President Lyndon Johnson did not want to seek the support of the American people through their representatives in Congress to support his escalation of our involvement in Vietnam into a war. Even though it meant skirting the Constitution, following the founding document, he felt, would interfere with his “War on Poverty.” So, although we were not as a nation subject to armed attack and not faced with an insurrection, he took us into a full war without obtaining the fully deliberated declaration of war from the elected representatives of our people, as the Constitution so wisely requires.
Johnson seized upon the famous “Tonkin Gulf incident” to justify his decision. There was no full investigation of that incident to bring out the facts, nor any lengthy period during which what actually happened could be examined and debated and played upon the world’s stage. There were no communications with the communist elite ruling North Vietnam concerning the incident.
Standing in direct contrast to this action, however, was the Bush administration’s handling of the recent incident of the Chinese communist pilot colliding with one of our EP-3E electronic surveillance craft.
The Bush team managed the situation with great skill, consulting with and seeking the advice of members of Congress while avoiding any overreaction, any warlike acts and any threats of retaliation. Most importantly, all actions were well within the purview of the executive and its constitutional powers. Normal channels and appropriate delegations within the existing executive command and organizational structure were used and used effectively.
The only threat to the party rulers of communist China was the reiterated truism that if the detention of our personnel on Hainan Island continued, then the relationship between our two countries would be jeopardized. This proper contention made it clear that the arousing concern of the American people and that of their elected representatives in Congress would mount and overflow within our constitutional system if the captives, forced to land by the collision on Chinese soil, were not returned. Communist Chinese demands and characteristic ploys designed to advance their goals at the expense of our own interests were politely and firmly refused throughout the standoff. President Bush and his team focused only on the return of the captives and on getting an agreement for an inquiry into the nature and causes of the accident.
The failure to adhere to the Constitution at the outset of the Vietnam War was a costly mistake. For as all of those who had to fight it can attest, it was a war, even if not properly declared as such. And a war not properly declared turned out to be a war not properly supported by our people.
From the outset, it was a war in which we were vulnerable to having a great number of our people being turned against the effort by an enemy skilled at coordinating with our own media. Reflecting a love for centralized power and command, the media dominant at the time had a lamentable tendency to glorify totalitarian tyranny if it would but wear a “progressive” disguise, and, dating back to the days of Josef Stalin, had a history of doing so. As a result truth became less important than ideology and a desire to advance the goals of this “progressivism” rather than the principles espoused in our Revolution, set forth in our Declaration and given structure in the Constitution.
These are two different outlooks upon the world which are at issue here: On the one hand there is the idea, which arose to dominance after our Revolution — particularly in the 19th century with the writings of Hegel and Marx — that there is a sweep of history which can be scientifically ascertained and which leads inevitably to communism or socialism or some variant of them and which, therefore, can be studied and can enable government by an all-knowing, centralized authority, regardless of how many people and how much territory is involved. As a concomitant part of this worldview, this “scientific” unfolding of history is seen as a series of clashing “theses” and “antitheses” between right and left, harking back to the seating of the French assembly at the time of the French Revolution.
On the other hand, there is the outlook of our founding, which is that we don’t know the course of history, which is in the hands of a Supreme Being whose ways we may study, but which will to some degree remain beyond our ken, and that the best thing for us to do is to have a federation of representative governments, state and federal, in which the people elect those who govern and replace them in an orderly fashion when dissatisfied with their leadership so that God can work through them instead of seeking to have the state as god or as his intermediary.
At every level the excesses of government and the temptation of those elected to abuse their power are checked by balances of countering power within the system, including a rule of law enforced by an independent judiciary branch and the power and authority of the various bodies within the system to check and counter each other’s possible excesses as governed by a Constitution.
The overall idea of our system is that the sovereign will of the people should be expressed in a democratic fashion but within a republican structure that prevents the manipulation of sudden popular passions by demagogues who use such manipulation to control as an elite at the expense of the popular will and which guards against the temptations of power as expressed in the fundamental truth that “men are not angels” and “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.” For history has shown that all pure democracy perishes quickly and that power does tend to corrupt in accordance with its degree unless it is checked and balanced.
President Bush and his management team deserve an A+ for their management thus far of this incident. Operating within the constitutional system, they have obtained the first goal, of getting back our personnel, without giving in to popular passion — either that which demands actions that clearly risk a shooting war or that which demands that we kowtow to communism and to China.
There was no point in risking further the lives of our personnel or even extending their discomfort. We know that the Chinese, as is their wont, attempted the first steps of their subtle torture regimen — sleep deprivation — and read charges of the type communists favor — crimes against the communist state. They began with an attempt to coerce our pilots to acknowledge a fault which they did not have and apologize for that which they manifestly did not do. Ending that sort of thing and further temptations to act in the familiar Stalinist mode was the proper initial goal.
In our wars against Asian powers it has been an advantage that we have valued more the lives of our personnel and been willing to devise firepower and other superior technical achievements to more than compensate for the other side’s willingness to sacrifice its men — witness the battles for Guadalcanal. As George Patton famously said, the object is not to give your life for your country but to get the fellow on the other side to give his for his country. That principle is even more important in the face of communist Chinese aggressive designs.
The handling of this incident not only compares favorably, from a perspective of constitutional adherence and moral purpose, with the incident in the Tonkin Gulf, it also compares favorably with the later handling by President Johnson of the incident of the North Korean capture of the USS Pueblo. The Pueblo, of course, was also a surveillance craft operating outside of sovereign territorial boundaries.
The Joint Chiefs recommended a severe ultimatum for the North Korean captors, backed by an action plan that would have punished them severely if they failed to comply. Secretary McNamara, however, rejected it and, as a result, our crew was subjected to 11 months of captivity which included the most brutal torture, including operations on some captives. President Johnson did not want the American people to know about this. Yet it is precisely this kind of thing which has powerfully differentiated communist totalitarian regimes so distinctly from our own for those who are willing to examine the truth.
Further, this effort by the Bush team was far more effective and skillful than the effort of the Ford administration to rescue the crew of the container vessel Mayaguez when it was captured by the then newly-come-to-power Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. In that tragicomedy of errors we lost more men than were actually captured by badly underestimating the potential resistance of the Cambodians, who were armed with the American weapons that they had just captured in their victory over the non-communist government with which we were allied. We did this as the Cambodians, unbeknownst to us, were releasing the captives to a Thai vessel completely on their own. We then attempted to call it a great victory rather than reveal the truth.
But, given that the president and his team have saved 24 lives of American service personnel in the present situation, where is the compensating firepower? That remains to be seen. Wisely, at this stage, at least, the president has not tipped his hand and appears to be examining many options.
What he and his team understood was that their first task was to blunt the latest extension of communist Chinese aggression, as it has now surfaced in this incident, whose antecedents in the form of previous harassments by the Chinese communist pilots were, wrongfully, kept from our people. The team skillfully apologized for what we could apologize for and avoided what we could not apologize for; to do so would have been to agree to falsehoods. It is gratifying to see that our pilot and his crew also refused to apologize into falsehood.
Our national honor is intact and we are poised to demonstrate leadership to the world. We are all watching, along with the nations of Asia.
Retired Adm. Tom Moorer is a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, chief of naval operations, commander-in-chief of the Pacific, supreme allied commander Atlantic and commander-in-chief Atlantic Fleet. He is the honorary chairman of U.S. Defense — American Victory in Washington, D.C. and may be reached through the USD-AV website. Larry Elgin is the USD-AV chairman and counsel.