THE JUXTAPOSITION could not have been more striking: Hiroshima and Hanoi -- two wars with two very different endings, and two very different lessons.
The bang that concluded World War II, in addition to ushering in the atomic age and all that implies, taught us anew that victory requires might. In the half-century that's followed we've spent much of our treasure making sure no one is mightier. Candidates soft on defense" have seen their political lives comes to untimely ends. And now in Congress, Republican senators, convinced they can't trust the Defense Department of a Democratic administration, are busy adding more money to the Pentagon budget than the generals have asked for, including funding for Ronald Reagan's missile defense system, Star Wars.
But at the same time last Sunday that solemn ceremonies commemorated the anniversary of Hiroshima, Secretary of State Warren Christopher cheerily raised the American flag in Hanoi. It seems appropriate that he was there rather than in Japan; it's the war in Vietnam that marks this administration. (For all of Christopher's protestations that we should now think of Vietnam as a country, not a war, the words "Vietnam" and "war" will be forever linked in the minds of those of us over the age of 40.) And the lessons of that war still loom as a specter over U.S. policy.
In Vietnam we learned that might is necessary but not sufficient to victory, that might can be too great -- that our vast nuclear
arsenal was useless, unthinkable. The other lessons of that still painful war have become a familiar litany -- the need to build consensus, both of the American people and of our allies; and, most importantly, the establishment of an end point so that U.S. troops never again are sent into a possibly quixotic quagmire.
George Bush, under the strong hand of Vietnam veteran Colin Powell, took those lessons into the Persian Gulf and with that victory pronounced the death of the "Vietnam Syndrome," the fear of putting U.S. soldiers in harm's way. But President Bush might have been too quick to bury an embarrassing part of the American psyche. A look at the situation in Bosnia suggests it's still stalking our leaders.
Last weekend the New York Times quoted from an interview with the nation's top military man -- Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Shalikashvili. He expressed some anxiety that American commanders might be lacking in the boldness necessary to win wars because they're afraid of losing too many soldiers. "I'm concerned we do not start in our young leaders this notion that it's better to be hesitant and timid," the general fretted. "The result will not be that they take fewer casualties. The result will be that they will take more casualties." But what other signals could these "young leaders" be getting from their elders? Hesitancy and timidity characterize current national security policy.
Bill Clinton's own protest of the Vietnam War, along with that of much of the country, seems to have taught him and his advisers (some of whom were in the Carter administration where they heard Walter Cronkite pronounce nightly the number of days U.S. hostages had been held in Tehran) that a president only gets in trouble with the voters if American men and women are in harm's way, either as combatants or hostages. And, like World War II veteran George Bush, the president and his team have been influenced by Colin Powell's post-Vietnam text: The United States should only send troops into situations where overwhelming force allows them to win a defined victory quickly and get out.
What's missing in these readings of history are the lessons of leadership and credibility -- learned negatively in Vietnam, positively in World War II. It's true that there was no real popular consensus supporting the war in Vietnam (even though polling showed majorities favoring U.S. policy), but that's due at least in part to a lack of credibility. At some point, it became clear that the country's military and civilian leaders were lying -- we no longer believed them and neither did the North Vietnamese. And the war ended ignobly, with the whimper of children under the whirring of helicopter blades.
Compare that to World War II. After the Germans surrendered President Truman called on Japan to do the same, "the striking power and intensity of our blows will steadily increase," he warned. If the Japanese fought on because they did not believe Harry Truman, they soon learned horribly that this was a leader to be taken at his word, a man ready to be bold in order not to take more casualties. "I realize the tragic significance of the atomic bomb," Truman told the nation in a radio address. "We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans. We shall continue to use it until we completely destroy Japan's power to make war. Only a Japanese surrender will stop us." This time the Japanese leaders believed him.
Cokie Roberts is a political commentator for ABC. Steven V. Roberts is a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report.