Presidential Decisions for War

From The Mason Historiographiki

Jump to: navigation, search


Hess, Gary R. Presidential Decisions for War : Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf. Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. xiv, 262 pp.


The idea of a strong state sponsoring a weaker state in war is hardly new. For as long as humans have banded into groups, the practice of aiding one's allies to maintain the status quo has been one of the most consistent patterns of human discourse. Throughout time, the same basic questions have affected the shape of strong-state intervention:

1. What does the strong state have to gain by sponsoring the weaker state? 2. To what extent is the strong state prepared to make the effort that will theoretically yield that gain? 3. What variations of the status quo will the strong state accept as an endgame?

In the second half of the 20th century, three U.S. presidents led their nation into wars in Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf. In each case, the three considerations listed above have directed American presidential actions. In his book Presidential Decisions for War: Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf, Gary R. Hess examines these conflicts and how executive action shifted as events unfolded and three very different men struggled to determine what was important and what was needed to secure victory.

In the early 1990s, Iraq invaded its neighbor Kuwait, and the United States led a global coalition that placed hundreds of thousands of soldiers in the region to liberate this tiny nation. A few years later anarchy threatened to engulf the poor nation of Somalia. American troops responded to restore order, but after a few brisk skirmishes, they quietly withdrew, leaving the country the way they'd found it. In the mid 1990s, a genocidal war broke out in Rwanda, and the United States did not send a single soldier to that troubled country. The variation in these three responses can be understood by pondering what the United States had to gain by armed intervention in each conflict. In the first case, significant economic assets were at stake, while in the latter two only humanitarian considerations were in play, and these were not sufficiently powerful to invoke a meaningful American response.

But economics is hardly the only factor that has driven U.S. intervention. The Cold War (which dominated American foreign discourse for four decades) was marked by superpower confrontation via third parties in lieu of open warfare. Following this model, parties competed and postured for client states and influence. In the western Pacific, the United States struggled to maintain a line from Korea to Southeast Asia. This conceptual bulwark protected Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines from Communist hegemony while retaining an American foothold on the continent for retaking China. The gains from the defense of this line prompted American intervention in Korea and Vietnam.

The first of these conflicts, the Korean War, occurred when the Cold War was still young and the concept of containment was being fleshed out. Initially, a posturing United States responded because it didn't want to look weak in the face of Communist aggression. But as the first rush of the war's opening faded, there was an executive consensus that there was much to be gained by the protection of Pacific-rim allies and the establishment of the United Nations as a potent force for the stability of the global status quo. By 1965, the United States had a finely tuned sense of the assets of the Western Pacific, and when French resolve crumbled in Southeast Asia, the Americans were ready to step in.

The level of commitment that a strong state is prepared to render to a weak state is a key element of intervention, for this shapes the pace of the conflict and the direction it follows. In most cases it varies directly with the potential gain to be realized by the intervention and the likelihood of success.

By the fall of 1950, the American-led U.N. forces in Korea had turned the tide of the conflict; a complete military victory seemed not only possible but likely. Such a victory would have ensured Korean unification under U.S./U.N. auspices. This tantalizing opportunity led Harry Truman and his administration to push for U.N. resolutions allowing the invasion of North Korea despite international unease over warnings of impending Chinese intervention.

In Vietnam, the year 1965 marked a moment of crisis. The lack of a U.S.-friendly government and a rising tide of internal and external Communist insurgency were threatening to pull South Vietnam out of its place as an American satellite. In this case, it was not the opportunity of victory that spurred U.S. commitment, but the fear of loss. This fear caused America to recast its role in the conflict from that of advisor to that of participant.

The initial American response to the invasion of Kuwait was to protect those oil-rich Arab states that had not been occupied, and to sponsor U.N. economic sanctions against Iraq. As the weeks and months passed after the invasion, it became evident that the global community was in support of military action to liberate Kuwait. The opportunity to accomplish this goal while marginalizing a threat to U.S. economic interests was an opportunity that the executive branch of George Bush did not refuse.

How wars end is really the only thing that matters to those who survive them, and the shape of the endgame and the varieties that strong states will accept is very important to how their interventions unfold. If a strong state is confident of victory, they are likely to be far less flexible in terms of what they will accept as the conflict's endgame. Once a clear-cut military victory becomes less likely, observers are apt to note a much greater degree of strong state flexibility in the sort of endgame they will accept.

During the winter of 1951, American troops in Korea fell back before a massive Chinese counterattack, which scattered U.S. hopes of complete victory and eroded international support for the war. America could not accept a Korean peninsula unified under Communism, but nor could they justify all-out war to reverse their fortunes. Thus the United Nations and the Americans were forced to accept a negotiated peace that gave them a more contentious version of the pre-war status quo.

U.S. commitment of troops in Vietnam was a frustrating cycle of “just a little more and we'll win.” Again and again, as instability and Communist resistance persisted, the United States responded by increasing its military commitment in hopes of battering down its foes. By the late 1960s, it had to confront the reality that it could not win the war through conventional means without an all-out U.S. commitment. The North Vietnamese knew this well, and they could afford to spin out negotiations until the Americans would accept the option of the total loss of the war. This would take several years, but it would eventually be realized.

In the Persian Gulf, an unusual situation developed. The Bush administration had developed an endgame before the war started, as part of its plan to ensure international support and to hedge against military reverses. Once the war began, it quickly became evident that the complete conquest of Iraq was well within America's military reach. But to secure this outcome, the United States would have to recast its declared endgame in mid-conflict. To do so would be to endanger the international and domestic support that had enabled the war in the first place. Thus, Bush was forced to accept a limited endgame.


Hess's approach of comparing Cold War interventions to economic interventions is a comparison of apples to oranges, which makes it very difficult to pull an overall conclusion out of the work.

His uneven treatment of presidents is also a problem. He clears Harry Truman and George Bush from poor decisions associated with their wars, but he condemns Lyndon Johnson for terrible mismanagement of Vietnam.

Lastly, Hess makes no mention of interventions--or lack thereof--for humanitarian purposes. A comparison of Korea and Vietnam to Somalia and Rwanda would have been far more interesting than one with Desert Storm. One wonders if this Desert Storm was inserted due the favorable light it sheds on George Bush and U.S. participation in that war.

Personal tools