A Unified Theory of Presidential Folly

ANGLO AMERICA, 29 Jan 2024

Seymour M. Hersh | Substack – TRANSCEND Media Service

Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy at the White House on 10 Sep 1962.
Photo by Votava/Imagno/Getty Images.

25 Jan 2024 – From Hiroshima to the Houthis, American presidents tend to overreach when they believe they are facing down communism or terrorism, and the world pays the price.

I’ve been wrestling with how to put in context Joe Biden’s recent decision, amid bad polling numbers and his current disastrous involvements in Ukraine and Gaza, to go all out in a naval war against the determined Houthis of Yemen and the dhows—sailing vessels common in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea for millennia—that supply them.

It’s not a simple matter. But modern American history is full of presidents who made disastrous decisions when confronted with what they saw as challenges posed by Moscow. The Soviet Union had been America’s most important ally in the Second World War, but even before the war ended the emerging superpowers entered into a deadly new rivalry. Though the Cold War seemed to have come to an end three decades ago, that rivalry has been revived, and Russia, though no longer communist, has come back to haunt the Biden administration. It’s a rivalry that shapes America’s entanglements, friendly or hostile, with China, Ukraine, Israel, and now the Houthis of Yemen. This is an account of some of the bad decisions, made by presidents urged on by their political insecurities and those of their close advisers. One constant has been a lack of good intelligence about their opponents, as with the Houthis who continue to fire missiles despite repeated American attacks.

Our new president in the days after the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in April, 1945, was Harry S. Truman, the haberdasher from Missouri who was the third politician to serve as vice president to FDR. It was a role that was famously described by John Nance Garner, who spent eight years as FDR’s first vice president, as “not worth a bucket of warm piss.”

Truman was way over his head, to put it mildly, when it came to foreign policy. He was easily manipulated by the hawks in his Cabinet and at the State Department. (See Another Such Victory, by the historian Arnold Offner, a devastating account of Truman’s fecklessness published in 2002 by the Stanford University Press.) They were eager to go after the Soviets, and they convince Truman not merely to demonstrate the power of America’s nuclear bomb with an explosion somewhere in the South Pacific, as was initially planned, but instead to drop two bombs on Japanese cities that had nothing to do with the war effort there, while knowingly mislabeling both cities for the media as centers of war activity.

Truman continued to be supine under pressure from the hawks in the early postwar years as America and its allies embarked on a worldwide drive to keep communism at bay, especially in Europe and Southeast Asia. The Central Intelligence Agency was organized in 1947 as the heir to the wartime Office of Strategic Services for this purpose.

President Dwight Eisenhower, the WWII Army general who came to office as a Republican in 1953, gave the Dulles brothers, John Foster at the State Department and Allen at the CIA, authority to support the French, with much more arms and funding than was publicly known, in their losing war with Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, among other fronts in the fight against communism. At the end of his two terms in office, however, Eisenhower had the wherewithal to warn presciently against the ascendant military industrial complex.

In those last months, Eisenhower nonetheless agreed to a CIA plot to assassinate by poison Patrice Lumumba, the first independent prime minister of Congo. The details of his involvement became officially known during the famed Church Committee hearings of 1975 and 1976 on the covert operations of the CIA—hearings triggered by a series of articles I wrote for the New York Times about the domestic spying activities of the CIA during the Vietnam War. It was the involvement of Eisenhower that led Republicans on the committee to threaten to go public with what had been learned about similar CIA activities authorized by President John F. Kennedy.

Senator Frank Church, a Democrat of Idaho, was running for president and needed the help of Senator Ted Kennedy and the Kennedy family to do so. He agreed to a negotiated statement in the committee’s final report on CIA assassination attempts that merely said that no definite assessment of Eisenhower’s and Jack Kennedy’s involvement of assassination activities could be made. I had moved to New York before the hearings began, and, though I was still at the Times, the newspaper’s management, clearly worried about my ability to cause chaos, decided I no longer needed to be involved in the domestic spying story and its aftermath. (I was beginning to realize then that the mainstream media itself, when it came to certain high-impact stories, wasn’t worth a bucket of warm piss.)

Back in 1955, Eisenhower warmly supported the American decision—it remains unclear whether it was his or that of the two hawkish Dulles brothers in his administration—Secretary of State John and CIA Director Allen—to install an anti-communist Catholic named Ngo Dinh Diem as president of predominantly Buddhist South Vietnam. Those who share my continuing horror about the war that followed know what happened next.

Assuming office in 1961, Jack Kennedy, America’s first made for television president, continued the anti-communist crusade in Europe, Southeast Asia, Cuba, and elsewhere. The world was not made safer in the Kennedy years, as we have learned and are still learning. Reeling from his failure at the Bay of Pigs three months into his term, Kennedy was shocked to learn at his first summit with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev two months later in Vienna, that the Russian knew much more than he did about the world and communism. He would later tell James Reston, star columnist for the New York Times, that he was going to prove his mettle in South Vietnam. Reston only disclosed the conversation in a much later memoir. Lyndon Johnson lurched into office after JFK’s assassination in 1963, convinced that his presidency would be measured by the extent to which he carried on Jack’s war in South Vietnam. The collateral damage, measured in the deaths of millions, is well known today. An untold aspect of those years is that Johnson, whenever there was a serious peace offering from America’s enemies in Hanoi, refused to cut off the constant intense American bombing in both North and South Vietnam on grounds that to do so would be taken as a sign of weakness. Amazing folly.

President Richard Nixon continued the bombing of North Vietnam and initiated the bombing of Cambodia for a different reason: to mask his decision to begin withdrawing American fighting troops from the war. He had started to do so by the summer of 1970. The bombing did not improve the morale of the South Vietnamese army—they knew that the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese troops could not be beaten, especially with the withdrawal of the American forces. But Nixon and Henry Kissinger can be credited with using force—and many Vietnamese deaths—to extract American troops from the war. Nixon also correctly understood he could wean his fellow cynics—some call them realists—the leaders of Russia and China from their support of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong with promises of trade and future arms-control agreements.

As commanders-in-chief go, Gerald Ford was a genial nonentity worth perhaps more than a bucket of warm piss; his openness and likeability was refreshing as was his understanding that he had to accept American defeat in South Vietnam. President Jimmy Carter’s single term came and went in a blink, although he did manage to hide the fact, well known by the American intelligence community, that Israel was testing its nascent nuclear arms program with the aid of the South Africans. A lot of excellent CIA intelligence—we had an amazing undercover asset stashed in Johannesburg—was for naught. Israel’s arsenal of deployed nuclear weapons remains a never-to-be-discussed issue as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to lead his country’s rampage against Palestinians in Gaza and to look the other way as Israeli settlers in the West Bank escalate their constant violence against Palestinians. (As someone who wrote an early expose of the Israeli arsenal in my 1991 book The Samson Option, I can’t help wondering if Bibi’s relentless onslaught against the Palestinians is backed up by his sense that Israel always has a nuclear ace in the hole.)

Ronald Reagan first threatened and then offered to make peace with the Soviet Union. Despite its stash of nuclear weapons, the USSR was then in its fading days before the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika and there was a missed chance in that era for the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Reagan had his charms—as a big fan of the Star Trek he invariably called the senior Navy officers on duty at the White House “Captain Kirk”—and he did, even as a committed Cold Warrior, manage to lower the tensions and the temperature between Washington and Moscow and perhaps made it easier for Gorbachev to initiate his reforms. But he also approved an anti-communist crusade led by the CIA in Central America.

His successor, President George H.W. Bush, was haunted by his major role in the Iran-Contra scandal—the secret funneling of arms to support anti-communist activity in Nicaragua. But Bush did direct America’s most convincing foreign policy engagement at the time as American planes and troops routed the Iraqi forces in the first Gulf War. He also supported some of the worst elements in Central America, such as Panama’s Manuel Noriega, who was allowed to continue his drug and arms dealing, and murder of political opponents, in return for his support of America’s anti-communist operations, until Bush saw fit to oust him in 1989.

The show of strength in expelling Saddam Hussein from Kuwait wasn’t enough to keep Bush from losing to Bill Clinton in 1992. Clinton’s years in office were marked by his decision, inspired by Strobe Talbott, a deputy secretary of state and old friend, to break a promise with Russia and expand NATO to the east. James Baker, Bush’s secretary of state, had assured Moscow that there would be no such movement if the USSR would accept the unification of East and West Germany, which it did, and allow the new Germany to remain in NATO. The betrayal of that pledge by subsequent White House occupants can be seen as the kindling for the war that Ukraine is now losing to Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

George W. Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney, was by far the brightest and most powerful vice president in modern American history, and he was the principal architect of Bush’s wars. I spent years writing about Cheney’s machinations, and I won prizes for my reporting, but my efforts did not deter Cheney in his hardline tactics or his unconstitutional power grabs. I was dumbfounded when John Kerry and John Edwards failed to defeat Bush and Cheney—then embattled in Iraq—in 2004. Kerry’s decision to focus not on Bush and Cheney’s horrors, such as the abuses by American guards at Abu Ghraib prison, but on his own war record as a Navy officer in Vietnam was a stunning mistake.

Obama played it safe in his first term and allowed Hillary Clinton, his surprise choice as secretary of state, to run amuck in Libya. She engineered a revolution there that ended with the brutal murder of Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan despot. There has been constant chaos there since. Obama gave a brilliant speech in Cairo about the crisis in the Arab world and raised hopes that his administration would confront Israeli intransigence and bring Israel and the Palestinians together for serious peace talks. That did not happen. Obama failed to follow through on his early commitment to shutter the horrid American prison at Guantánamo, which had become a rallying cry for anti-Americanism throughout the Middle East. He disappointed many after his re-election in 2012 when he became just another president who used the power of his office not to try to combat the issues abroad that led to terrorism—especially those to do with Israel—but increasingly relied on military action, holding Tuesday sessions where he and his national security team decided which enemies to target for killing that week.

It could be argued that the political failures abroad of Obama and Hillary Clinton when they were in office, paved the way for Donald Trump’s election victory in 2016.

Donald Trump’s years in office are fresh enough and there is no need here to dwell on his policies and his antics and the rhetoric that led Americans to elect Joe Biden in 2020. In many ways with regards to Russia and Israel, however, Trump continued the policies his predecessors, Democrat and Republican, have followed since the end of Second World War and the establishment of Israel as a nation in 1948.

And here we are with a president who has all the worst characteristics of his predecessors in the postwar era. As a Senator, he was considered by some of his peers to be vain, lazy, and not very bright. After he voted against authorizing America’s first Gulf War in 1991, Biden was consistently hawkish on foreign policy as a senator. To no one’s surprise, Biden has avidly supported Israel in its current war on Hamas in Gaza, and he shows no signs of stopping the supply of American arms to Israel and joining the many world leaders who are insisting, loudly and clearly in public, that Israel must stop it murderous attacks in Gaza and the increasing violence of Israeli settlers, buttressed by the Israeli army, against Palestinians in the West Bank.

Biden’s support for Ukraine and Israel in their wars and his recent decision to attack the Houthis in Yemen have placed him in a club with two leaders, Bibi Netanyahu and Volodymyr Zalensky, who are increasingly reviled in much of the world. The irony of Biden’s tenure has been a growth in respect outside of the West for Putin and Xi Jinping of China. American presidents, up to and including Obama, were once seen in that light, even when their worst instincts and hawkish advisers led them into unnecessary wars. Lashing out at the Houthis, Biden is showing signs of political panic.


Seymour M. Hersh’s investigative journalism and publishing awards include one Pulitzer Prize, five George Polk Awards, two National Magazine Awards, and more than a dozen other prizes for investigative reporting. Hersh won a National Magazine Award for Public Interest for his 2003 articles “Lunch with the Chairman,” “Selective Intelligence,” and “The Stovepipe.” In 2004 he exposed the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in a series of pieces; in 2005, he again received a National Magazine Award for Public Interest, an Overseas Press Club award, the National Press Foundation’s Kiplinger Distinguished Contributions to Journalism award, and his fifth George Polk Award, making him that award’s most honored laureate. He lives in Washington DC.

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