So Why DID Support for War Go South?

“To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp …”

Walter Cronkite, February 27, 1968

“I said to the President, ‘We’re not winning the war.’ And he asked, ‘Are we losing?’ I said, ‘Not yet’ … he couldn’t hear it.”

Former Bush administration high official, late 2004

The most frequently-cited reason for the rapid waning of public support for the second Iraq War is casualties. This is not an inconsequential consideration, to be sure; many in Congress, both Republican and Democrat, have expressed deep emotion when recounting their visits with families of those killed (2,130 as of December 5) and with the wounded.

However, casualties are more often the revered symbol of deeper currents, ones that take longer to appear, but once articulated by a respected and trusted public figure, generate an irresistible power that eventually sweeps all before it.

Before television, before radio, such public figures tended to be writers, orators, or humorists. Statesmen, as opposed to politicians, might be quoted, but normally in support of the position espoused by the quoter—and invariably long enough after the death of the honored personage that his less edifying pronouncements have been forgotten.

Murrow and McCarthy

These musings surfaced in mid-November when “Good Night and Good Luck” hit movie houses across the United States. The film recounts events leading to the March 9, 1954 broadcast of See It Now , hosted by legendary CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow. That broadcast revealed quite clearly the often-unfounded, destructive tactics of Senator Joe McCarthy (WI) in his crusade to uncover communists in the U.S. government and the army. Even Dwight Eisenhower hesitated to take on McCarthy publicly until after the Murrow broadcast and a subsequent disastrous public relations appearance by McCarthy on See It Now in which the Senator’s unethical methods were laid bare as he attacked the press.

Until that point, the press, apparently intimidated by the reception accorded a February 9, 1950 “Lincoln Day” speech by McCarthy, had been more supine than critical. McCarthy’s claim that the State Department employed 205 known communists or individuals with questionable backgrounds resonated with the public as an explanation of why the United States, victorious in World War II, was now on the defensive. (Remember that the early 1950s were unsettled times with spy trials, the Korean War, and Moscow’s acquisition of “the bomb”—all of which seemed to validate McCarthy’s accusations.) Murrow’s commentary provided enough political cover for the Senate to investigate the investigator, and in December 1954 McCarthy’s colleagues finally mustered the courage to rebuke him for bringing discredit on the Senate.

Cronkite and Vietnam

Fast-forward 14 years to February 1968, to the fourth year since major U.S. combat formations first began to arrive to fight another Asian war (Vietnam). In the aftermath of the Tet offensive of 1968, another highly-regarded journalist stepped forward with an editorial on the war’s conduct (above). President Johnson, on hearing Walter Cronkite’s conclusion that the war could not be won, reportedly remarked that in losing Cronkite he had lost the country. The proof came in the March 1968 New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary in which Johnson garnered only 49 percent against the 42 percent for —ironically—another McCarthy (Eugene). Confronted by such a sharp division, on March 31, declaring that “No other question so preoccupies our people … [as] peace in Vietnam and Southeast Asia,” Johnson affirmed he would neither be a candidate nor accept his party’s nomination for president for the November 1968 race.

But “peace” was to remain elusive under Richard Nixon. A war that may well have started for U.S. combat units because of a cover-up was perpetuated by more lies, cost additional casualties among U.S. troops for five years, and in the end was “lost” as North Vietnamese forces swept into Saigon in April 1975.

Murtha and Iraq

Skip a further 30 years to November 2005. Representative John Murtha (PA), a Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam and an unswerving Pentagon supporter, surprises the nation by making an impassioned call for withdrawal of troops from Iraq. While others in Congress had earlier opposed the continued U.S. troop presence in Iraq, the policy reversal of a proud veteran and military hawk for pragmatic reasons (inadequate strategy) and as a matter of conscience (unnecessary casualties), created a shock wave. Compared to the casualties in Korea and Vietnam, the number of war fatalities in Iraq remains low. But the charge by Murtha and others—a charge that was already circulating broadly in public discourse—is that these deaths stem from premeditated public misrepresentations of already-flawed intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction developments, stockpiles, and programs as well as knowingly false innuendos that Iraq gave direct support to al-Qaida linked terror groups.

These three fundamentally different events are connected both in their shape and in the reactions they spurred. McCarthy’s was an anti-communist crusade to purge the U.S. government. Conducted in parallel to the anti-communist hot war being waged in Korea, the hearings relied on distrust and fear to intimidate and prevent formation of a unified opposition and enabled McCarthy to ride roughshod over the innocent, traditional justice, and truth.

Johnson’s identification with the seemingly endless “anti-communist” Vietnam War suggested his “stay the course” posture would soon split the nation as it had split New Hampshire Democrats. In Iraq, “stay the course” has split the United States but along party lines rather than within the party in power. Moreover, just as Johnson and his inner circle missed the overarching nationalism of the Vietnamese struggle, so too did Bush and his ideologues fail to recognize the force of this same current among most Iraqis.

Fifty-eight months elapsed between Joe McCarthy’s Lincoln Day speech and his censure by the Senate (and 49 months between the speech and Murrow’s broadcast). Johnson had only 40 months between his election in November 1964 and his announcement that he would not stand for reelection. In Iraq, in June 2004—the same month that the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority was dissolved—U.S. public support for the war fell below 50 percent for the first time. A mere 15 months had elapsed since the first missiles were launched on Baghdad. (John Murtha’s call for withdrawal came 17 months after the public’s change of heart.)

Losing Support: Then and Now

Two interrelated factors may be driving the rapid and steep rate of decline in support of the Iraq adventure as compared to the 1950s and 60s. One is the progressive easing in the public’s perception of the overall threat to the nation’s survival.

• In the 1950s (McCarthy), the reality was that communist spies had revealed vital national defense secrets to a hostile USSR—and more secrets would be lost unless security measures were tightened for government employees. Another reality was the threat of nuclear war, particularly Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), which was hyped in the 1950s, almost happened in 1962 over Soviet missiles in Cuba, and while still a possibility to this day, has receded in public consciousness.

• The U.S. public bought into the idea of a “threat” to U.S. interests spreading across the Far East from Southeast Asia until the absurdity of U.S. troops and Vietnamese dying to thwart this “domino theory” became overwhelmingly apparent. The theory played itself out in Laos and Cambodia – and collapsed when a united, nationalistic-modified communist Vietnam invaded Cambodia and fought a border war with the People’s Republic of China.

• Today, more than four years have passed since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The horror of that September 11, strongly etched in memory primarily among those who lived that experience first-hand or who had to cope with its consequences, has become for most an iconic event to be recalled annually, like Pearl Harbor on December 7. But unlike World War II or present-day Afghanistan, the continued existence of the United States and the American way of life were never in mortal danger because of September 11. Moreover, the inability of the Bush administration to demonstrate any incontrovertible connection between September 11 and Iraq reduces the invasion and occupation of that country to the same level as Vietnam. It is a war that need never have been because the clear and imminent threat by which a preemptive military strike is deemed lawful never existed.

Losing Trust

The second is the growing public distrust in the veracity of leaders, particularly within government. McCarthy vilified any and all who had the temerity to question his assertions or his methods. Not a few lost their job and reputation; many others were cowed into silence. Endless assurances by military and Johnson administration officials of “a light at the end of the tunnel” never materialized—becoming a phrase of derision surpassed only by the daily “five o’clock follies” (Saigon briefings) and the daily “body count” of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese killed. But years passed before the whole truth emerged and long-term public support disappeared for these nationalism-cloaked campaigns.

Today, strong public support at the beginning of the Iraq war was quickly tried as the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq proved a myth, and a seemingly endless and increasingly unpersuasive string of justifications for toppling Saddam followed. But unlike earlier eras, the media itself has become implicated in the deceit, sometimes wittingly, sometimes not. Prominent personalities have been paid to hype administration themes. “News” stories written by “consultants” have been planted in the foreign press, sometimes with money changing hands. At one point, the administration allegedly considered releases to foreign journalists of “stories” that were absolutely false.

When Bush is not appearing in strictly military or military-oriented venues for presidential speeches, his applauding audiences are pre-screened to ensure only supporters are present. Writers and journalists critical of U.S. government policies risk losing access to briefings and press conferences—and hence their livelihood. Others are constrained by their own non-media corporate conglomerates.

In this climate, the public doesn’t know who to trust—not the government, for it has shaded the truth in every way possible; not the media, for one no longer knows who is on a secret payroll or who is as much a victim of planted stories as the readers or viewers; and certainly not consultants or most politicians.

That is why Americans sit up and pay attention when a person of the stature of John Murtha speaks out against dissembling and misleading statements out of an obvious commitment to principle. Such individuals understand that the suffering and the dying on the battlefield—whether Korea, Vietnam, or Iraq—or the ideological crusades against communism, nationalism, or the extreme violence of terror may not be the real “war.”

The real war is internal. It is for the spirit of the nation and the soul of representative democracy, both of which fall into jeopardy when government leaders fail to tell the truth, substitute character assassination for accountability, and consciously suborn the press.

In 1954 and 1968, respected arbiters of truth cut through public fear to open the way for a change in public discourse and accountability from leaders who had exploited public trust. In 2005, Representative Murtha may be the decisive voice for the truth that restores the most fundamental necessity of democracy: a well-informed public.

Dan Smith is a military affairs analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus (online at www.fpif.org), a retired U.S. Army colonel, and a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.