Are Western intelligence services—primarily America’s—stupid or is North Korea a convenient toreador’s cape for problems so enormous the Trump administration and the Congress cannot begin to handle them?
Look at history.
Why did the most powerful nation on earth in 1962 when President John F. Kennedy backed down the Soviets during the Cuban Missile Crisis devolve into the impotent, sniveling giant 13 years later when President Gerald Ford declared “our long national nightmare is over?” That occurred just after the last American diplomats boarded a helicopter and slinked out of Saigon. Short answer: We did it to ourselves. Longer answer: The Russians and Chinese helped.
History is about learning from our mistakes. Perhaps the biggest mistake humans make is going to war half-cocked. We did it in 1861. Europe did in 1914. And we did it again 1964 when President Lyndon Johnson decided to “not lose a war” rather than win one.
North Korea cannot feed itself. Why do we then think that Pyongyang can devise a program producing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of sending a nuclear warhead across the Pacific and into San Francisco? It can be done. The technology is over a generation old. Nevertheless, Kim Jung Un cannot do it all by himself. He is getting help, probably from Tehran. And the mullahs are not winging alone. Furthermore, I believe Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster realizes this having written Dereliction of Duty: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Lies that Led to Vietnam. Hopefully, he told President Donald Trump.
In October 1962, the United States humiliated the Soviet military. Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s hare-brained idea to gain nuclear parity by putting liquid-fueled, first-generation intermediate range ballistic missiles in Cuba backfired. What Khrushchev failed to understand was that JFK faced mid-term elections with no-wins in his international relations column—having bungled the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, neutralized Laos in July 1962, and then declared himself a “Berliner” in the shadow of the Berlin Wall in June 1963. Kennedy also looked forward to facing Barry Goldwater in November 1964.
The Russian generals and hardliners canned Khrushchev a month before Johnson obliterated Goldwater and then romped ahead to establish the Great Society. A war in Vietnam was not getting in his way! Fearing “another Korea” at best and World War III at worst, Johnson opted for “not losing.”
For the next eight years the Soviet Union kept the Vietnam War going. It did so for two reasons: First, to keep the American military bogged down in a no-win quagmire while Moscow built up its nuclear arsenal to guarantee there would never be another October 1962. Second, the Soviets were locked in an ideological struggle with the Chinese over the future of communism. The Chinese, meanwhile, could not abide a Soviet client state on their southern border, particularly since those rowdy Vietnamese had been obstreperous neighbors since defeating Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century.
The Russians poured weapons into North Vietnam—although not the good stuff needed to make the war too costly for Washington. Moscow sent 1930s-vintage anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) and first-generation SA-2 surface-to-air-missiles (SAM) designed to shoot down XB-70 bombers the United States canned just after SA-2s came about. And the Americans helped by flying in low to avoid SAMs and into the most intense AAA envelop on earth. Pre-World War II AAA claimed 80% of American air losses over North Vietnam. Senator John McCain knows this because it happened to his A-4 Skyhawk as he pulled off a bomb-run at 3,000 feet.
America’s plunge toward defeat began during the Kennedy administration with JFK’s conviction that a nation capable of putting a man on the moon within a decade could win a small war with little effort. For his part, Lyndon Johnson did not want a larger war—and who would? But LBJ also would not risk political hari-kari and the inevitable demise of his “beautiful lady, the Great Society” by fostering “another Korea” or starting World War III. Who can blame him? History does.
The situation with North Korea goes back to the 1990s when President Bill Clinton decided to placate North Korea and let future presidents deal with it. George W. Bush, distracted by the “War on Terror,” failed to do so. The inept diplomacy of Obama administration made a bad situation worse. Today there are no good answers. War might be the worst possible answer, but also unavoidable. If it comes to war, going there with the nation divided, an overwhelming debt, a military losing a plane or helicopter weekly due to bad maintenance and aging equipment, may be what brings Apocalypse now. Before it is too late, read McMaster’s book.
—Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.