May 21st, 2013

Lincoln, Kennedy And the Inkblots of If-Only

I'm a big fan of Abraham Lincoln as a towering historical figure. At the same time, I doubt that Lincoln would rank anywhere near as high in the regard of historians and the public if he had lived to complete a second term. As a martyr he became kind of an “if only” inkblot test for all of the hindsight “it would have been better if" policies people came up with.

A living Lincoln would have had to deal with the real world of a unrepentant South that would not accept their former slaves as citizens and equals and would spend the next nearly a hundred years trying to “keep them in their place.” The nearly impossible task: protecting the rights of the freed slaves while reconciling the South to being part of the union. That was a tightrope, and one that any president would have had to walk carefully. A federal policy that pushed too hard risked creating a permanent southern nationalism that waited for an opportunity, a moment of federal weakness, to rebel again.

Military victory over the south wasn't enough to ensure the union. How many times did Russia militarily defeat Polish rebels in the 1800s? How many times did Britain crush rebellions in India? In both cases, a lot of times, yet both countries are now independent. The south had to be reconciled, yet at the same time it couldn't be allowed to reimpose the old regime on African Americans, not after the issue sparked a war that killed so many Americans. So, a tightrope. The federal government needed to make sure the south didn't rebel again while ensuring that African Americans were treated fairly.

Unfortunately, we fell off of that tightrope in the 1870s and spent the next nearly ninety years tolerating a situation where southern Democrats dominated their party’s leadership in the Senate and House and often gave their party the presidency based on massive vote fraud that systematically denied African Americans the vote. With one possible exception, no Democratic presidential candidate from the 1850s through probably 1964 could win the presidency without the solid Democratic south, which meant tacitly accepting the tainted electoral votes of the southern Democrat run Jim Crow states.

I hate that after all of the deaths of the Civil War, African Americans had to spend another century to get at least legal equality everywhere, but I’ve looked hard for alternate policies that would have both reconciled the South and gotten equality, and even with the benefit of hindsight I can’t figure anything out. Maybe Lincoln was the kind of political genius who could have done something that worked, but I suspect that's more inkblots and if-onlies than what would have really happened.

As I noted in the title, the inkblot “if-only” bit has also played a role in keeping JFK in very high regard among historians and the public. Take whatever you didn’t like about 1964 to 1968 and a lot of people think a second Kennedy term would have avoided it. Example: a lot of historians claim that JFK would have withdrawn from Vietnam early on instead of getting sucked deeper into the war. That’s not impossible, but I’m skeptical.
The problem was that South Vietnam was a lost cause, if not from the beginning, certainly as soon as South Vietnamese president Diem was overthrown and assassinated in November 1963, less than a month before Kennedy was killed. The generals who overthrew Diem spent the next year or so fighting over who got to replace him as the South Vietnamese army splintered and basically ceded the countryside to the Viet Cong. They were also seen, rightly, as US puppets by the very nationalist Vietnamese, something that hadn't been true of Deim. Without much more massive US involvement, South Vietnam would have probably fallen, if not in the fall of 1964, sometime in 1965, with the process unraveling in the middle of the 1964 presidential campaign.

In hindsight, I think we can all say good riddance to the Vietnam experience. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option for a Democratic candidate in 1964. The American public, both left and right, was still deeply immersed in Cold War thinking. Democratic candidates were still getting hammered for “losing China”. Letting Vietnam fall during an election year was not an option for a Democratic presidential candidate.

Probable result: Facing the same situation Johnson faced and with the same set of advisers, JFK would have probably gone at least partway down the same road Johnson did. Johnson basically kicked the can down the road for a little over four years, escalating just enough to keep South Vietnam from falling. That was a moving target though, as the Viet Cong got stronger and regular North Vietnamese Army troops got involved.

I’m guessing that a second JFK term would see the same process and on about the same schedule through the midterm elections of 1966. At that point, I think JFK might have diverged a bit. I would rate JFK as better at the big picture than Johnson, so I suspect he might rein things in after the 1966 mid-terms. He couldn’t run again, so he would have that pressure off of him. He would probably do a Vietnamization process much like the one Nixon implemented a couple of years later, with the idea of at some point letting South Vietnam sink or swim on its own, hopefully with any sinking happening on someone else’s watch.

The problem was that until the Viet Cong screwed themselves by trying to hold onto their gains in the Tet Offensive, rather than melting away after initial victories, South Vietnam would have probably fallen rather quickly if the US withdrew. Viet Cong loses in Tet gave the South Vietnamese some breathing room, which let Nixon get away with a withdrawal and putting a little time between US troops leaving and South Vietnam falling.

Vietnam was another one of those “no good solution” situations. It was unwinnable after the Diem overthrow, if not before. Unfortunately, domestic politics, with the very strong anti-communist beliefs that so many people held at the time, meant that it had to be fought until enough of the American people got tired of sending blood and money down that rathole. So very sad. We could have probably gotten to Mars with a fraction of the Vietnam war budget.