Ruminations, September 21, 2014
Obama’s the Commander in Chief
President Barack Obama has been vehement that the United States will not have “boots on the ground” or use U.S. combat troops in Iraq or Syria. He is coming under increasing criticism for taking this position both by political operatives in both parties and by military experts – including those currently on active duty.
Presidents are always second-guessed on their decisions and this is to be expected. However, the military, through the chain of command, should provide Obama with their counsel and, when he reaches a decision, their responsibility is to salute and say “Yes sir.” Specifically, we are speaking of retired General Jack Keane, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, and Chief of Staff of the Army General Ray Ordierno. These men are brilliant military strategists and tacticians and Obama and the United States is fortunate to have them. However, they have chosen to go public with their comments.
Dereliction of Duty. As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1997, General Hugh Shelton distributed a book to his staff and top commanders called Dereliction of Duty. In that book, author Major H. R. McMaster (U.S. Army, ret), Ph.D., wrote a scathing critique of the prosecution of the Vietnam War from President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary Robert McNamara on down. He was especially harsh on the Joint Chiefs, whom he referred to as “the five silent men.” Without going into the detail of McMaster’s criticisms, he implied that when the civilian command is wrong it is the responsibility of the military to speak up. McMaster’s right in that the civilian command requires the best honest advice from the best-qualified military people — and even disagreement when that is required. However, once the advice is heard and the decision made by the proper authorities, it is the responsibility of the military to salute, shut up and carry out the mission.
In 2006, a group of generals called for the removal of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; they had apparently read McMaster’s book. Their conclusion seemed to be that when the military disagrees with civilian command structure, the military must come forth publicly attack those in the command structure. Private criticism up the chain of command is right but public criticism is wrong.
As an example of why speaking out publicly is a disservice, let me point to “Operation Torch,” the U.S. invasion of North Africa in November, 1942. In early 1942, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to the invasion and the military plans began. Chairman of the joint chiefs, General George Marshall thought the plan ill-advised and let Roosevelt know. Admiral Ernest King thought that the diversion of naval craft to the Mediterranean from the Pacific Theater was ill-advised and told Marshall. The commander of the Atlantic Theater, General Dwight Eisenhower didn’t think it could be done and passed the word up the chain. General George Patton, who was to lead the invasion, didn’t think it could be done and passed the word up the chain. Roosevelt sent a memo to Marshall saying that it would be done and signed it, “Franklin D. Roosevelt, C-in-C [Commander-in-Chief].” Operation Torch was successful and many military historians see it as the turning point of World War II (the invasion of Normandy, although crucial and more spectacular, is often seen as the culmination of the allied offensive).
If Marshall, King, Eisenhower and Patton had gone public with their misgivings, what would have been the effect on the American public, and the American soldiers who were to be part of Torch? What would have been the reaction of Nazi General Erwin Rommel to the public debate over war plans? Could Roosevelt have proceeded with such formidable opposition?
Obama’s decision. There are no guarantees in this world. If, for the sake of argument, we grant that McMaster is right in his assessment of Lyndon Johnson’s and Robert McNamara’s incompetence, how do we guarantee that today’s dissenting generals are competent?
Let’s stipulate that Obama may be wrong; U.S. ground forces may be necessary in Iraq and Syria to assure our victory and ISIL’s defeat. Nonetheless, it is Obama we have elected and entrusted with the responsibility to be commander in chief. Obama not only has access to the advice of our top military leaders but he has access to the CIA, the NSA, American Ambassadors around the world, the Department of State and world leaders are a phone call away. He may have a solid and unspoken reason for making his commitment.
Americans and the media – but not the chain of command — have a right to publicly criticize the president.
Ken Burns loves American history – at least his version
“More Americans get their history from Ken Burns than any other source” said the late historian Stephen Ambrose. That can be pretty good, if you share Burns’ worldview, which while revealing personal foibles, leaves out some serious errors.
There is little doubt that Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was a significant president and had significant accomplishments. He was a nonpareil wartime leader, he instituted social safety nets, and he inspired confidence in the nation and its leaders. However, in Burns’ documentary, the narrator cites a couple of statistics implying that Roosevelt had ended the Depression. Among the figures not cited were the facts that he tripled taxes and doubled spending in his first year and tripled spending by 1940. Yet, during these eight years, unemployment averaged 18.6%. That’s hardly recovery.
FDR enacted an Undistributed Profits Tax (taxing businesses on profits that could have been used as a source of investment). Many economists think that this hit small business ability to reinvest especially hard. (The act was rescinded three years after it was signed into law.)
Missing the mark entirely is Burns’ brief coverage of the Supreme Court. The narration notes that the public had overwhelmingly elected Roosevelt and a Democratic Congress in 1933. But, they complain that the Supreme Court did not follow the trend. This is why the creators of the Constitution did not have the court members elected by popular ballot and why they serve for life; so that the Court can concentrate on constitutional issues and not be swayed by the sentiment of the moment.
An irony that Burns misses is that although black Americans began to leave the Republican Party for Roosevelt and the Democrats, Roosevelt’s economic policies inadvertently made conditions worse for blacks. In 1930, the unemployment figures for African Americans were comparable to that of white workers but that all changed. Roosevelt promoted unions which seldom allowed any black members. The Agriculture Adjustment Act (AAA) encouraged farmers to produce less. If a farmer owned land that share croppers farmed (almost uniformly black), the share cropper was the farmer who lost the AAA subsidy and the value of his crops.
The documentary also revives the shibboleth that President Herbert Hoover did nothing. One could argue that Hoover did the wrong things or that his actions were too little but one cannot, in honesty, say that he did nothing. Hoover:
• Called business leaders to Washington and urged them not to drop wages.
• Created the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which gave some $2 billion to local governments and made loans to banks, mortgage associations and other businesses.
• Signed the Davis Bacon Act, which mandated that public sector jobs receive the prevailing wage rate.
• Began a $2.25 billion public works program – of which the most notable project was the Boulder Dam.
• Signed the Norris LaGuardia Anti Injunction Act that allowed employees to unionize and forbade courts from enjoining non-violent strikes.
In covering the Bonus Army march on Washington, Burns’ film states that Hoover gave the order to attack the veterans. Hoover had, in fact, secretly sent food, clothing and even tents to the Bonus Army and offered to meet with them. Hoover ordered General Douglas MacArthur to maintain order, and MacArthur sensing what he thought was revolution in the air, attacked the Bonus Army.
FDR created the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) power project during his first term and then indicated that he would nationalize power companies and create seven little TVAs (a bill to do so was introduced in Congress by Senator George Norris (R, NE)). The fear of nationalization caused other power companies to withhold investments as did those companies that were now exposed to a new and radical unionism.
At one point the documentary states that all presidents subsequent to Roosevelt were influenced by him and then cites examples of Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Clinton and Obama. What ever happened to Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and the two Bushes? One would be led to believe that there have been no Republican presidents since Roosevelt or that, perhaps, he had not influenced them.
In focusing on Roosevelt’s secretaries and friends, Burns omits significant individuals. For example, Bill Knudsen. In 1940, FDR appointed Knudsen as chairman of the office of production management and told the former president of General Motors that the Federal government would need to take over the means of production for the coming war. Knudsen differed and persuaded FDR that private industry could do the job better and faster. Not only was this approach successful, but it carried over into the post-war era and kept the U.S. dynamic and growing ever since.
Also missing are several who were indispensable aides in World War II. And this speaks more to FDR’s ability to recognize his physical limitations and the abilities of others. Although Harry Hopkins is mentioned a couple of times (not nearly as many times as FDR’s secretaries) missing from the narrative is Averill Harriman, Sumner Welles, “Wild” Bill Donovan and FDR’s use of his former political opponent Wendell Willkie as a diplomatic envoy. If one is telling a story in which one is portraying Franklin Roosevelt as a true American hero, one would think this episode would play a part of it.
Well, Ken Burns is a good storyteller. And in any history covering a period of time, one must choose what to include and what to omit.
In many vignettes Burns has portrayed Roosevelt accurately and instructively. In other areas, political myths have overtaken Burns story and accuracy has been sacrificed in order to promote the myth.
Quote without comment
Nobel laureate and economist, the late Milton Friedman, in an interview with John Hawkins, February 24, 2002, said this: “Roosevelt’s [economic] policies were very destructive. Roosevelt’s policies made the depression longer and worse than it otherwise would have been. What pulled us out of the depression was the natural resilience of the economy plus World War II.
“You know, it’s a mystery as to why people think Roosevelt’s policies pulled us out of the Depression. The problem was that you had unemployed machines and unemployed people. How do you get them together? By forming industrial cartels and keeping prices and wages up? That’s what Roosevelt’s policies in the New Deal amounted to. Essentially, increasing the role of government, enhancing the monopolistic position of labor, and creating as I said before the equivalent of price fixing cartels made things worse. So most of his policies were counterproductive.”