Making War, Thinking History: Munich, Vietnam, and Presidential Uses of Force from Korea to Kosovo. (Book Reviews)

By Dr. Millett, Allan R. | Parameters, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Making War, Thinking History: Munich, Vietnam, and Presidential Uses of Force from Korea to Kosovo. (Book Reviews)


Dr. Millett, Allan R., Parameters


Making War, Thinking History: Munich, Vietnam, and Presidential Uses of Force from Korea to Kosovo. By Jeffrey Record. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2002. 216 pages. $28.95. Reviewed by Dr. Allan R. Millett, Major General Raymond E. Mason, Jr., Professor of Military History, Ohio State University, coauthor of A War To Be Won. Fighting World War II, and author of Their War for Korea.

Like most students of presidential decisionmaking that leads to war--or something less--Jeffrey Record ponders the breathtaking historical explanations offered up for the commitment of the American armed forces to battle. We should share his curiosity, but not assume that he and other defense analysts and pundits have the questions right, let alone the answers. Making War, Thinking History muses on the use of historical analogy to justify taking the nation to war. Record concludes that "the evidence suggests, for better or for worse, some thinking about history attends all significant presidential uses of force, especially those that invite war."

Record's long career near the corridors of power in Washington gives his ruminations credibility. After civilian field service in Vietnam, a formative experience, Record picked up his doctoral union card at Johns Hopkins and put in his "Hill time" on three different staffs. He advanced to guru status with consecutive appointments to the Brookings Institution, the Hudson Institute, the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, the BDM Corporation, and now the faculty of the Air War College. Record's writing on defense issues, force and mission mismatches, budgetary problems, defense technology, the conduct of the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars, and military reform are all serious. He is not a historian, however, and there is a difference for gurus as well as Presidents.

Record's concern is that Presidents unleash historical analogies like electoral promises to justify armed intervention. More specifically, he charges that Presidents from Harry Truman to George W. Bush have used the analogy of "Munich," meaning the British appeasement of Adolf Hitler in 1938, and the analogy of "Vietnam," meaning an expensive and losing commitment to save the Republic of Vietnam, to justify or reject limited war from Korea (1950-53) through Kosovo (1999). "Munich" is the codeword for encouraging further aggression by demonstrating a lack of will and doubt about one's military capability; "Vietnam" is a mantra for a host of perceived mistakes, including intervention in a post-colonial civil war, accepting excessive casualties, defending people who don't defend themselves with sufficient ardor, accepting rules of engagement designed by mediawary politicians, creating strategic and operational absurdities, and not anticipating the fickleness of public support; The "ideal" war should be defined b y the six criteria of the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine of 1984, which enshrines "the American way of war" as an enraged punitive expedition that ends in the complete destruction of the enemy political system and armed forces, followed by an American make-over. Presidents, Record asserts, almost invariably get the analogies wrong. Clio, the Muse of History, is a victim of date-rape, but the Presidents treat her like a virgin bride.

As Record admits, rationalization-by-analogy has its complexities, and assessing what Presidents really believe is no mean challenge. First of all, the presidential use of analogy almost always appears in contemporary public statements justifying a military commitment or in memoirs, often spruced up for intellectual content. These are also Record's dominant sources, so the reader cannot be certain he is getting real testimony or smoke. One might add that presidential critics are often the primary interpreters of presidential statements, including the allegedly false analogies. Should we allow, for example, Senator Wayne Morse to be the ultimate authority of what Lyndon Johnson really meant in 1964-65?

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