Rumsfeld in Historical Context

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In an interview with TIME's Rebecca Myers, Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, puts in perspective the political firestorm surrounding Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld

Why is civilian control of the military so important?

When you look back at the firing of General [Douglas] MacArthur, President Truman writes in his memoir that civilian control of the military "is one of the strongest foundations of our system of free government. Many of our people are descended from men and women who fled their native countries to escape the oppression of militarism." The importance of it really comes from the founding of our nation, [similar to] the separation of church and state.

How rare is it for retired generals to be critical of an ongoing war?

It's pretty rare. The impetus for it comes from the fact that after the war in Vietnam, it seemed like the generals at the time, both in and out of the service, had been too quiet. By going along with the escalation of the war, with a policy that was neither pull out nor all-out, their silence had actually been — as written in the book Dereliction of Duty — a failure of responsibility. My guess is the memory of that, which still probably haunts the military, creates an atmosphere now that is a spur to these retired generals to speak their minds.

Were those silent generals in Vietnam reacting to Truman's firing of MacArthur?

To the extent that everybody says you fight one war with the tactics of the previous war, it's very possible. Clearly MacArthur's having spoken out in disagreement with the policy of the president and then being fired for insubordination would have been very much on the minds of the generals in Vietnam. And in MacArthur's case, it was — according to Truman — a clear violation of civilian control of the military. At a time when Truman was drafting the possibility of a settlement in the Korean conflict, MacArthur comes out saying that this war must essentially be won by arms.

To show how history keeps repeating itself, when Truman was trying to decide what to do about MacArthur, he apparently sent somebody to the Library of Congress to get out the documents that had to do with Lincoln's problems with General George McClellan [during the Civil War].

What were those problems?

McClellan, after the Peninsula defeat, which most historians would argue was due in large part to mistakes that McClellan made, was vociferous in arguing wherever he could that the problem was the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton's failure to send him enough troops. McClellan writes to his wife: "You want to know how I feel about Stanton and what I think of him now? I think he's the most unmitigated scoundrel I ever knew, heard of, or read of." McClellan was also feeding these criticisms to the newspapers. It became a huge outcry against Stanton.

How did Lincoln handle that outcry?

Lincoln had to go before a big union meeting that was being held on the steps of the Capitol. He said 'the Secretary of War is not to blame for not giving troops to McClellan. He had no troops to give.' He said, 'I take it upon myself for the blame of what has been charged on the Secretary of War.' That immediately ended the campaign against Stanton.

Lincoln himself didn't suffer because of the criticism brought against his secretary of war?

Obviously the morale of the country was down because of the defeat in the Peninsula Campaign. When Lincoln shouldered that responsibility for it, it meant he could keep Stanton, who turned out to be an historically good secretary of war.

Why don't President Bush's news conferences, where he affirms his faith in Rumsfeld, have the same impact as Lincoln's speech?

In those days, presidents didn't speak out like they do today. In fact, when Lincoln stood up before this huge meeting, he said "I believe there's no precedent for my appearing before you on this occasion." It's the same contrast when Roosevelt was on the radio during World War II. He delivered maybe three fireside chats a year during the war, which meant they had an enormous impact. Today presidents have a radio chat every week. They're no longer special moments.

Some of the criticisms against Rumsfeld, that he ignores his field commanders and has an arrogant management style — have other secretaries of defense or war been accused of similar shortcomings?

That was what McClellan argued about Stanton. That he was stubborn, didn't listen, was arrogant. But what makes this such an unusual moment now is there's a number of people coming in short order, one right after another. It produces a kind of groundswell of opposition. There's also access to the media. At that time, newspapers had editorials calling for Stanton's resignation, but today people are on television shows and cable news and are able to express their views. It allows [the public] to really look at what they're saying and not dismiss it as grumblings.

What mistakes did President Lyndon Johnson make dealing with the military?

What happened to Johnson was that the war went on longer than he had prepared the country for it. Roosevelt in February of 1942 went in front of the American people and said, "This is going to be a long, hard war.' Whereas in Vietnam, it was never made clear enough to the American public how long that war was going to last, how difficult it was going to be.

So is this type of debate healthy or harmful to a presidency?

The healthiest thing for the presidency would be if it occurred at the time when decisions were taking place. That's one of the reasons Lincoln's Cabinet was so strong, because he had all these rivals right inside the Cabinet . They did fight each other — endlessly. The Cabinet meetings were quite fiery and they had all different points of view because they came from different pieces of the political spectrum. The more you can encourage that kind of open discussion, the better off you'll be.

Will the "Revolt of the Generals" damage Bush's legacy?

So much of President Bush's legacy is going to depend on what happens in Iraq. The most important thing for a president when a war is going on is to sustain the morale and support of the American people to fight as long as necessary, and to give them the aims of the war which they believe in, so they're willing to continue to sacrifice until those aims are met. That's why Lincoln's address at Gettysburg was so central. It gave people, in such soaring language, the idea that these young men who had died had not died in vain. In World War II, there was a consensus over what had to be done in fighting Hitler and fascism. Now people are not sure why we're fighting [in Iraq]. All of these things lessen support, as we see month by month, and will make it much harder for the President to sustain the commitment that he says is necessary until some sort of stable democracy is established over there.