Presidents may not know what to do in a military crisis but they have advisors who do. That’s not me speaking but something that came up in a conversation I was having a couple of weeks ago and I had a hard time responding to it in an impromptu fashion. Of course the discussion was political, at this point in time everything seems to be – and I was expressing my strong concerns about one of the candidates who is notorious for talking and acting off the top of his head (well I suppose that gave it away right there). The thing is, the original statement is true – Presidents do have advisors who are on hand and ready to offer experienced advice in contemporary times. Since the early 1960’s, Presidents have also had some level of direct communications with the actual point of the crisis (if they choose to use it).
The thing is that before I researched and wrote Surprise Attack I was a lot more comfortable about Presidential action at moments of crisis than I am now – because they do have resources available. What I learned in doing that work is that their personal agendas and modes of action quite often override everything else including their advisors and what is going on at the crisis point. Their seems to be an intense personal motivation to take control and do so with immediate decisions.
To be clear, taking control can be issuing orders to do something, or orders to stop doing something. That sounds convoluted so a couple of illustrations are in order.
The first takes us to 1964 and the destroyer Turner Joy in the Gulf of Tonkin off Vietnam. Word reached Washington D.C. of a possible attack on the American destroyer and within the span of some three hours President Johnson, with the concurrence of the Secretary of Defense, ordered a series of intense air strikes which essentially committed the U.S. to full scale conventional warfare against North Vietnam. Before those orders could be carried out the U.S. Admiral responsible for the ships advised Washington that he was already receiving information suggesting that the destroyers had actually not been attacked and requesting a delay in any retaliation. A Navy pilot observing the purported attack confirmed by radio that there were no signs at all of North Vietnamese boats anywhere near the destroyers. And on the Navy carrier which was preparing for the strikes, there was general knowledge that it was a false alarm. The carrier commander is on record as being quite clear that the U.S. attack was launched under false pretenses, contrary to advice and requests from the senior on-scene military commanders.
Johnson rejected all that advice, moved forward and the rest is history. Worse yet there was a cover-up of NSA signals intelligence proving no attack had occurred.
The second takes us to the Israeli attack on the Liberty signals intelligence ship in 1967, an attack which killed and injured dozens of Americans. Once aware of the attack in progress, military commanders in the Mediterranean had scrambled Navy jets to defend the ship and repel attacks that continued to go on for hours. When President Johnson was advised of the situation and of the military action being taken, he ordered it stopped, leaving the Liberty alone and undefended. We have copies of the American carrier messages of support to the Liberty, we have confirmation of Johnson’s orders, beyond that we have anecdotal stories that he even considered sinking the American ship over political concerns. Its clearly one of the most damming stories relating to any Presidential action and it was in direct contradiction to all advice from military commanders on the scene, senior military advisors – and ongoing pleas for help from the ship.
Unfortunately these are only a couple of examples, there are far more in Surprise Attack. My problem is that after having written the book and having become familiar with what Presidents do and don’t do under pressure, I tend to become speechless when trying to respond to the point that things will be OK because President’s have advisors. President GWB had advisors as well and after 9/11 swore that the US would act militarily but would never become a policeman or get into nation building – but of course he had advisors too.
Experience makes such a huge difference under crisis situations; you can see it in JFK’s character and in his personal experience in combat and having been involved with almost going to war over Berlin. The other good thing is to have a CIC that thinks a bit before they actually act….
And if you think this is a bit alarmist, just remember that we have ships and planes operating in the South China Sea and in several areas with increasingly hostile contact not just from the Iranians but from the Russians and that the probability is that we will have an aircraft or plane damaged withing the near future, even if accidentally, because the contacts are becoming too close and too dangerous. All that without even weighing in the insanity of the North Korean leadership. A moment of military crisis similar to the Tonkin Gulf or the Liberty is coming to the next President..count on it.