Deed and consequence
President Reagan's reluctance to raise taxes to cover or reduce the federal deficit is understandable. Other presidents have been similarly reluctant under similar circumstances - which usually include elections ahead.
An example that deserves the attention of President Reagan and his advisers is that of Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam war.
When LBJ sent a big army to Vietnam in 1965, he of course never dreamed that he was putting his country into the longest war in its history. One can only wonder what he might have done had he been able to know that he was starting something that would not be finished either in his presidency or in that of his immediate successor. The last of the American soldiers he sent in large numbers in 1965 did not come out until Gerald Ford was President.
Nor could LBJ have foreseen the ignominious end in Vietnam - the scramble for the last seat in the last helicopter on the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon.
Nor did he foresee the economic consequences.
That long war, unfunded by special taxes, built a budget deficit which in the days of his successors finally broke loose in the worst inflation in the country's history. Presidents Ford and Carter paid the political price for the reluctance of Mr. Johnson to raise taxes.
Both in entering the war and in refusing to raise taxes to cover the cost, Lyndon Johnson rejected the best advice available to him. The senior generals who had earned their stars in World War II and Korea warned against getting involved in a land war in Asia. The best economists and money experts advised him to raise taxes.
The sad thing is that the president who rejects sound advice in such matters - either military or financial - is usually not the one who has to pay the political price.
Today's economic recovery in the United States makes many people happy. It will probably last right up to election day 1984. Inflation does not break loose suddenly. There was a nearly eight-year gap between Lyndon Johnson's unbalanced Vietnam war budgets and the worst of the inflation which it triggered.
The public record does not yet show in detail what military advice President Reagan was given when he first sent the Marines into Lebanon. It is known that the top professionals at the Pentagon have been increasingly unhappy about the continued role of the Marines in a militarily untenable position.
If the Pentagon had its way, the Marines would have long since been replaced by regular Army units and would certainly be pulled out now. The Army does not want to take over the job. Among other things, the US military presence is involvement in another land war which, while not in Asia proper, is in Asia Minor. And the US position in the fighting is once again, as in Vietnam, on the unpopular side. It is aligned with Israel and the Christian Maronites against the Arab-Muslim majority.
On the economic front the evidence is open, public, and almost unanimous. Most of the responsible economic advisers around the President, and in and around the Congress, say that Mr. Reagan's all-time high deficits are extremely dangerous to the long-term interests of the country.
Add that the deficits are producing high interest rates which are sucking money in from all over the world, thus depriving other countries of the investment capital they need for their own economies. The allied and friendly countries overseas are unhappy about the US for a number of reasons. They fear Mr. Reagan's willingness to send his soldiers around a world dangerously overloaded with nuclear weapons. They are just as unhappy about his economic policies. They blame his unfunded deficits for the fact that their economies are lagging, not recovering.
Not since Lyndon Johnson has an American president pursued with such determination courses contrary to the advice of his most experienced councilors. If they could influence him, he would at once reach for new taxes to reduce the deficit and seek the quickest way out of Lebanon.
Lyndon Johnson's refusal to heed his advisers about Vietnam and taxes spoiled his otherwise successful presidency and forced him into a retirement which he probably had not intended.