When Presidents Stand Firm

Leadership comes in many forms and with many levels of risk, but history gives us a few moments when leaders stood alone and were proven right.  Can you think of a time a US president stood alone on a policy issue, even against his own supporters, and America came out ahead because of his stubborn leadership?

Luckily, there are few such cases.  Our layered government bureaucracy, albeit frustrating at times, protects us from these desperate and extreme situations.  But there are moments when an adversary’s decision, or a new innovation, converge with a great man. Two such intersections come to mind.

I just finished reading Richard Reeves’ 2010 book, Daring Young Men.  Reeves tells an exciting and comprehensive story about the Berlin Airlift.  Read this book and you’ll learn the many challenges at every level of the government from Truman, to the coordination of air corridors between the UK and US, to the pilots, to the air-traffic controllers in Berlin.  73 Allied airmen lost their lives in an operation where their mission was to transport supplies to people they were bombing just three years prior.

In late June 1948 the Soviets cut all road, rail and water access to Berlin, a city controlled by the Western Allies yet surrounded by Soviet-controlled territories.  The Soviet’s goal: take Berlin from the Allies by forcing the US-UK-French alliance into one of two options: try to protect a city of 2.1 million starving Germans, or war.  The Soviets expected the West to surrender the city quickly.

1948 was a different time, remember.  Threatening starvation or invasion of one of Europe’s primary cities didn’t elicit outrage among the war-weary.  In fact, the initial reaction among policy makers in the US-UK-French alliance were unanimous in their calls to abandon Berlin.

“Everybody believes the Americans will give up Berlin...For many people suicide seems the only way out,” Reeves quotes from the diary of Berliner, Christian Seaford.  The desperation was extreme as Berliners were averaging 900 calories a day.  The US, UK and French were all war-weary.  The US was in the midst of a massive post-war downsizing of their military.  These were the conditions within which President Truman had to make a decision.  For Berlin, the buck really did stop at his desk.

Despite the urgings of the CIA, the Joint Chiefs, and other policy advisors, Truman stayed firm.  Five months into the airlift, with the challenges of winter approaching, and just days from his re-election attempt, Truman reiterated his lone position:  “In Germany, we have taken the frank and firm position that communism must not spread its tentacles into the western zone. We shall not retreat from that position.  We shall feed the people of Berlin.  You can fight communism on November 2nd with a Democratic vote.” 

A different time indeed.

In the end, Truman’s can-do firmness led to airlift and air-traffic control advances.  As soon as it was obvious the airlift would succeed through the winter, the Soviets began sending signals that they would be open to ending the blockade.  After all, their industries were dependent on Western manufactured goods that were also blocked.

Thirty one years ago today another US president stood alone.  1983 was considered such a tense year in the Cold War, author Paul Kengor, in his book, The Crusader, named the chapter on 1983 “The Hottest Year in a Cold War.”  The president issued a new and aggressive “rollback” national defense policy (NSDD-75), called the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire,” continued the Solidarity pressure for Poland, fought the West-Siberian Pipeline, exposed the downing of flight KAL007, invaded Grenada, and started deploying Pershing missiles in Germany.  It was a busy year.

But there was one initiative that many, including this student of history, consider the back-breaking chess move of the Cold War:  The Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI.  The man who battled communists in Hollywood was now president and could turn his attention toward the Soviet Union.  He was poking that bear in the eye all year.  Oh to be a fly on the Politburo wall back then!

President Reagan on March 23, 1983, in a televised address:

“I call on the scientific community which gave us nuclear weapons to turn their talents to the cause of mankind and world peace; to give us the means of rendering these weapons impotent and obsolete.”

It was SDI where President Reagan stood alone.  Rendering the Soviet offensive nuclear capabilities worthless was a moral calling that did not compute in Pentagon formulas.  It was a paradigm shift of epic proportions.  His political opponents in the media quickly dubbed it “Star Wars,” while those in the president’s inner circle didn’t believe it could be done. 

Only two believed the US could develop a layered system that could ‘hit a bullet with a bullet’ and render the Soviet first-strike force “impotent and obsolete:”  President Reagan and the Soviet Politburo.  And history shows, that was all that was necessary.

Reagan’s faith in American ingenuity and the morally superior vision of a defensive-only weapon set the communists on the fast-track to collapse.  Any doubts of this were eliminated at the 1986 Reykjavik summit where Gorbachev offered to cut existing first-strike weapons in exchange for Reagan giving up future SDI defensive weapons.  Reagan said “Nyet,” which forced the Soviets to contemplate an arms race they could not afford.

Reagan led on all fronts in 1983, as Truman did in 1948.  Both were principled men who knew the best way to respond to communism was to confront it.  They both displayed bold leadership when it was needed, and millions of lives were saved as a result.

Karl blogs at Ushanka.us.

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