Making War, Thinking History: Munich, Vietnam and Presidential Uses of Force from Korea to Kosovo

Making War, Thinking History: Munich, Vietnam and Presidential Uses of Force from Korea to Kosovo

Youssef H. Aboul-Enein

Jeffrey Record, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 2002, 216 pages, $28.95.

Every U.S. president who has agonized over the application of force when making the final decision to go to war relies on history, precedent, and personal experience to help him reach the ultimate decision to send U.S. Armed Forces into harm’s way.

Making War, Thinking History: Munich, Vietnam and Presidential Uses of Force from Korea to Kosovo by Jeffrey Record delves into the lives of seven U.S. presidents and their decisions to commit forces in Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, and other 20th-century conflicts. Record, a professor of strategy and international security at the U.S. Air Force Air War College, Montgomery, Alabama, has been a staff adviser on national security affairs for two senators and served as a staff member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The 1938 Munich Agreement that sought to appease German Fuhrer Adolph Hitler has shaped the decision to go to war of every U.S. president from Harry S. Truman to William Clinton. Truman saw North Korean forces assaulting South Korea in 1950 as the first test of the United Nations (UN). Truman reasoned that if the United States did not respond to the North Korean invasion of South Korea, then the UN would dissolve.

Dwight D. Eisenhower saw similar threats in Indochina and believed that the Munich Agreement applied to the Soviets. Record argues that this belief blinded Eisenhower and kept him from seeing Vietnam for what it was–a colonial struggle. America, fearing the domino effect that communism posed to Asia, supported the 1954 Geneva Conference decision that led to the withdrawal of French forces from Indochina. Vietnam was divided into North Vietnam and South Vietnam, and a reunification election was mandated to be held in one year. Subsequently, South Vietnam, with the support of its Western allies refused to hold elections, fearing that Ho Chi Minh would win.

Probably no U.S. president understood the lessons learned from trying to appease Hitler better than did John F. Kennedy. During Kennedy’s administration the Department of Defense adopted the concept of “flexible response,” the ability to deal with communist aggression at the nuclear, conventional, and insurgent levels. Vietnam offered the first opportunity to test this policy.

Ho Chi Minh was no Hitler. While Hitler had desired total dominion over Europe, Ho Chi Minh wanted to reunify Vietnam, which did not pose any shift in power between noncommunist Asian allies.

Record also touches on the presidential decisions of Richard M. Nixon, George H.W. Bush, and William Clinton, all of whom had to weigh the risks and advantages of ending or beginning wars. Record’s is an excellent book for those interested in strategic-level military history and presidential decisionmaking.

LCDR Youssef H. Aboul-Enein, USN, Gaithersburg, Maryland


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