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Unwise Campaign Talk of Using Military Muscle May Bias Democrats Toward Action

February 11, 1988|JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH and STANLEY K. SHEINBAUM | John Kenneth Galbraith and Stanley K. Sheinbaum are Democrats and economists. and

That we intend to vote for whatever candidate is selected by Democratic voters, guided by the unparalleled attention and advice of the media, should not be in doubt, and for our friends this will not be an occasion for overwhelming surprise. These are times when deeply established commitment and wholly rational response to alternatives coincide. Accordingly, attention to this word of warning is not necessary to garner our votes. It is, we believe, necessary to avoid an exceedingly damaging tendency in past Democratic attitude and action.

That concerns the resort to military force and the desire of at least some of the present candidates, as reported in the press, to show that they will not be reluctant to use it. Paralleling this is the fear of some candidates that they will be thought soft on defense.

Our concern emerges from the experience of the last 70 years and the adverse consequences for Democratic political success, of war and military action, just or unjust, necessary or unwise. In the aftermath of World War I our party was strongly rejected--for Warren G. Harding. We survived after World War II, but historians do not doubt that Dwight D. Eisenhower's promise to go to Korea (and later to accept a peace settlement that Harry S. Truman denounced as one that he could have had) not only won for him in 1952 but also helped ensure his victory in 1956.

Eisenhower, it is now known, rejected proposals from his more militant subordinates to intervene in Vietnam, as his successors John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson did not. Richard M. Nixon's secret, if non-existent, peace plan almost certainly helped him win in 1968. And eventually, after an admittedly intolerable delay, the Republicans got us out of Vietnam. They also converted China in official view from an uncompromising Communist threat to the peace of Asia to a peaceful bastion of honorary free enterprise. In these last months the Reagan Administration has been in deep trouble over the shipment of arms to Iran. It is doubtful if that will be politically as damaging, nor is it certain that it was manifestly more insane, than the 1980 incursion into the Iranian desert crafted by Zbigniew Brzezinski and Harold Brown, which led to the resignation of Cyrus R. Vance. Certainly from then on that year's election was lost.

Such have been the consequences for Democrats from flexing military muscle. We do not say that the Republicans have been perfect; they have had, however, an inclination to small, even minute, targets that could be attacked with nearly complete impunity. Grenada, Libya and, though there is hope to the contrary, Nicaragua. Or, as with the Marines in Lebanon, they recognized egregious error and got out. Or more generally, as in the case of John Foster Dulles and Ronald Reagan, they have made violent and vituperative rhetoric--the threat of massive retaliation, the denunciation of evil empires, the attribution of all disorder and revolt in the world to Soviet machination--the alternative to sending in the soldiers.

We think--indeed, we are wholly certain--that the Republican record on avoiding explicit war and military action is one of their sources of strength, something with which Democratic candidates must contend.

The American people have little passion for killing or getting killed in military conflict. Momentary applause gives way quickly to durable distaste. We urge that all Democratic candidates be aware of this. Let there be no yielding to this egregious pressure to show military toughness and muscle.

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