PRESIDENT Kennedy lived in the time of the Munich syndrome, and President Clinton lives in the time of the Vietnam syndrome, and that may help to explain their differing attitudes on military intervention.
Kennedy lived in Britain in 1939 with his ambassador father, an isolationist and supporter of the appeasement of Hitler. The symbol of appeasement was Munich, where France and Britain signed a pact with Hitler allowing him to march into Czechoslovakia. From Kennedy's London experience came his book "Why England Slept" and a lifelong conviction that totalitarian dictators must be stopped before they unleashed world wars.
After World War II, Stalin came to replace Hitler in the totalitarian lineup. Kennedy and the other leaders of the generation defined by World War II - Truman and Eisenhower - fought the Communists in Korea and were prepared to fight them over Berlin and over missiles in Cuba, all under the banner of "no more appeasement, no more Munichs." When South Vietnam was threatened, President Kennedy had no hesitation. "With sparse knowledge, scant experience, and simplistic assumptions," writes former Defense secretary Robert McNamara in his memoirs, "Kennedy proceeded to send troops on the premise that the fall of South Vietnam to Communism would threaten the security of the United States and the Western world."
As Kennedy's world view was defined by Munich and World War II, so Mr. Clinton's world is defined by the Vietnam War. His is a generation that recoils at the idea of risking American lives in questionable ventures.
President Bush embarked on a humanitarian mission in Somalia and when the going got tough, the troops were pulled out. Clinton, after much agonizing, sent American troops to Haiti, and, happily, the mission went without mishap.
So now Bosnia. Emblazoned on the minds of Clinton and his generation is the word "quagmire." But there is that other fear of being perceived as leaving the United Nations and NATO allies "in the lurch," not to mention what happens to the people of Bosnia. So, painfully, small measures of military cooperation are offered and constantly revised amid silent prayers that they will not be the first steps into another Vietnam.
As though speaking with crossed fingers, Defense Secretary William Perry says, "We are not going to get involved in a war in Bosnia," and Clinton says, "We may send troops temporarily, but they will not become embroiled in this conflict."
It is remarkable how much emphasis is put on the negative, what will not happen, and how little on explaining what will happen and why America is ready to put a toe into this Balkan cauldron. In part, this is to reassure a skeptical Congress and the public, but it seems also to reflect the Vietnam syndrome. Pray God, maybe this time we can be in for a dime and not for a dollar.
The pilot of the F-16 shot down over Bosnian Serb territory on June 2 has now been rescued, which means that there will not be an American hostage to worry about. For more than a quarter of a century, America's antagonists have known how to manipulate hostages to affect policies and even electoral politics.
In 1979 and 1980, Khomeini's young militants, seizing the American Embassy in Tehran and its occupants, brought down President Jimmy Carter, the hated friend of the shah, releasing the hostages only when Reagan became president. President Reagan, in turn, was manipulated by Iranian-backed Lebanese terrorists, who kidnapped 16 Americans and lured his administration into exchanging hostages for missiles for Iran.
As to the two Americans who strayed into Iraq and are now in prison, that case has not yet been played out.
But with the American pilot now rescued, at least the United States does not have a miniature hostage crisis within a larger Hostage crisis.