IT took the Pentagon 25 years, but it finally got its revenge against Lyndon Johnson for the way he conducted the war in Vietnam. However, the military's victory over President Johnson may prove to be hollow and could undermine this nation's ability to achieve its objectives in the Persian Gulf. The Pentagon won its battle with Mr. Johnson when it convinced President Bush that he had to authorize at least a limited call-up of the reserves to deal efficiently with the current crisis in the Middle East. President Bush had no real choice because he inherited a policy, called Total Force, which was created in the early 1970s and completely altered the role of reserves in our national strategy.
Throughout our history, presidents have called up the reserves only when the active force was too small to handle the conflict or when they wanted to send a signal to friends and foes about the seriousness with which they viewed an international situation. Because of the demobilization of United States forces after World War II, President Truman had no choice but to mobilize nearly 1 million reservists to fight the Korean war. When that conflict broke out there were fewer than 1.5 million people on active duty.
After being bullied by Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in the summer of 1961, President Kennedy mobilized over 300,000 reservists to signal to the Soviet leader that he was not about to be pushed around. The president also mobilized about 14,000 reservists during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 as part of his show of resolve.
Because the US buildup in Vietnam was so gradual and because President Johnson never envisioned how deep the commitment would be, he felt no military necessity to mobilize the reserves. Only after the seizure of the Pueblo in early 1968 showed how thinly stretched the US forces were did Johnson allow a limited call-up, about 35,000 people.
The military leadership never forgave Johnson for his policy of gradualism or his unwillingness to mobilize the reserves. In their view a massive mobilization of reserves in 1965 would have rallied the American people behind the struggle and allowed them to go for a quick victory. Although this proposition is of dubious validity, it has become an article of faith among the military leadership of the nation.
The military's first step in getting revenge on Johnson was to convince the Nixon administration to create the Total Force policy. Under this concept, the armed services, particularly the Army, are so structured that most support or logistical functions are in the reserves. Therefore, any military intervention, regardless of how small, that lasts more than a few weeks cannot be sustained efficiently without calling up the reserves.
The political leaders bought the Total Force concept because it allowed them to reduce the size of the active force and thus end the draft and to curry favor with the reserve lobby on Capitol Hill. Moreover, in the early 1970s the politicians felt that any sustained military action would involve the Soviet Union. Thus, reserves would have to be mobilized regardless of how they were structured. The reserve lobby on the Hill even persuaded Congress to grant the president the power to call up 200,000 reservists for 180 days without congressional permission.
Compared to Korea and Vietnam, the US deployment to the Persian Gulf is modest. If the deployment reaches 200,000, this will account for less than 10 percent of the current active duty force and only about 25 percent of our troop strength in Southeast Asia and its surrounding waters. The reserves have to be called up not because the active force was too small but because the active force had no units with skills like water purification.
By staying at his vacation home in Kennebunkport through Labor Day and urging the American people to go about their business, President Bush is clearly trying to downplay the crisis. However, because the Total Force policy compelled him to call up the reserves, the president is forced to elevate this crisis to the level of a Korean war or the Cuban missile crisis. Similarly, he may be inadvertently signaling to Saddam Hussein that US policy is moving from one of defense to offense. Finally, because he can only use the reserves for 180 days without declaring a national emergency or asking Congress for a declaration of war, he has added another constraint to his ability to outlast the Iraqis.
We must live with the Total Force policy for now, but after this crisis is over it should be discarded as we develop a post-cold-war military strategy. Both the active forces and reserves can be reduced in size and each should be reorganized. Active forces should be flexible and deployable, possessing all the resources to handle limited wars and prolonged standoffs.
The reserves should be our insurance policy in case limited wars become large wars. Calling up the reserves should signal to friend and foe that this nation is prepared for a very large conflict. Now that the military has won its war with Lyndon Johnson, it should declare a victory and develop a force structure that will help us deal with the next crisis.