitting down at our mess with young men who had little education and few advantages in life. I could see clearly that our military response to the Hitler threat in Europe reflected the diverse nature of our society.

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