TCS Daily

John Forbes Acheson?

By Jack Birnbaum - August 11, 2004 12:00 AM

"This defensive perimeter runs along the Aleutians to Japan and then goes to the Ryukyus.... from the Ryukyus to the Philippine Islands...So far as the military security of other areas in the Pacific is concerned, it must be clear that no person can guarantee these areas against military attack. Should such an attack occur . . . the initial reliance must be on the people attacked to resist it and then upon the commitments of the entire civilized world under the Charter of the United Nations..."

-- Dean Acheson, in a speech to the National Press Club, January 12, 1950.

You realize he left out Korea, and you know what came next, don't you. With the benefit of hindsight, had you been there listening to the American Secretary of State that day, you would have cringed. The place-names would have run through your mind, Chosin Reservoir and Porkchop Hill and the Yalu River, and the images of frozen Marines and brainwashed POW's and soldiers who would never see their America again would have flashed by in a virtual slide show from hell. You would have screamed at Dean Acheson to stop; please stop. You would have tried to convince the reporters that he hadn't said what they thought he did, or at least that he didn't mean it, and not to write about it, please. But you weren't there, and to the people who were, there was nothing very special about it all, because they didn't know what was to come a mere five months later, so they didn't really take much note of it.

Did Stalin and Mao and Kim Il-sung take note of it? Historians have been arguing about that for half a century now. There is some evidence that they did, but really, the decision processes of dictators are often held pretty close to the vest, and who can really ever know what factors they took into account when deciding the time was right to invade? The electrical storms of their evil brains have long since stilled, and a half century later Korea remains divided, the landscape around the 38th parallel changed not much from what it was before; except for all the graves, of course.

" President, I will bring back this nation's time-honored tradition: the United States of America never goes to war because we want to, we only go to war because we have to.... Before you go to battle, you have to be able to look a parent in the eye and truthfully say: "I tried everything possible to avoid sending your son or daughter into harm's way. But we had no choice. We had to protect the American people, fundamental American values from a threat that was real and imminent ... So lesson one, this is the only justification for going to war."

-- John Kerry, in his speech accepting the Democratic Party nomination for President, July 29, 2004.

Did you shudder a little when he said that? Not because the criteria for going to war are not a proper subject for discussion; of course they are. But John Kerry wasn't just talking to you, any more than Dean Acheson was just talking to a small audience of reporters in Washington that day. Dean Acheson was the Secretary of State, and his words were taken to mean more than the idle speculations of a pundit. And John Kerry is not just some blogger; he has a significant chance of being the next President of the United States. If you are sitting in Teheran today, and you hear John Kerry say that, what do you think? Do you think that you have just been given the green light to go ahead with your program to produce nuclear weapons, so that you can affect American policy with the implicit threat that terrorists could untraceably set one off in Chicago? What if you are enthroned in Pyongyang? Do you feel more pressure, or less, to desist from your own nuclear program? And if those negotiations that John Kerry always insists he would be so much better at than George W. Bush (more sensitive, don't you know) come to pass, and you are sitting there at the table, do you think your position is stronger or weaker than it was before the election?

Or wait, what about this: what if you are sitting in a cave in the God-forsaken borderlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan. It isn't an ordinary cave, of course; you can communicate with all sorts of groupings of disaffected and fanatical men the world over, and through their agency you can cause the deaths of thousands of innocents at a time. Let's say your people in the Pakistani army and government have gotten the upper hand; you are now safe from the local authorities. Do you think you are under threat from the Americans? Or do you think, I heard what he said in Boston. He's not coming here. He promised them that he wouldn't. Can't prove anything is imminent, after all. On to the next project, boys.

Acheson's blunder wasn't in thinking what he did; it was in not recognizing that public pronouncements made by people in power can affect the judgments and behavior of adversaries. John Kerry, in trying to appeal for votes by distinguishing himself from President Bush in any way possible, has just made the same horrible mistake. It was an unforgivable lapse, and let us hope we don't someday pay a terrible price for it.


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