Casual words that change the world

President Reagan had a busy week in Washington last week. He held his fourth press conference and answered complicated questions. He sent his AWACS package to Congress -- the promise to send $8.5 billion worth of sophisticated radar planes and equipment of Saudi Arabia over Israel's objection.He announced that he would ask congressional approval to build 100 MX missiles and 100 B-1 bombers under a $180 billion program to upgrade nuclear forces. What a combination; it was hard to comprehend it all. It was hard to follow technical details. What a week.

In the midst of it all, in a follow-up answer to a press conference question, Mr. Reagan said that the US would not allow Saudi Arabia and its oil to fall into hostile hands, whether external or internal. The pledge apparently applied not only to Saudi but to other Persian Gulf states. "There's no way that we could stand by and see that taken over by anyone that would shut off that oil," the President said. Later he said explicitly, "Saudi Arabia -- we will not permit to be an Iran."

So was enunciated a Reagan doctrine which broadens America's earlier commitment to the oil-rich area, already given by Jimmy Carter. Sometimes these pledges seem so casual when they are uttered; they are lost in the stream of events. It reminds me of a speech Dean Acheson gave here at the National Press Club in early January 1950. It was a lunchtime address; the secretary of state was elegant, aristocratic, elitist as always; his moustache bristled; he outlined the "defense perimeter" of the containment policy in Asia. He drew a line that seemed to exclude Korea. You know what happened. I am reminded of it in reading Ronald Steel's fine biography "Walter Lippmann and the American Century." Lippmann, of course, was a Washington observer and commentator on it all. Shortly thereafter North Korea launched a Soviet-backed invasion of South Korea. What should we do?

The world situation was confused (it is always confused). the Cold War was developing. communist China was throwing out Chiang Kai-shek, who went to Formosa (Taiwan). America readied a peace treaty with Japan which turned Japan into an advance base of American power. russia was alarmed by the expansion and militarization of NATO and the German question. Senator McCarthy shouted that the Truman administration was corrupt with communism and did not dare act. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, our proconsul in Japan, told a visitor that anyone who committed an army to the mainland of Asia should have his reason examined. So what would Truman do?

Wars sometimes seem to happen casually. A phrase at a presidential press conference, the name of a nation omitted in proclaiming a defense perimeter. What happened in 1950 was that Truman on June 30 ordered US troops into action as North Korea's army surged over the 38th parallel into South Korea. It was in an area that never before seemed vital to America's national interest (unlike the Persian Gulf).

Truman did not ask a war declaration from Congress but used his authority as commander in chief. The public seemed to approve. Douglas MacArthur was told to push back the communist invaders. He landed his troops behind the enemy's lines at Inchon in a brilliant tactical maneuver that routed them. So far so good.

But now in Washington, hubris took over and containment policy gave way to "liberation." american troops were forcing the retreating North Korean troops up to the Chinese border on the Yalu River. Chinese repeatedly warned against a crossing, but Acheson told MacArthur to push on. The general said he would "bring the boys home by Christmas." Chinese troops suddenly moved south across the Yalu, and trapped and destroyed numbers of American and associated forces. So a sorry era began. Looking back on it now it seems that the US got into the Vietnam maladventure almost as casually.

Ronald Reagan last week made his comments from what appeared to be a careful study and on a path indicated by his predecessor. The thing a Washington observer notes is how casual these pledges seem when first heard; how easy and mild they sound at the time. You ponder them afterwards. What does it mean to say that "we will not permit Saudi Arabia to be an Iran"?

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