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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

2010 Schiffman Ethics in Society Lecture: “Ethics of Presidents at War”

By Amanda Noel and

Ten years ago, John A. Schiffman began a legacy by donating $1.5 million to Columbia College to establish the Althea W. and John A. Schiffman Endowed Chair in Ethics, Religious Studies and Philosophy and the Ethics in Society Lecture Series. Since then Columbia College has had the privilege of hosting intriguing lectures by politicians, activists, a prominent journalist, renowned historians and even a movie star. This year’s speaker, Michael Beschloss an award-winning presidential historian and the author of nine books, spoke on the subject of “The Ethics of Presidents at War” on Thursday, March 11.

Q&A session

Prior to his lecture, Beschloss held a Q&A session at with students, faculty and staff in the Dorsey Gymnasium. Columbia College President Gerald Brouder and Dr. Anthony Alioto, the current Schiffman Chair in Ethics, Religious Studies & Philosophy and professor of history, introduced Beschloss at the Q&A session. John Schiffman was able to attend both the Q&A and the lecture and received much applause for his investment in the program.

Alioto began the Q&A session by asking Beschloss what he thought of historians using the past as a guide to predict the future. Beschloss responded that people often use historical examples in a way that is not right. He said that the founding fathers allowed for a relatively open government, yet people keep scrutinizing the past to see presidential success and failures. President John F. Kennedy was one example Beschloss referred to who effectively used the past as a guide. He did this with the decision of trying to keep the Cuban missile crisis from turning into a world war. Kennedy used past events, referring to how World War I began, to keep history from repeating itself.
After answering Alioto’s question, Beschloss turned the tables on the crowd and asked whether they believed the war in Iraq was a good idea or a bad idea. Dr. Brad Lookingbill, professor of history, defended the pro-war in Iraq debate while the rest of the crowd opposed the war. One person backed up his view against the war in Iraq by saying it was “too soon to tell,” referring to weapons of mass destruction. Another person in the crowd felt that Saddam Hussein was not a threat to America.

Beschloss responded that if in 40 years a democracy results in Iraq from our war efforts, the war would have been a great idea. While most of the crowd agreed with this statement, Dr. Mark Price, department chair and associate professor of philosophy and humanities, objected saying, despite this result, the war in Iraq would “still lack just cause.” Dr. Brian J. Kessel, associate professor of political science, pointed out that the initial reason for going to Iraq was to find weapons of mass destruction, not to form a democracy. Beschloss agreed with these remarks, but said that the point of his statement was that if this occurred, George W. Bush would be seen as a better president, just as Lyndon B. Johnson would have been seen as a better president if America had won the war in Vietnam. The underlying message, Beschloss told the crowd, is that “presidents should confide in Americans what their idea of war really is and how it will be achieved.”

The lecture

Following the Q&A session, a reception was held prior to the lecture where Beschloss and those attending the lecture got a chance to meet and interact. The lecture was held at 7:30 p.m. in Launer Auditorium.

Again, Brouder and Alioto introduced the speaker and recognized John A. Schiffman. Before Beschloss began his lecture, Alioto addressed the crowd with his own ideas of the ethics of war. “Ethics in war may seem like a contradiction,” said Alioto. “But, it is an ancient tradition.” Alioto went on to describe the ancient Indian view of ethics of peace versus the ethics of the warrior and how the two contradict one another. He closed with a quote from Gandhi summarizing his point: “A battle occurs within all of us.”

Beschloss immediately warmed up to the crowd by presenting a few anecdotes with near timing of a comedian. He told the crowd that when writing about presidents you begin to think and talk like them and almost know what they’re doing before they do it. He said that in his research for his books he found that it is important to look for the story beyond the transcripts, new releases and public announcements and get the information behind the scenes. Beschloss used many mechanisms to get the personal information of presidents for his research, including investigating the homes of presidents, which he explained is “almost like walking through their autobiographies,” and pouring over private conversations such as the tapes Johnson recorded of many of his private phone calls and meetings.

He then dived into his lecture of ethics of presidents at war by analyzing the actions of six presidents: George Washington, John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

Washington’s ethical dilemma arose in 1795, Beschloss explained, when he was one year away from retiring as president. At that time, the American government was convinced that the British would invade. Washington believed the only way to protect his country would be to create a treaty and present it to the British government. He knew it wouldn’t be well received by the public, but it never occurred to Washington to put the issue off until the next president came into office. Washington served the rest of his presidential term as an unpopular leader for creating the treaty, but as a result the U.S. was saved.

The second president, Adams, also faced a tribulation in 1797 when a “drumbeat” was sounded for a war against France. The Federalist Party supported war to improve business in the U.S. At first, Adams agreed with this tactic and wallowed in the glory he received from the patriotic public enthusiasm about the war. Ultimately, Adams realized a war with France was unnecessary, because they were not a threat. He faced political opposition because he didn’t support the war, but he wanted to be a man of character and had the courage to make the right decision even if it did cost him an election. Beschloss quoted Adams, “Great is the guilt of an unnecessary war.”

In 1864, yet another president, Lincoln, faced a serious moral battle. With the upcoming presidential election, he was besieged by his political advisors who said he would lose the election because his initial purpose for the war was to reunite North and South; but he changed purpose to free the slaves through the Emancipation Proclamation.

Lincoln began to consider ways to distance himself from the Emancipation Proclamation, but he knew that wasn’t right for him. He wouldn’t remain Lincoln if he went against the proclamation, and he didn’t want to jeopardize that. He knew he would be known as the man who freed the slaves, and he didn’t back down. Despite his advisors’ worry, he still won the next election because he was a “great politician,” said Beschloss but he ended up losing his life to John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated the president out of his hate for Lincoln freeing the slaves.

The previous presidents all made the right decision, Beschloss informed the crowd, but there were also presidents who made the wrong decisions, he said. In spring 1964, Johnson was pressured to increase the American presence in Vietnam, and he had to make a decision. An advisor, Russell, told Johnson the Vietnam War would impossible to win, requiring a 10 year investment, and 50,000 U.S. troops would die. “LBJ listened but didn’t take the advice,” said Beschloss.

In August 1964 when Johnson was running for reelection, an attack on an American ship in the Gulf of Tonkin was reported but wasn’t clarified. Johnson tried to keep quiet until confirming the attack, but wire services reported that the White House was trying to suppress news of the attack. Politically, this was bad for Johnson so he had North Vietnam bombed immediately following the news. This was the beginning of the “rockslide that collapsed government after government in South Vietnam,” said Beschloss.

Following this plan of action it was later discovered that the attack in the Gulf of Tonkin didn’t actually happen. Nonetheless, Johnson continued to increase the troop presence in Vietnam. In February 1965, Johnson sent 180,000 troops to Vietnam, appearing to be enthusiastic about the war in public but in private, said Beschloss, Johnson said in a telephone conversation “I cannot think of anything worse than losing the war, and I don’t see how we can win.” Beschloss said, “Those men deserved to know it at that time – not 30 years later,” and said that Johnson owed an explanation to the American people.

Another ethical mishap occurred during the 1968 presidential election. Nixon gave the impression of a secret plan for peace in Vietnam. On the contrary, Beschloss said he heard a recording of Nixon telling Johnson that he would continue to support Johnson’s war policies. “The result,” said Bechloss, “was one of the most horrible elections in history.” Nixon won the election on “false pretenses,” said Beschloss, that if Hubert Humphrey was elected, war would continue, and if Nixon was elected the war would end earlier. When in reality, Nixon escalated the war.

As a result, the American people felt they had been “hoodwinked,” said Beschloss. “The central part of presidential ethics is a simple expectation that the president will tell the truth.” Nixon failed to uphold that principle, he said.

Beschloss ended his lecture with what he described as a positive example of presidential ethics: The decision Reagan made in 1980 to end the Cold War. Reagan’s aides told him the only way he’d win is to quiet his talk about fighting the Soviets. But Reagan responded, “If I’m elected, Americans deserve to know what I’m going to do. I can go to Congress and say I have a mandate to increase the defense budget and challenge the Soviets.” Beschloss said that is exactly what Reagan did. That is the way the system works when it’s done the right way, said Beschloss. Reagan stuck to his guns and felt he could bargain with Gorbachev to end the Cold War.

After the lecture

Near the end of his lecture, Beschloss made the point that, “The best decisions about war and peace happen when there is collaboration between parties.” He illustrated this point in his responses to several questions from audience members.

One attendee asked Beschloss whether U.S. presidents should be impeached for violating international treaties, committing war crimes or crimes against humanity. Beschloss said that presidents should go to Congress for war declarations. The last formal declaration of war occurred in 1941, Beschloss said, and presidents who go to war without a declaration from Congress violate the ideals of the founding fathers.

Another audience member spoke at length about Nixon’s ethics in the Vietnam War, discussing the secret war in Cambodia and the campaigns against civilians who might have been Vietcong sympathizers. In response, Beschloss said that the U.S. seeks to have a better moral force than other nations, and from that the idea of the “war president” emerges. He said that idea encourages leaders to cross the line and usurp freedoms. “Be careful who you vote for,” Beschloss said.

Beschloss also responded to a question regarding political partisanship in the U.S. He said the political system enforces partisanship because the parties raise money by vilifying the other side. He said he does not look for a decrease in partisanship because “the role of money in these campaigns is about to increase exponentially.” Until the system is changed, Beschloss said, there is no reason for partisanship to subside.

Photo credits:
  1.  Alioto addresses Beschloss with the first question at the Q&A session on Thursday, March 11. Photo by Amanda Noel.
  2. Beschloss ponders the actions of presidents at war during his speech for the Ethics in Society Lecture on Thursday, March 11. Photo by Amanda Noel.
  3. A man from the crowd asks Beschloss a question about ethics of presidents at war after Beschloss’ lecture. Photo by Amanda Noel.

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