Julian Zelizer: Trump isn't the first president to use aggressive rhetoric
Previous presidents who've used such rhetoric often made mistakes
Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and the author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” He’s also the co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
President Donald Trump has caused the world to tremble and stock markets to drop with his off-the-cuff threats against North Korea. Although most commentators have naturally argued that this is another “unprecedented” moment for America, that’s not exactly accurate.
In fact, there are many examples of presidents using aggressive rhetoric to talk about nations the US perceived as adversaries. The fact is that Trump is not the first president to speak in bellicose terms. But even more important is that presidents who’ve indulged in such rhetoric have often made big mistakes that wound up hurting the US.
One president who used a huge amount of bluster to describe communist threats was Lyndon Johnson, and that kind of rhetoric led America directly into a devastating quagmire in Vietnam. We now have learned that President Johnson privately understood the risks associated with military intervention in Southeast Asia. Many advisers in the executive branch and Congress, including southern hawks like Richard Russell, warned him that a war in Vietnam was unnecessary and dangerous. In private, the President and these colleagues spoke openly about how the war in Vietnam was not essential to the Cold War with the Soviet Union.
Johnson, who understood their concerns, couldn’t see any way out. He subscribed to the domino theory of foreign policy, which stipulated that if one nation fell to communism the others around it would follow. He also believed that the political costs of a Democrat “looking weak” on national security would be devastating. He remembered how Republicans won the White House and Congress in 1952 by attacking Democrats as weak on communism at home and in Korea.
President Johnson, who the historian Fredrik Logevall argues was also consumed by protecting his own image of manhood, kept talking tough about the threat posed by North Vietnam. He boxed himself into a corner where it was increasingly difficult for him to do anything but escalate – even when the possibility of victory and the costs of conflict became clear. By the time that Johnson acknowledged in 1968 that negotiation was a better solution it was too late for his presidency and the war lingered on well into Richard Nixon’s terms in office.
President Ronald Reagan also loved bluster. Reagan delivered his own shock and awe moments in the early part of his administration with incendiary rhetoric about the Soviet Union. At a point in history where the two super powers squared off with the potential for nuclear confrontation every day, Reagan abandoned the efforts of his three predecessors – Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter – to ease relations with the Soviets. He refused to negotiate over nuclear arms and at a speech to evangelicals in 1982 he famously called the Soviets an “evil empire.” This was just one of many moments when Reagan delivered aggressive messages to our adversaries.
By 1983, as the political scientist Beth Fischer recounted in “The Reagan Reversal,” foreign policymakers in the US and Soviet Union were scared that the temperature had become so hot that nuclear war was imminent.
Americans watched the television movie, “The Day After,” a fictionalized account of a town in Kansas during a nuclear war, fearing that this could easily come true. When NATO conducted a military exercise in November 1983 throughout Western Europe, the Soviets were so scared, because of Reagan’s earlier rhetoric, that they placed their forces on high alert. “Three years had taught me something surprising about the Russians,” Reagan said, “Many people at the top of the Soviet hierarchy were genuinely afraid of America and Americans.” In 1984, Reagan would start toning down his rhetoric as he and his advisers understood the dangers that had resulted from the President’s outlook. Historians would debate over the years whether the military escalation compelled the Soviets to the bargaining table, but the situation had become so heated that the possibility of war had become dangerously real. Without the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev it is highly unlikely that Reagan’s presidency would have ended with a historic arms agreement with the Soviets.
The last Republican President, George W. Bush, also used provocative language after 9/11 that built momentum for a war in Iraq. Although al-Qaeda was responsible for the horror of 9/11, Bush quickly turned his attention to Saddam Hussein in Iraq. In a warning to what he called the “axis of evil,” which included Iraq, Iran and North Korea, President Bush told Congress that “all nations should know: America will do what is necessary to ensure our nation’s security.” Bush also warned that waiting to respond to enemies after they strike is “not self-defense, it is suicide. The security of the world requires disarming Saddam Hussein now.” This kind of rhetoric and outlook propelled us into a long and costly war with Iraq, based on fabricated claims about Hussein possessing Weapons of Mass Destruction. We’re still dealing with the consequences of that decision – which has cost the US and Iraq heavily in blood and treasure.
President Harry S. Truman, who had warned Japan to “expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on earth,” after the US dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has been criticized for the effects of his bellicose language, which became part of a tragic nuclear arms race that has been impossible to undo.
When Truman wanted Congress to approve a $400 million economic and foreign aid package for Greece and Turkey, Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg urged him to “make a personal appearance before Congress and scare the hell out of the American people.” That he did. Truman asked for the funds and announced the “Truman Doctrine” in March 1947, promising that the US would “support free peoples who are resisting subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures” anywhere totalitarian regimes created a threat. Liberal critics would point to this speech, and other statements by Truman, as the moment when the US allowed fear to propel the nation into a dangerous arms race with the Soviet Union rather than attempting to deescalate the tensions.
Trump’s rhetoric is different than his predecessors in that his remarks appear to be much more off-the-cuff and delivered by someone with almost no experience in government or policy and without being shaped by seasoned advisers.
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Moreover, Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have hollowed out the State Department by refusing to staff key positions. Trump has still not nominated an ambassador to South Korea. The position of assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs is also without a nomination. And currently the administration only has a temporary fill-in as an assistant secretary for Asian and Pacific security affairs. Tillerson does not have all the tools he needs for the diplomatic track to handling this crisis. Diplomacy has been an essential complement to wielding military threats for all previous administrations.
When presidents use bluster in speaking about foreign policy, often the results are absolutely disastrous. We have either come to the brink of nuclear catastrophe or we have ended up in unnecessary military conflicts that cost lives and money for generations to come. This is why Trump’s actions are so dangerous. We have seen how words, even out of the mouths of much more experienced and careful presidents, have been ruinous. Now it appears that Trump, who is much more reckless, is following in their footsteps.