President Trump Deja Vu
President Donald Trump ordered an attack on the al Shayrat air base in Syria 63 hours after an alleged
chemical attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib Province was launched from that base. The US
missile strike has been praised and criticized. The attack showed President Trump to be a man of decisive
action. It also showed him to be a man who will ignore the Constitution of the United States, international
law and even his own wisdom when the spirit is upon him.
We are not at war with Syria so the attack was a violation of international law. President Trump did not
take his case to Congress before he ordered the strike so his actions were unconstitutional. After the
attack, Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, did call the Senate Majority leader to fill him in. Senator
McConnell, who opposed similar action by President Obama, had no objections to the sneak attack by
The missile strike provided the kind of fireworks one would expect from the King of Reality TV. Why
did he have to use 60 Tomahawk missiles? Why not 30 or even 10? The attack didn’t destroy the al
Shayrat air base. Planes are still landing on and taking off from a runway that was not damaged in the
The whole incident is eerily reminiscent of President Johnson’s response to alleged North Vietnamese
attacks on the US destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin shortly before he ordered hundreds of thousands of
Americans to fight and die in the jungles of Vietnam. H. R. McMaster, in his book “Dereliction of Duty”
lambasted Johnson and his team, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Congress for their handling of that Gulf of
Tonkin incidents. Ironically McMaster, who is now President Trump’s National Security Adviser, held
the President Trump’s hand throughout the strategy discussions and decision making that led to the attack
on the Syrian air base.
Are we doomed to repeat the whole Vietnam era?
Donald Trump, like John Kennedy, is the son of a wealthy businessman. Both men campaigned on the
need for radical change. They both won the presidency in questionable elections. Both used their
inaugural address to present a bold vision for the future of our country.
The Obama era like the Eisenhower era was rather quiet and staid. Eisenhower brought an end to fighting
in Korea and chose to back the development of the Republic of Viet Nam under Ngo Dinh Diem rather
than support French efforts to re-colonize Indo China. Obama pulled our troops out of Iraq. He supported
the development of a friendly government in Afghanistan. His efforts in the Middle East were reminiscent
of Eisenhower’s approach to the Viet Nam situation.
When President Trump took office he inherited an extremely complex and volatile situation in the
Mideast which included both the ongoing dictatorship of Assad in Syria and the emerging Islamic State of
Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He also inherited a volatile situation in North Korea. JFK inherited Southeast Asia
including a mandate to hold on to the Republic of South Vietnam (RVN). If he failed, the whole region
would fall to the communists according to Eisenhower’s Domino Theory. JFK also had to deal with Cuba
and an absurd plan hatched by Cuban expatriates to take their homeland back from Fidel Castro. The
Cuban situation eventually developed into a nuclear showdown between Russia and the United States.
President Trump has now threatened a pre-emptive strike in his nuclear showdown with North Korea.
We will never be able to compare President Trump’s handling of these situations with President
Kennedy’s handling of Cuba and Viet Nam. President Kennedy was successful in getting the Russian
missiles removed from Cuba but that situation was very different from the situation in North Korea today.
President Kennedy expressed his determination to get out of Viet Nam by the end of 1965 but he was
assassinated before he could follow through on his plans.
We are left with a disturbing history of miscalculations: Lyndon Johnson in Viet Nam through George W.
Bush and Barrack OBama in Iraq and Afghanistan. Only George H. W. Bush, who actually served in
combat in WWII, managed to come off with a winning record by limiting the scope of Desert Storm.
Lyndon Johnson and Viet Nam provide an interesting case study because time has given us a chance to
investigate and gain perspective. Johnson knew as much as anybody about the situation in South Viet
Nam when he took over on November 23, 1963. His first instinct was to continue the policies developed
by his predecessor. But Johnson did make at least one change. He authorized covert operations inside
North Viet Nam. That change led to confrontations between the North Vietnamese and the American
navy in the Gulf of Tonkin. Those confrontations led to the massive deployment of American ground
forces in South Viet Nam. The result was a disaster for the United States and Viet Nam.
To be fair Johnson and Kennedy arrived on the scene at the end of a very long historical saga. Viet Nam
was a Chinese client state for a thousand years. The French took over in the 19th Century and ran the
country for almost one hundred years until the Japanese took over in 1940. When the Japanese were
forced off of the Asian mainland shortly after WWII, President Truman supported a French bid to reclaim
their colony in Southeast Asia..
When the French were on the verge of losing to the Vietnamese forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, they
asked for assistance from their US ally. President Eisenhower refused to come to the aid of the French. He
chose instead to support development of a non-communist Vietnamese state in the south. Ngo Dinh Diem
was appointed Prime Minister but managed to take over the country in a rigged election. Diem developed
some stability while dealing with a wide range of problems and challenges. But he was never able to
develop a popular government with broad-based support. Eisenhower must have recognized the fatal
weakness because he told Kennedy that he thought it would be necessary to send in troops.
Eisenhower was right. It took almost 5 years but the President of the United States eventually decided that
he had to send in the troops. De Gaulle was right too. He warned Johnson that sending in US troops was a
mistake. The United States would end up repeating the French experience if American troops were sent in
to hold onto South Vietnam.
Donald Trump comes to a Syrian situation that has a long and bloody history. He will certainly be
tempted like Lyndon Johnson to send in the troops. Hopefully, he will follow the advice that he gave to
President Obama: Getting involved in Syria cannot benefit the United States. Stay out.