Even though President Obama has repeatedly promised that the United States will not use its own ground combat troops in Iraq and Syria, 72 percent of respondents in a recent poll said it will do just that.
Why do so many Americans discount what their president says about military action? Republicans might point to inconsistencies in President Obama’s own record, including his now-notorious pledge that the Affordable Care Act would let people keep their own doctors and insurance plans. Democrats might bring up the now-discredited claims of the George W. Bush administration that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction.
Actually, the roots of public skepticism go even deeper, involving things that happened 50 years ago.
On Aug. 2, 1964, North Vietnamese torpedo boats fired on an American destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin. Two days later, there were reports of a second attack, and President Lyndon Johnson then won congressional approval of a resolution authorizing him to “take all necessary measures to repeal any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent any further aggression.” Johnson soon had private doubts that the second attack had even taken place, reportedly telling Undersecretary of State George Ball that “those dumb, stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish!”
On Oct. 5, 1964, Ball wrote a lengthy memorandum observing that the situation in Vietnam was deteriorating and warning against the introduction of American ground combat forces. Other officials disagreed with his conclusion about the American role, but they also saw trouble ahead.
In a recorded telephone call, Johnson said to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, “It doesn’t look very good.” With an eye on the presidential election just weeks away, McNamara agreed: “It doesn’t look good, Mr. President … I think the odds are we can squeeze through now and the next several weeks. But it certainly is a weak situation.… But neither do I think it’s going to completely collapse during that period. Afterwards, though, after the election, we’ve got a real problem on our hands.”
Indeed, the military and political situation in Vietnam was getting worse, but LBJ kept offering public assurances about “progress toward a more stable government there.” Moreover, he continued to maintain that the United States would play only a limited, advisory role on the ground. On Oct. 21, he said: “Sometimes our folks get a little impatient. Sometimes they rattle their rockets some, and they bluff about their bombs. But we are not about to send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”
In 1965, however, Johnson decided that the South Vietnamese could not do the job themselves, and he rapidly escalated the US presence. Casualties mounted, and Americans bitterly remembered his line about sending their boys thousands of miles from home. By 1967, Gallup found that two-thirds of the public thought that the administration was not “telling the public all they should know about the Vietnam War.”In the years to come, the historical record gradually revealed what Johnson knew in 1964, further eroding public trust in government.
When presidents make dubious assurances about war and peace, they not only damage their own standing, they make things harder for their successors.
Jack Pitney writes his Looking for Trouble blog exclusively for the Monitor.