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Monday, April 24, 2006
In Defense of Preventive War

Arthur Schlessinger, historian and Kennedy speechwriter, checks in with a column opposing the concept of preventive war. Never one to miss an opportunity to plug one of his books, he entitles it Bush's Thousand Days, although his original book on Kennedy was about the approximately 1000 days that Kennedy served as president before his assassination; this is about the final thousand days of the Bush administration.

The issue of preventive war as a presidential prerogative is hardly new. In February 1848 Rep. Abraham Lincoln explained his opposition to the Mexican War: "Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose -- and you allow him to make war at pleasure [emphasis added]. . . . If, today, he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, 'I see no probability of the British invading us'; but he will say to you, 'Be silent; I see it, if you don't.' "

Lincoln gets used a lot this way by both sides. But like us all, Lincoln said many stupid things, like this:

"I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races - that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."

Bringing in quotes from historical figures and expecting them to illuminate the current debate is always a risky business.

Back to Schlesinger:

Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, veterans of the First World War, explicitly ruled out preventive war against Joseph Stalin's attempt to dominate Europe. And in the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, President Kennedy, himself a hero of the Second World War, rejected the recommendations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for a preventive strike against the Soviet Union in Cuba.

Truman and Eisenhower were realists; they knew that the country was not going to accept immediately going from fighting the Germans to fighting the Russians. On the subject of Cuba, what would one call the Bay of Pigs if not a poorly planned and executed attempt at preventive war.

The problem that all historians face is the applicability of the past to the problems of today. Schlesinger does not even address this question. Is it really appropriate to compare preventive war against Iraq and Iran to a potential preventive war against the Soviet Union back in the 1960s? Clearly the differences are greater than the similarities.
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