In the present climate of wars and rumors of wars, I thought it would be worthwhile to examine the influence of wars on some past presidencies and elections. Here are a few examples.
Having observed how the 9/11 attacks pulled the country together under George W. Bush’s leadership, and how the ensuing war against Iraq and Al Qaeda consolidated that leadership and led to Mr. Bush’s re-election, Democrats subsequently became preoccupied – even obsessed – with the idea that Mr. Bush had deliberately “lied” us into war with Iraq for political advantage. (One has to wonder if this suspicion stems from the likelihood that those critics might do the same, if given the chance.)
Some wild-eyed conspiracy-theorists have even accused Mr. Bush and his supposed “war chief,” Vice President Dick Cheney, of knowing beforehand about – or possibly even engineering – the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. To their credit, respectable Democrats have neither repeated such charges nor given them credence. Many Democrats, however, did retain an almost irrational hatred of Mr. Cheney for being the supposed architect of the Bush “war strategy.”
I have no knowledge about the truth or falsehood of those sensational charges, but a child could see how difficult it would be to keep a lid on the fact that such a plot had been executed, or even that pre-knowledge of an enemy plot was possessed by Mr. Bush’s administration. The odds would be enormously against the keeping of such a secret by the numbers of people who would have known it. Of course, its eventual revelation – almost a certainty, in my opinion – would become the greatest scandal in history.
Any president who risked such a thing would have to have an ambition for holding the office approaching megalomania. He would have to believe himself divinely appointed to “save” the country, and thereby justified to go to any lengths to be elected. Unless there was some side of George W. Bush that remained invisible to the public, it is difficult to see him in the divinely-inspired megalomaniac role.
Mr. Bush is not the first president suspected (or accused) of engineering a war in order to improve his re-election prospects. Possibly the foremost exemplar of this was Lyndon Johnson, who famously used an incident – the reality of which is now disputed – in the Bay of Tonkin, off the North Vietnam coast, as a reason to order American ships of war into action against North Vietnamese boats. The latter were said to have fired on our ships on August 2, 1964 – exactly three months before the 1964 presidential election.
The incident, real or not, transformed the little-known former Texas senator – who had been elevated to the presidency just nine months earlier, after JFK’s assassination – into a strong, decisive “war leader” who showed that he could take needed military action when necessary. This undoubtedly assured LBJ’s 1964 election, although historians generally agree that his defeat of Senator Barry Goldwater was a near certainty anyway. LBJ won a popular-vote majority of 61.1% – the largest since 1820 – on November 3, 1964.
(Historical notes: (1) Many historians now believe that the much hyped “attack” by North Vietnam in the Bay of Tonkin never actually happened. (2) James Monroe’s 80% popular vote in 1820 was due to his candidacy being essentially unopposed – the third and last time that had happened in our history. The period when that occurred was called the Era of Good Feeling.)
In the controversy following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese (December 7, 1941), dark rumors circulated concerning who knew what (and when) about the impending attack – and whether that knowledge was deliberately withheld by top levels of the administration to produce maximum shock-effect upon the American people. It was widely known that FDR wished to bring us into the European war against Nazi Germany as an ally of Great Britain, but public support for such involvement was lacking. Many politicians realized that a shocking war-event would be needed to sway public opinion in favor of involvement in the European war.
In the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack, the proverbial “good news and bad news” emerged about entering the war. The “good news” was that the American public was thoroughly aroused and ready to fight. The “bad news” was that we were ready to fight the Japanese, not the Germans, as FDR had wished. Germany had not attacked us, so most of the public saw no reason to fight them.
Understanding the public mood, FDR asked for a declaration of war on the Japanese. Otherwise, he could do nothing but await developments. In the event, Hitler solved FDR’s problem by declaring war on the USA on December 11, 1941. Hitler had held to a strict interpretation of the so-called Pact of Steel, which committed Japan, Germany and Italy to make war on any power that had declared war on any other member of the Pact. Since the United States had declared war on Japan, Hitler evidently thought he must declare war on the USA – somehow ignoring the fine point of Japan’s actually having initiated hostilities by attacking our base at Pearl Harbor.
This inexplicable action by Hitler enabled FDR to commit to all-out war on Germany, while the Pacific Theater got short shrift in terms of materiel and manpower. (Historians call General Douglas MacArthur’s island-hopping campaign – executed on a shoestring budget – a military masterpiece.) The European campaign was concluded on May 8, 1945, with the complete surrender of Germany; Japan finally surrendered on September 1, 1945. On the political front, FDR won an unprecedented fourth term in 1944, although he lived only a month into that term.
Other presidents found war to have varying degrees of political advantage. William McKinley exploited the public’s war fever in 1898 to go to war against Spain, after our battleship Maine was blown up in the harbor of Havana, Cuba. That tidy little war wrested several territories away from Spain, satisfied the public’s periodic lust for conquest, and won William McKinley a second term in 1900. Unfortunately, he also did not live to enjoy much of that term, as he was assassinated at the Buffalo Exposition in September 1901.
(The explosion that sank the Maine – widely thought at the time to be due to a mine planted by the Spanish – was found by a 1970s investigation to have most likely been caused by spontaneous combustion of coal dust in the coal bunker, and subsequent ignition of the powder magazine which was situated next to it.)
Abraham Lincoln was the first American president to be re-elected during a war. He defeated former Union General Brinton McClellan, who headed a Democratic ticket that demanded immediate stoppage of the war and recognition of the Confederacy as a separate nation. In the fall of 1864, General Grant was stalled outside of Petersburg, VA, in a bloody struggle with Robert E. Lee, and the nation was heartily sick of the war. Ongoing hostilities ultimately helped Mr. Lincoln, but only by a whisker. Had it not been for General Sherman’s capture of Atlanta on September 3, 1864, Mr. Lincoln might have been defeated, and history would have been different. Like McKinley and Roosevelt, Lincoln also did not live very far into his new term. He was assassinated just six weeks after his second inauguration.
I cite all this history as background for the current day. Barack Obama is running for re-election on a record which features a poor economy, stubbornly high unemployment, and a deteriorating international situation. The latter includes Iran’s possible acquisition of nuclear weapons. Many voters are disquieted by Mr. Obama’s radical-left agenda, including his signature accomplishment, Obamacare, which is now growing so unpopular that Mr. Obama, himself, never mentions it. On the domestic front, gasoline has doubled in price to nearly $4 a gallon since Mr. Obama took office. Some commodities prognosticators project $5 gas by year-end.
In a recent speech to college students, the president mocked Republicans as figurative members of the Flat Earth Society for wanting to drill for more oil in order to get the price down. Mr. Obama speaks sagely of developing fuel from algae, and of harnessing wind and solar power. Yet he surely knows that the technology for bringing any of those into significant contribution to our energy needs is decades away – if attainable at all. (The sun doesn’t shine all the time, and the wind doesn’t blow all the time. Technology cannot change that.)
Mr. Obama speaks of the economy as though he lives on another planet, not the one inhabited by the nearly 20% of our workforce who are underemployed, or unemployed (and seeking work), or unemployed (and no longer seeking work). Even liberal economist Paul Krugman grouses that fewer Americans are working now than in 2001. Millions of American families are scratching along from paycheck to paycheck – many of them surviving on the earnings of wives who have been forced to return to work. Yet the president assures us that things are getting better. He says the job “isn’t done yet.” (Oh, no kidding!) He just needs another four years to “transform” the country. Millions of voters who are borrowing from 401Ks and IRAs to make ends meet are asking themselves if there will be anything left after four more years of an Obama economy.
At the federal level, Mr. Obama’s riotous spending has added nearly $5 trillion to our national debt, with no end of trillion-dollar annual deficits in sight. He assures us that all will be well if only the “rich pay their fair share” – this, while hoping voters will not realize that confiscation of the total earnings of “the rich” for a year would not fully cover the annual federal deficit. Mr. Obama has declaimed that this is not about “class warfare,” but about “math.” If so, he must have flunked math, years ago.
Before this disastrous tapestry of failure, Mr. Obama cruises serenely on, causing many observers (including Yours Truly) to wonder if he is just clueless about his re-election prospects, or if he has an ace up his sleeve that we don’t know about. In an earlier article in this space (“Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop” – http://www.ahherald.com/columns-mainmenu-28/at-large/11807-waiting-for-the-other-shoe-to-drop ), I suggested that Mr. Obama might use war as an election strategy, if his re-election seems sufficiently in doubt. Lately I have begun seeing other columnists of greater reputation than mine suggest the same possibility.
A war significant enough to affect an election, of course, would have to be more than low-speed dustups in places like Afghanistan or Libya. Since the Germans or the Japanese – or even the Japanese-Germans, as my son called them when he was a boy at play – will probably not be hitting us, what enemy could strike (or threaten to strike) a blow so fearsome that Americans might fear to change Commanders-in-chief? Obviously it would have to be Iran – perhaps armed with a nuclear weapon. As recent news events have shown, this is no longer just a remote possibility.
The problem is that anticipating an enemy attack is much like trying to anticipate lightning. You never know when or where either will strike. Lightning does give warning signals – e.g., dark clouds and thunder – but the locus of a strike can’t really be “arranged,” except possibly by erection of a lightning rod or something else that will attract lightning. The same is true of war. A hostile strike can be “set up” – presuming that one would wish to do that – by creating conditions that might tempt an enemy to attack at a particular time and place. Just before an election might be such a time. The place is another matter.
Right now, the storm clouds are gathering and the thunder is starting to rumble over Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon. We have talked and scolded; applied “sanctions,” threatened and talked some more. The Iranian leaders smile, bow, frown, scold back, and keep on doing what they’re doing to build the bomb. Former UN Ambassador John Bolton notes that Iran has “…used negotiations to great effect to buy time to advance their nuclear weapons program…”
Iran is determined to get the bomb, no matter how much Hillary Clinton runs from pillar to post, or how low Barack Obama bows to Iran’s Ayatollah. To stop Iran from going nuclear, we’ll either have to go in and wreck their facilities, or we’ll have to let Israel do it. Either way, it will mean serious war.
If we do nothing, Iran will certainly get the bomb. When they do, that nut-case who’s running the place is dead certain to drop it somewhere. Either scenario would be serious enough to affect the election.
I know I sound like a conspiracy nut here (as noted before, I am a charter member of the Grassy Knoll Society) but even non-GKS-ers will have to admit that all this smells suspiciously like a potential October Surprise being set up to get a very weak president re-elected. Watch for further developments, and keep an eye on those thunderheads…