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Truth and the war presidents

ST. LOUIS – Forty years ago, at Washington University, site of the second Bush-Kerry debate, I defended the justice and wisdom of the war in Vietnam at “teach-ins” on the campus west of the city.

The university that billed itself the “Harvard of the Midwest” was a hotbed of anti-war and hard-left activity, and these teach-ins were simply anti-war jamborees where speakers supporting Vietnam were hooted down.

This was in the early days of LBJ, when that president was still looked upon as a Great Society liberal, a political miracle worker and the savior of the nation from Barry Goldwater. Today, America is in another angry argument, over the wisdom and justice of yet another war.

The president and vice president, who believe in this war far more passionately than LBJ believed in Vietnam, are charged with having misled us into Iraq and failing to anticipate the quagmire. The charge is based on a failure to find weapons of mass destruction or any connection between Saddam and 9-11.

The counter-charge is that Kerry and Edwards are opportunists, who voted for this war, then trashed it to vote against providing the troops with what they needed for victory, after the pair were under pressure from Howard Dean.

Today, Kerry calls the alliance of 30 nations Bush drew together to fight in Iraq a coalition of the bribed and the coerced. Yet, he assures us that he can persuade other nations to join such a coalition.

He calls the war for which he voted a “colossal” error. Yet, he promises to fight on to victory and persuade other nations to send troops to rescue us from this colossal blunder, this diversion, this “wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Thus, the presidential election comes down to a choice between an administration whose credibility has been damaged and two windsurfers who appear to have no credibility.

If it is any comfort for Americans, it has ever been thus. In all wars, as Churchill reminded us – and he would surely know – truth is accompanied by a bodyguard of lies. In successful wars, however, presidents are pardoned their transgressions against truth, whereas, in failed and unpopular wars, they are forever condemned.

In the Mexican War, declared in patriotic rage after Mexican troops crossed the Rio Grande to ambush a U.S. patrol, Whig Rep. Abe Lincoln demanded that President Polk identify the exact spot on American soil where the attack took place. For, truth be told, Polk had been discussing war with Mexico with his Cabinet when news of the attack came. After Polk annexed half of Mexico, however, the murky facts of how we went to war were forgotten in the celebration of victory.

Lincoln plunged the nation into the bloodiest war in our history rather than let South Carolina, Georgia and the five Gulf states secede. This was no civil war. The South did not contest Lincoln’s election or demand to rule the Union. Yet, Lincoln refused to meet with Southern negotiators and sent the Star of the West to re-supply Fort Sumter, though his Cabinet warned him this would be seen as a provocation.

Lincoln accepted war rather than a sundered Union, even as FDR sought war, though he had campaigned on a solemn promise to keep American boys out of war.

That FDR lied about German submarines attacking our ships and Nazi plans to invade and paganize Latin America, that he had far more awareness of an imminent Japanese attack than Bush ever had about 9-11 is now conceded. But when fascism is afoot, the war is a “good war” and “noble lies” are acceptable. Which is why we hear our enemies today described as “Islamo-fascists.”

President McKinley was stampeded into war when the Maine blew up in Havana harbor. Victorious in Cuba, McKinley annexed and invaded the Philippines, igniting an anti-imperial war, just as Bush, victorious in Afghanistan, invaded Iraq, igniting an anti-imperial war. McKinley said he wanted to “Christianize” the Filipinos. A century later, Bush and the neocons want to “democratize” Iraqis.

“Onward Christian Soldiers” has been replaced with “Onward Democracy Crusaders” – with this difference: When the threat to their own country is removed, Americans will not indefinitely send their sons to die over such questions as how other peoples rule themselves.

After Sherman took Atlanta in 1864, Lincoln swept to victory, as did FDR in 1944 after the Allies liberated Paris in 1944. Truman and LBJ, ensnared in “no-win wars” in Korea and Vietnam, declined to run. And in 1952 and 1968, a nation at war turned to the more hawkish of the challengers to get them out of war.

No anti-war presidential candidate has ever won, once the guns began to roar. Which is why Kerry and Edwards, first pro-war, then anti-war, are now pro-victory, and which is why Bush and Cheney, the warhawks who took us in, insist they are the men to take us out of Iraq.