The future of Europe was again at stake in 1940, when Franklin Roosevelt sought a third term against a backdrop of Nazi expansion that many Americans were happy to ignore. Facing vicious attacks from isolationists like Charles Lindbergh and popular sentiment that the war was none of America’s business, Roosevelt felt compelled to declare that he would not send American boys into any foreign wars—even as he instituted a military draft. Upon his 1941 inauguration, Roosevelt, of course, only intensified his war preparations—and there are few now who argue the United States picked the wrong President in the election of ’40.
It doesn’t always work out so well, though.
Nixon’s “secret plan” was a bald political ploy to convince Americans that the intractable Vietnam quagmire could be resolved if only they’d invest their blind faith in him. They did, but his plan amounted to little more than “Vietnamization” and an expansion of the war into Laos and Cambodia.
Before Nixon, there was L.B.J., who stole a line from W.H. Auden in a brutal 1964 ad that tagged Barry Goldwater as the warmonger in their campaign: “We must either love each other or we must die.” But it was Johnson who would radically escalate the Vietnam War in the years ahead.
And then there was Mr. Kerry’s ’04 foe, George W. Bush, who actually won the White House over Al Gore in 2000 in part by saying: “I’m worried about an opponent who uses nation-building and the military in the same sentence.”
Now, much attention is correctly being paid to the 2008 candidates’ posturing on the Iraq question. But if the story of John Kerry’s secret Iraq plan teaches us one thing, it is this:
We may not be learning as much as we think.