Past Presidents

American kids grow up with different wars, because we’re always at war. On October 7, 2001, it was Operation Enduring Freedom – war in Afghanistan. We’re still there. On March 20, 2003, it was Operation Iraqi Freedom – our war in Iraq. We’re still there, in much smaller numbers, advising and bombing this and that, but still at war – now to get rid of ISIS not Saddam Hussein – and now we’re doing the same in Syria. That’s what sixteen-year-old American kids know. We’ve been at war in the Middle East as long as they’ve been alive – their entire lives. That’s their war.

Aging baby boomers, born in the late forties, have the Korean War. On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea and we did something about that. That was Harry Truman’s war, but in 1952 we elected a new president – Dwight Eisenhower – and with the United Nations’ acceptance of India’s proposed Korean War armistice, the UN Command, which we led, ceased fire with the battle line at the 38th parallel. We had an armistice, and a Demilitarized Zone, and two Koreas. It’s been that way ever since.

That war never ended. We signed that Armistice Agreement on July 27, 1953, to end the fighting – but that war is still on pause, and really, by then the Russians were the problem. They finally had the bomb, and then they had lots of them. We had the Cold War that might turn hot in an instant. In the late fifties people were building underground bomb shelters in their back yards. In fifth and sixth grade there were those duck-and-cover drills – get under your desk and cover your head and close your eyes. You were going to be vaporized anyway, but it was something – and then those baby boomers came of age and finally went off to college, or to Vietnam. That was our war too. We were always at war. We got used to it.

American kids don’t get to choose their wars of course, but curiously, the next generation of American kids may get the Korean War again – the war that never really ended – but not Harry Truman’s war – because this will be Donald Trump’s war. That’s the way things seem to be headed, and as  Missy Ryan and Simon Denyer and Emily Rauhala explain in the Washington Post’s National Security column, it all starts with that missing aircraft carrier:

As tensions mounted on the Korean Peninsula this month, the U.S. military made a dramatic announcement: An aircraft carrier had been ordered to sail north from Singapore toward the Western Pacific, apparently closing in on North Korea and its growing nuclear arsenal.

But the ship that some officials portrayed as a sign of a stepped-up U.S. response to threats was in fact, at the moment that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un mounted a defiant show of military force last weekend, thousands of miles away from the Korean Peninsula, operating in the Indian Ocean.

This was a monumental screw up. Perhaps the Trump folks forgot to tell the Navy to send that carrier group north – negligence. Perhaps the Trump folks just assumed that the Navy simply knew what Trump wanted them to do, because military guys know Trump and love him, and this would have been instinctive – arrogance. It’s unlikely that Naval Command disobeyed a direct order from their commander-in-chief. But Trump was boasting about this – he said he had sent submarines too – as was Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer. John McCain was happy. And it never happened, but perhaps that was intentional:

Officials’ nebulous – if not seemingly misleading – statements about the whereabouts of the USS Carl Vinson illustrate the Trump administration’s attempt to deliver a dual message on one of its most thorny foreign problems: at once illustrating a willingness to employ force against a dangerous adversary while also steering clear of steps that could spiral out of control.

Dual messages are tricky, but that seems the only option now:

A series of binary, sometimes conflicting comments delivered by top officials in the past week highlight the Trump administration’s hope that hardline rhetoric will have a deterrent effect and, more fundamentally, the lack of attractive options it faces on North Korea. While officials are eager to signal a break from previous U.S. policy, their strategy appears to be a continuation of the Obama administration’s attempt to use international economic and diplomatic pressure to force results in Pyongyang.

This was the Obama administration’s strategy, done badly:

“The Trump administration, having looked at the options, is speaking out of both sides of its mouth, which if done deliberately is good policy,” said Patrick Cronin, an Asia expert at the Center for a New American Security.

“The idea is that we have the means of striking back, we’re certainly going to protect our allies… but we’re not going to make the mistake of starting a war,” he said.

Is it war or isn’t it? It was hard to tell:

Standing at the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas this week, Vice President Pence issued his latest warning to North Korea. “The patience of the United States and our allies in this region has run out, and we want to see change,” he said.

But even as they highlight Trump’s willingness to use force in new ways in Syria and elsewhere, Pence and other officials have also expressed a preference for a negotiated disarmament for North Korea.

“Our hope is that we’ll be able to achieve this objective through peaceable means,” the vice president said, adding that he hoped for a resumption of negotiations.

The double-barreled comments from Pence, like those from national security adviser H.R. McMaster and other senior officials, also indicate the importance that China, which Trump hopes will play an instrumental role in persuading Kim to abandon his nuclear plans, holds in the administration’s strategy.

China also signed that 1953 armistice agreement after all. They promised to help out. But then there’s Donald Trump:

Analysts said the White House is betting that its tough talk will convince Chinese President Xi Jinping that Trump is willing to use force to shatter the long standoff with Pyongyang, prompting Beijing to use the weight of its trade ties with North Korea to help avoid a huge conflict on its border.

Trump himself has issued repeated warnings to North Korea on Twitter, calling on China for help but promising to act unilaterally if need be. “I have great confidence that China will properly deal with North Korea,” Trump tweeted on Thursday. “If they are unable to do so, the U.S., with its allies, will!”

That sounds like war for the next generation of American kids, because Trump is playing with fire:

The use of bellicose rhetoric, even when paired with messages of continuity, could bring unanticipated results. Already, North Korea has ratcheted up its rhetoric against the United States, threatening its own preemptive strike.

Rodong Sinmun, an official newspaper of the ruling Workers’ Party, declared this week that North Korea would use nuclear arms to “obliterate” the United States if it made a move suggesting a first use of military action.

Perhaps with that in mind, officials at the Pentagon and State Department have attempted to ratchet down speculation about potential conflict.

They want to contain Trump:

Officials at the State Department have signaled that a resolution to the standoff could be well off in the future.

“I think there’s not going to be an answer tomorrow or the day after that. It’s going to take more time,” Susan A. Thornton, acting assistant secretary for East Asia and Pacific affairs, told reporters this week.

“Our preference is to put pressure on the North Korean regime so that they will undertake to cease this threatening behavior and roll back their illegal programs,” she said.

So the Carl Vinson has been thousands of miles away in the Indian Ocean, not bearing down on the Korean Peninsula. That may change things in Pyongyang. It may not.

Of course, Harry Truman faced the same thing – without the nukes – and David Ignatius draws the parallels:

The only modern president who rivaled Donald Trump in his lack of preparation for global leadership was Harry Truman. Both men took office with little knowledge of the international problems they were about to face, and with worries at home and abroad that they weren’t up to the job.

“I pray God I can measure up to the task,” Truman said right after Franklin Roosevelt’s death and the shock of taking the oath of office. Trump wouldn’t be human if he hadn’t had a similar prayer in a corner of his mind on Jan. 20.

But the parallels end there:

Truman exhibited what in those days were called manly virtues – quiet leadership, fidelity to his beliefs, a disdain for public braggadocio. He never took credit for things he hadn’t accomplished. He never blamed others for his mistakes.

President Trump is obviously a radically different person from Truman. He’s a showy New Yorker, where Truman was a low-key Missouri farm boy. Where Trump made his name as a noisy casino tycoon and TV star, the poker-playing Truman always kept his cards close.

What these two presidents have in common is the experience of coming into the Oval Office facing widespread doubts. What Truman teaches us is that character counts, especially for a president with low initial popularity ratings.

Still, Ignatius says Trump is coming around:

On foreign policy, Trump has shown a flexibility and pragmatism that contradict some of his inflammatory campaign rhetoric. He had accused China of “raping” the American economy, for example, but as president, he evidently realized that he needed Beijing’s help on North Korea and other issues and dropped his claims that Beijing was a “currency manipulator.”

Trump’s Russia position seems to be evolving, too. During the campaign, he was almost fawning in his praise for President Vladimir Putin, and investigators probed for hidden connections to Russia’s covert hacking of the 2016 campaign. Now Trump has taken a warier tone toward Putin. There have been similar shifts on more mundane issues, such as the Export-Import Bank and the tenure of Federal Reserve Chair Janet L. Yellen.

That fine, but not fine:

Trump’s new positions seem right to me. But because they represent reversals from earlier views, they raise the question of what this man really believes.

Ignatius prefers Truman:

How does a politician become more trustworthy? There’s no formula; it must be earned. But Trump would help himself if he exhibited more of the virtues that Truman embodied. Trump should stop blaming others, for starters. He should never again say that Barack Obama is the cause of his difficulties in Syria, or anywhere else. Shifting blame sounds political, but it also sounds weak. Similarly, Trump should never again malign his military commanders, as he did after the death of Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens, when Trump said that “the generals lost Ryan.” Such statements are the opposite of leadership.

Trump should stop taking credit for things he didn’t do (and even for things he did accomplish). These boasts only diminish him. It’s good that he has decided that NATO isn’t obsolete anymore, but he’s foolishly vain to take credit for it. The same is true with job gains from decisions by U.S. companies to keep plants in the United States. The quicker Trump is to claim personal credit, the phonier it seems.

Trump’s taxes present another example of how trust is won and lost. The man running for president might refuse to release his tax returns, but the wise chief executive, never.

When presidents encounter difficulty, they need public confidence. Divisive tactics that may work in a campaign, or attempts to shift responsibility to others, can be ruinous. Truman is remembered as a great president because he overcame a history of personal failure, as a farmer and a haberdasher, to develop the one bond that’s indispensable for a president, which is that in a crisis, people believed him.

So this will be Trump’s war, not Truman’s:

Truman was grieved by North Korea’s invasion in 1950. The war went badly, his popularity plummeted, his commander, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, defied him. But the public stuck with Truman for a simple reason: He had built a reservoir of the trust that is essential for a successful leader.

Okay, Trump is not Truman, but there’s Richard Nixon. Nixon inherited Johnson’s war in Vietnam and made it his own. He said he has a secret plan to end that war. He didn’t. There was that massive carpet-bombing of Hanoi to force the North Vietnamese to get serious at the negotiating table in Paris, and the invasion of Cambodia, after incursions into Laos – all to bring Peace with Honor. The North Vietnamese signed a peace agreement in Paris, and the war didn’t end. Nixon resigned – Watergate finally caught up with him – and Gerald Ford finally ended the thing. We had peace without honor. We lost.

It may be that Trump is Nixon, but in January, Carter Eskew argued that Trump is Nixon without the polish:

Ron Ziegler’s famous words “This is the operative statement. The others are inoperative” have stood as a marker for the deceitfulness of the Nixon administration. We know that Trump not only has a tenuous relationship with the truth but also has a strategy of devaluing objective fact. You have your facts; Trump has his “alternatives” – biggest inaugural crowd in history, one of the largest margins of victory in Electoral College history, millions of illegal immigrants voted, and so on.

Eskew wasn’t hopeful:

It will be important to see whether Trump misleads about the big stuff, as well as the little stuff, the way Nixon did. Nixon deceived on everything from the quality of the wine served to him vs. his guests, to body counts in Vietnam. So far, Trump’s deceptions seem less sinister. So far, he’s like Nixon, but without the polish. Easier to catch. So far.

Once again, character counts:

Both men seem to share something else in common: a deep-seated resentment for the media and other elites. Nixon never felt completely legitimate as president; he always saw a plot by the Kennedys to thwart or defeat him. No matter his success, the “Ivy Leaguers” seemed to look down upon him. In the end, Nixon’s resentments both motivated and defeated him. He took his mantra of “I am not a quitter” and turned it into criminal activity. He forgot that he was venerated by millions of Americans, the silent majority, who identified with him as an underdog. Instead, he was obsessed with the approval of those who would never give it to him. Unrequited, he sought revenge.

Trump shares some of these same qualities. He comes from Queens and had to muscle his way into the hierarchy of Manhattan real estate, whose elite have always seen him more as a marketer than a builder. He is acutely aware of the disdain elites have for his outsize ego and gilded properties bearing the large stamp of his name. He is everything certain old-style elites disdain: loud, brassy, crude and boastful. Like Nixon, he seems to fear he isn’t viewed as legitimate. Instead of embracing the people who identify with his story of success he too stews over those who slight it. Like Nixon, he hates the press. And, like Nixon, he is frequently underestimated.

A question to follow in the Trump years will be whether he can harness his resentments and use them as positive motivation, or whether he will succumb to their darker instincts.

That question has now been answered, but a month later, Charles Lane noted that Trump was trying to compare himself to Andrew Jackson, but he may have had the wrong Andrew:

Egged on by his top political adviser, Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump is touting an analogy between his populist administration and that of Andrew Jackson, who was first elected in 1828 as the tribune of Appalachian backwoodsmen – and whose portrait now hangs significantly in the Oval Office.

They’ve got the wrong Andrew. The past White House occupant Trump most closely resembles is the 17th president, Andrew Johnson, who served briefly as Abraham Lincoln’s vice president before Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865 – then ruled turbulently, barely staving off impeachment, over the next three years and 11 months.

That’s Trump:

Like Jackson, Johnson believed there was no contradiction between strong states’ rights and unconditional commitment to the Union, and he never wavered, not even after the Civil War broke out. His pro-Union stance led to his selection as Lincoln’s running mate in the 1864 presidential election: Republicans saw this rare loyal Southern politician as a ticket-balancing pick.

Johnson’s open and thorough racism mattered less to Lincoln’s party than the onetime tailor’s animosity toward the Southern planter class (faintly echoed in Trump’s Queens-bred insecurities regarding Manhattanites and other “elites”). Their aristocratic pretensions annoyed Johnson even if their slave-holding per se did not.

Republicans of Johnson’s time, in short, intended to use Johnson for their own purposes, not for this ideological misfit to become president.

Once he did, however, his stubborn, conflictual and erratic personality proved a constant source of irritation and embarrassment.

That sounds familiar:

Just as Trump has taken to Twitter to berate everyone from Nordstrom to a “so-called judge” who had the temerity to rule against his administration, Johnson transgressed contemporary norms of “presidential” communication.

Flouting his era’s unwritten rule against politicking by the chief executive, Johnson embarked on a national “swing around the circle” for the 1866 midterm election. Shouting and trading insults with hecklers at every whistle-stop, Johnson slammed “diabolical” political opponents and denounced the House and Senate as “a body called or which assumes to be the Congress of the United States.”

In one rant, which the Chicago Tribune called “the crowning disgrace of a disreputable series,” Johnson blamed a bloody race riot in New Orleans not on the white ex-Confederates who actually killed 34 African Americans and four white supporters, but on unnamed persons, linked to Congress, who had supposedly exhorted blacks “to arm themselves and prepare for the shedding of blood.”

One hundred and fifty years later, Trump would make a similar demagogic insinuation regarding political violence, labeling President Barack Obama a “founder” of the Islamic State terrorist group, and Hillary Clinton a “co-founder.”

Everything old is new again, including this:

Made president through tragic happenstance, Johnson not only lacked legitimacy among the wider public, he also had little or no leverage in Congress, even before he started alienating it.

Trump’s ascent was weird, too – he’s only the fifth president to win office with a majority of the Electoral College while losing the popular vote. Obviously, his behavior and his policies dismay more than a few conventional Republican politicians.

Okay, Trump is not Andrew Jackson. He’s Andrew Johnson, the jerk who offended so many others (even his allies) that he got nothing done. Trump isn’t even Richard Nixon. Trump is Nixon without the polish – and Trump doesn’t have the “manly virtues” of Harry Truman either. Trump stands alone – and may stumble into war with North Korea now. American kids don’t get to choose their wars. The next generation of American kids may have to live with this one. They’ll get used to it too.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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