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The War in Kosovo

A Fateful Decision

The Necessity of Presidential Leadership

April 25, 1999|David M. Kennedy | David M. Kennedy, a professor of history at Stanford University, is author of "Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945," due out next month

STANFORD — Democracies always have difficulty making coherent foreign policy, and American democracy, perhaps not unhealthily, has excruciating difficulty when it comes to making war. That's why U.S. diplomacy, to be successful, has always required clear, consistent and strenuous presidential leadership--and all the more desperately requires it when the prospect looms of putting U.S. lives on the line. Right now, that kind of leadership is conspicuous by its absence. In this void lies the makings of a disaster.

"It is a fearful thing," President Woodrow Wilson declared in his war message to Congress on April 2, 1917, "to lead this great peaceful people into war." Fearful, indeed. Gavrilo Princip's pistol shot in Sarajevo had shattered the peace of Europe in the summer of 1914, but Wilson hesitated for nearly three years to ask Congress for a declaration of war. He waited so long with reason. He knew he faced a traditionally isolationist people deeply divided about the European conflict and America's relation to it. As Wilson confided to a friend, "It was necessary for me, by very slow stages . . . to lead the country on to a single way of thinking."

In nurturing that "single way of thinking," Wilson shaped the very vocabulary and syntax of the modern American diplomatic tradition. The echoes of many of his inspired oratorical flourishes still linger--"peace without victory," "self-determination," "the war to end war," "war to make the world safe for democracy." At war's end, Wilson literally broke his own body in the campaign to persuade his countrymen to modify their isolationism and join the League of Nations, the supposed guarantor of a lasting peace.

As it happened, even Wilson's rhetorical gifts and personal exertions were not enough. The president was felled by a stroke, the Senate rejected the Versailles Treaty, voters repudiated Wilson's own party at the polls in 1920 and the United States lapsed into the most isolationist phase in its history, while the Nazis in Europe and Japanese warlords in Asia were brewing a catastrophe even more vast and terrible than the Great War of 1914-1918.

The lessons of Wilson's failure were not lost on Franklin D. Roosevelt. From the moment he assumed the presidency in 1933, Roosevelt approached foreign affairs with the gingerly, cautious reflexes of a man made twice shy by having witnessed the spectacle of his predecessor's political immolation. Not until 1935 did Roosevelt propose a modest departure from the parochialism that characterized U.S. affiliation with the World Court. To Roosevelt's dismay, the Senate handed him the same rebuke it had given Wilson 15 years earlier: The treaty was almost instantaneously defeated. "I do not intend to have these gentlemen whose names I cannot even pronounce, let alone spell, passing upon the rights of the American people," huffed Louisiana's Sen. Huey P. Long, in a proudly provincial boast echoed in the blusterings of some present-day congressional ignoramuses that they do not possess a passport and have never traveled abroad.

"We face a large misinformed public," Roosevelt said in the wake of the World Court debacle. He might just as well have said he faced an apathetic or indifferent public, one neither against international involvement on principle nor incapable of moral sympathy with the victims of aggression and persecution, but one that accidents of geography and history had spared from routine awareness of events beyond North America. Americans, in short, needed tutelage if they were to understand just how dangerous a place the world was becoming in the 1930s and if they were to appreciate America's stake in international stability and justice.

Roosevelt, a master politician with an almost preternaturally keen sense of his countrymen's needs and moods, now resolved to provide it. After the World Court defeat, he turned systematically to the task of educating his fellow Americans about the swelling menaces of Nazi and Japanese aggression and America's stake in the international order.

Teaching that presidential civics lesson took six years. In the course of it, Roosevelt repeatedly stumbled, and at times, to be honest, he waffled and dodged and flip-flopped and even dissembled. But he never lost sight of the fact that undertaking the fearful task of leading this great democracy into the international arena, and perhaps eventually into war, required sustained and artful effort. In making that effort, Roosevelt turned in one of the most admirable and fateful examples of presidential leadership in U.S. history.

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