We have just observed the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In that two-week nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union, President Kennedy showed a steely resolve.
He was determined not to permit the USSR to move Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles within ninety miles of our shores. This would derange the whole balance of the East-West conflict, Kennedy believed. What Winston Churchill called "a balance of terror" depended on the forces of freedom not giving in under threat of violence and intimidation from the Kremlin and its Communist cats' paws throughout the world.
President Kennedy's Secretary of State Dean Rusk described the denouement of the great power march to the brink of nuclear holocaust. Rusk said: "We were eyeball to eyeball and the other guy just blinked." Indeed he did blink. Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev was unwilling to fight World War III over his uncovered plot to put offensive missiles in Communist Cuba. Cuban dictator Fidel Castro was enraged.
John F. Kennedy was a liberal Democrat, but he understood how seriously Americans take their sovereign territory. Kennedy knew that enemy missiles in Cuba-Cuber, as he memorably called it-would be a mortal threat to the U.S. mainland. In his address to the nation on October 22, 1962, he listed the American cities that would be in range for missiles so close to our shores.
U.S. embassies and consulates are also sovereign territory. So are U.S. warships. The recent attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, must be seen as an attack on America. President Obama's unwillingness to discuss in any detail this murderous attack puts him in an unhappy companionship with other U.S. Presidents who failed to protect American territory abroad.
In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson saw the U.S. embassy in Saigon, South Vietnam overrun by Communist Vietcong guerillas. Yes, it was a suicidal assault for those fighters. And, yes, the embassy was soon back in American hands. But the sight of an American Embassy being overrun convinced millions of Americans back home that LBJ's years of assuring us that victory was just around the corner were wrong. Johnson, never capable of public persuasion, failed to convince the people that this embassy invasion was only a temporary setback.
CBS News Anchorman Walter Cronkite was one of the influentials who concluded the Johnson policies were not working in Vietnam. "If I've lost Walter Cronkite," LBJ moaned, "I've lost the country." He had.
Within weeks, Lyndon B. Johnson had withdrawn from his party's nomination contest.
More than any other single event, the overrunning of the U.S. embassy in Saigon spelled failure for President Johnson.
Eleven years later, President Jimmy Carter helped to oust the Shah of Iran-a longtime U.S. ally. The authoritarian Shah was replaced by Islamist mullahs, led by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Within a few months, on November 4, 1979, the U.S. embassy in Tehran was invaded and occupied with the Ayatollah's evident blessing.
Carter's reaction to this act of war was feckless and futile. Fifty-two American embassy staff and Marines were subjected to daily humiliations--beatings, torture, and mock executions. Day after day, President Carter hunkered down in the White House, unable to do anything to secure their release. Every night, Walter Cronkite closed his broadcast by noting the lengthening period of captivity. To Carter's mortification, Election Day 1980 occurred on the one-year anniversary of the embassy takeover. Only with President Ronald Reagan's Inauguration two months later were the U.S. hostages finally released.
The next president unable to defend our embassies abroad was Bill Clinton. In 1998, he faced impeachment for lying to a federal grand jury about his Oval Office dalliance with Monica Lewinsky. Late night comics delighted in double entendres about Clinton's indiscretions. Overseas, however, the affair was no laughing matter. In February, 1998, Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States. In that month, also, Saddam Hussein booted UN arms inspectors out of Iraq. Terrorists and dictators watch CNN, too. Egyptian journalist Mohammed Wahby told viewers of PBS's Jim Lehrer Newshour that Clinton's conduct would only incite Muslim extremists in his region.
In the summer of 2000, two U.S. embassies were struck in East Africa. Hundreds were killed, including twelve Americans and more than 4,000 were wounded. Clinton had survived impeachment and he was term-limited in 2000. He never faced press scrutiny in the embassy attacks. Nor would journalists demand answers in that election year, following another terrorist attack. This time, the USS Cole was hit off Yemen by a suicide boat attack. Seventeen U.S. sailors died in that attack, for which Osama bin Laden claimed "credit."
In each of these instances-1968, 1980, 2000-the party of the president who was in office when the U.S. embassies and warships were attacked was defeated. Notably, this was also true for the hapless Jerry Ford, in 1976. The Republican President Ford was in the White House when Americans had to witness our ambassador to South Vietnam being evacuated from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. He escaped by helicopter with the American flag folded under his arm. That shameful sight seemed to represent the foreign policy failures of the Ford administration. When Ford said this is no day for recriminations, his conservative challenger Ronald Reagan reportedly asked: What better day?
Today, some journalists and political figures want Americans not to think about the attack on our U.S. consulate in Benghazi or the loss of four American lives. They dismiss this matter and call any discussion of this debacle "politicizing the issue."
We believe Americans should consider this and other weighty matters. As Reagan said: What better day?
Editor's Note: Bob Morrison co-authored this column.
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