Many motives for the boss to drop in on the war

June 18, 2006|By MICHAEL HILL | MICHAEL HILL,SUN REPORTER

President Bush's visit to Baghdad, Iraq, last week tapped into a tradition of presidents visiting war zones that stretches back to Abraham Lincoln.

These visits have served a variety of purposes - symbolic and substantive - and interests: foreign and domestic, political and pragmatic.

When Lincoln traveled to Sharpsburg in October 1862 to visit the Antietam battlefield, he had a substantive goal - to get his commander, Gen. George B. McClellan, to head off in pursuit of the retreating Confederates.

Lincoln listened to McClellan's excuses, then gave his general a deadline for catching up with Lee's army. McClellan did not meet it and was replaced.

Lincoln also used the trip as an opportunity to visit troops and the wounded from both sides.

Just a few days before his death, in April 1865, Lincoln went to the still-smoldering ruins of Richmond, Va., mainly for personal and symbolic reasons - to exult in the long-sought success of capturing the enemy capital and to reassure the defeated that he had "malice toward none."

Franklin D. Roosevelt had three meetings with Allied leaders across the Atlantic during World War II, but it was the first trip - to Casablanca, Morocco, in January 1943 - that brought him closest to fighting raging in North Africa.

"It was during that conference that Roosevelt announced the policy of unconditional surrender for the Germans," says Keith Olson, a presidential historian at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Olsen says that at that meeting, and at subsequent summits in Tehran, Iran, and Yalta, Roosevelt was trying not to make the same mistake he saw Woodrow Wilson make during World War I - failing to get to know his allies during the war, then trying to get them to agree after it.

"Roosevelt always personalized policy, domestically as well as internationally," Olsen says.

To some, Bush's Iraq trips conjure up presidential visits to Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson made two to see U.S. troops: on Oct. 26, 1966, as the war escalated, and then a quick visit Dec. 23, 1967, as opposition grew. Richard Nixon went to Saigon on July 30, 1969, to visit troops and meet with South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu, an agenda much like Bush's recent visit to Iraq.

The greatest potential resonance with Iraq could be with a trip made by a president-elect, Dwight Eisenhower, in December 1952. The Korean War, once seen as a quick victory, had turned into a tragic stalemate. The public was restless, and Eisenhower made a pledge during the campaign - "I will go to Korea."

During several days there, Eisenhower met with troops and generals. It is known that he reaffirmed his support for a negotiated armistice - instead of a military assault - but probably accomplished little else.

"I think the substance of it was to establish the fact that the war needed new leadership," says Louis Galambos, a Johns Hopkins University historian who edited Eisenhower's papers. "He was not there to establish what he was going to do; the point was that he was going to solve the problem and he was the man to do it."

The symbolism of those images cannot be underestimated. Seven years after the end of World War II, here was the hero of D-Day back in uniform, back with the troops. This frustrating war was in good hands. The armistice came a few months later.

Eisenhower's "I will go to Korea" promise was a vague one, with no specifics, but it reassured a frustrated nation. Democrats, frustrated themselves in trying to articulate a coherent policy on Iraq, could learn a lesson from that.

It helps, however, to have someone with the stature Eisenhower had in 1952 as your candidate.

michael.hill@baltsun.com

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.