It takes a healthy dose of chutzpah to say that “in many ways, the war in Vietnam never ended,” a statement I think is born of Professor Zelizer’s desire to ensure that LBJ’s role in the war and his commentary on it will never end.
My chief complaint is about the notion that, because of LBJ’s presumed failures as a wartime president, no president since then has had the leeway to commit major forces into combat quickly and, one would hope, decisively.
First of all, how can that be a bad thing? Big wars are pretty serious business and worthy of the undivided attention of the American people, of their elected representatives, and of their resolve. Getting into a big war should be hard, not easy. And the War Powers Act has not, I believe, affected our presidents’ freedom of action in smaller actions like Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan (October 2001), etc.
Secondly, I believe there has not been any requirement for a major commitment of combat forces since Vietnam. But there was a pretty darn big commitment — with congressional approval — when the Army sent over half of its active divisions in the 1990–91 Gulf War, to say nothing of tons of field artillery units, etc. Those seven divisions were more than we sent to Korea and about what we sent to Vietnam.
LBJ is worth studying, but I don’t think we need to exaggerate his importance in American history. He was an imperfect wartime president, and that can be said of almost every wartime president we have had.