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Making the Case for War

By Daniel Henninger

Some of us have worried for years that the Bush administration wasn't making a steady public case for the war in Iraq. And that at the least, the troops fighting the war deserved it. Now in the past week alone have come major speeches on Iraq and the war on terror by Secretaries Rice, Rumsfeld, Vice President Cheney and yesterday the president himself, telling the American Legion's convention that we are engaged in the "decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century."

With expectations strong of a Republican debacle two months from now in the midterm elections, it is being widely said that the purpose of all this speechifying is to mitigate the losses. If so, that's good news. In the midterm elections of 1950, President Harry Truman, amid both a shooting war in Korea and the dawn of the Cold War against the Soviet Union, declined to campaign for either his party or his war. Democrats got whacked, losing a net five Senate seats and 28 in the House (though not control of either chamber). We may assume Karl Rove knows this history.

The short version runs like this: Truman embarked on a limited war in Korea, his popularity plummeted, the Democrats suffered big losses in 1950, Estes Kefauver defeated Truman in the 1952 New Hampshire primary and the Republicans gained the White House for eight years.

This is a history worth knowing; the parallels between Truman then and Bush now are eerily pertinent to what may happen when voters go to the polls this November with a war on their minds.

Truman's failures and losses are largely lost to popular historical memory. Mr. Bush himself rifled the Truman library of its foreign-policy successes this past May at the West Point commencement. He described a world beset by the new communist threat--Greece, Turkey, Czechoslovakia and China for starters--then noted that Truman "recognized the threat and took bold action to confront it." Citing a lengthy list of Truman's foreign-policy achievements in those unsettled years (the Soviets detonated their first atomic bomb in 1949) he said, "President Truman made clear that the Cold War was an ideological struggle between tyranny and freedom."

This Bushian turn on the parallel bars struck me as legitimate, but after he gave that speech, some liberal pundits themselves went nuclear, accusing the president of misappropriating a Democratic party saint. But the similarities are intriguing.

The Korean War sat inside the broader context of the cold war, which Truman presaged in a stirring speech to Congress in 1947. Mr. Bush's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq followed on his strong post-September 11 speech to Congress, announcing a new global war on terror. Each president in turn promised that the Cold War and the war on terror would be long, hard slogs.

The most interesting Truman ghosts, however, are interred in the purely political atmosphere of Washington back then. That tale is told in a December article by Steven Casey in the Presidential Studies Quarterly titled, "White House Publicity Operations During the Korean War, June 1950-June 1951."

As now, bipartisanship was a shambles. But then it was the GOP that dripped venom on a war commitment. Sen. Kenneth Wherry of Nebraska, in the role of John Murtha, said of Truman, "The blood of our boys in Korea is on his shoulders, and no one else." The Republican National Committee built its midterm campaign around "blundering" in Korea.

Here's where it gets interesting: Amid the opposition carping and the Democratic Party facing the likelihood of big losses in the midterm elections, calls went up from within Truman's party and indeed inside the White House to launch a public defense of the war. It didn't happen. An anti-Truman slogan of the time asked, "Why Korea?" It got no answer.

Among the reasons Steven Casey adduces for Truman's seeming passivity was a belief that it "was unseemly for the head of state to be grubbing for votes while American boys were still fighting and dying in Korea."

In any event, the absence of a P.R. counteroffensive cost Truman dearly beyond the Democratic congressional losses in 1950. A year later, some 66% of Americans wanted to withdraw from Korea, and the following year Truman's approval numbers fell to some of the lowest levels ever recorded by Gallup, staying below 30% and cratering to 22% in February 1952. Gen. Eisenhower swept into office in November.

A month ago, this war president and the Republicans were heading for a similar fall. The electronic age is hell for limited wars. But George W. Bush is one of those fellows who seem to catch lucky breaks. His latest came with the Aug. 10 London foiling of an unequivocally real plot to explode numerous U.S.-bound airliners over the Atlantic Ocean.

What occurred on 9/11 was off the charts of human experience. But not the London plot. That was a pivotal event in the politics of the war on terror. It was something most people could process and internalize. Logical conclusion: Yup, they are out there and they are trying to kill all of us. (Is there any other conclusion?)

Had London not happened, leaving only Iraq and Lebanon in front of a fatigued American public, Mr. Bush's speech yesterday to the American Legion would have been a day late and a dollar short. But London did happen, and the Bush team has taken fate's gift and used it to refocus and reframe the terror debate. Politics? Golly yes, and thank heaven for that. Unlike 1950, this public won't go to the polls without its war president giving them an explanation of the point and purpose of this grave commitment.

A final Truman point. Notwithstanding his political collapse with Korea, surveys concluded that the American people had grown in their support of the broader Cold War. We'll know soon enough the direction of George Bush's political fortunes. But his assessment of the world-wide threat as articulated five years ago remains valid, as did Truman's of the Cold War ahead. History's treatment of Mr. Bush is likely to be about the same: He didn't flinch.

Daniel Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

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