Right Opinion

The World's Crazy Aunt Is at It Again

Paul Greenberg · Nov. 25, 2010

David Barham contributed to this column

President Truman: We will take whatever steps are necessary to meet the military situation, just as we always have.

Reporter: Will that include the atomic bomb?

President Truman: That includes every weapon we have. … The military commander in the field will have charge of the use of weapons, as he always has.

Presidential press conference, November 30, 1950

Just in time for the Thanksgiving holiday, our North Korean friends have given us something to be decidedly less than thankful for.

The world’s crazy aunt has started playing with guns again. This time she wasn’t just screaming and banging her broomstick on the floor. That’s nothing new. The world’s used to it. This time she was lobbing artillery shells at her neighbor to the south. With deadly results.

Once again refugees were fleeing to Seoul and down the Korean peninsula. It was like an old nightmare recurring. For real. Thank you, Pyongyang, for the memories. Awful memories. The crazy aunt seems to delight in making others miserable. And more than a little anxious.

Now both Koreas are making bellicose sounds again. The South has gone on military alert, its president held an emergency meeting in his underground bunker, and you can almost hear the martial drumbeats in the background. Scrolling the Internet, I came across a dispatch out of Incheon. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a story datelined INCHEON, South Korea. I wish it had been longer.

Considering that this country still has some 28,000 troops on the Korean peninsula, a full-scale war between these two cousins could pull this country into yet another violent conflict. On top of the couple we’re already engaged in on the other side of Asia.

How did the White House respond to North Korea’s shelling of South Korea? Our president is said to be “outraged” – according to his spokesmen. That’d be a first. For has Barack Obama ever shown more than Thoughtful Concern on any matter, foreign (Iran’s nuclear program) or domestic (the national debt)?

Early on Tuesday morning, as the Koreans were collecting their dead, the president’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, issued a statement calling on North Korea “to halt its belligerent action and to fully abide by the terms of the armistice agreement” signed in 1953.

His statement brings to mind a quote from that great American poet, Bill Murray. Or at least the reaction of his character when his pal Dan Aykroyd tells the demon in “Ghostbusters” to return “forthwith to your place of origin or to the nearest convenient parallel dimension.” Bill Murray just sighs as he replies, “That oughta do it. Thanks very much….”

Dispatches from Washington Tuesday evening said President Obama wasn’t planning to speak publicly about the shelling on the peninsula, preferring to issue a written statement later on. Why rush? It’ll doubtless be neatly typed.

Can you imagine a Harry Truman, or, for that matter a Reagan or Kennedy or Eisenhower or either Roosevelt just having an aide issue a press release when an ally comes under fire? Isn’t it time for the current occupant of the White House, officially acclaimed a great statesman by the Nobel committee, to say something to both enemies and friends to assure the peace? Or do we have to sit through another yawner from his soporific press aide?

You may remember that another president – this one known to one and all as Ike – was pretty good at keeping the Cold War cold. Mainly by making it clear he wouldn’t hesitate to make things hot indeed for those who threatened the peace of the world. The man had a natural knack for confusing all with his syntax, but now and then he would oh-so-casually let a comment slip that gave America’s enemies clear warning: “In any combat when these things (nuclear weapons) can be used on strictly military targets and for strictly military purposes, I can see no reason why they shouldn’t be used just exactly as you would a bullet or anything else.” –Dwight D. Eisenhower, March 16, 1954.

His critics called such statements crazy. Crazy like a fox. They preserved the peace.

To quote the judgment of one historian: “In retrospect, it appears that Eisenhower’s may have been the best mind available, for he understood better than his advisers what war is really like. None of them, after all, had organized the first successful invasion across the English Channel since 1688, or had led the armies that had liberated Western Europe. None of them, either, had read Clausewitz as carefully as he had. That great strategist had indeed insisted that war had to be the rational instrument of policy. … He had therefore invoked the abstraction of total war to scare statesmen into limiting wars in order that the states they ran might survive….

"That is why Eisenhower – the ultimate Clausewitzian – insisted on planning only for total war. His purpose was to make sure that no war at all would take place.”–John Lewis Gaddis, “The Cold War: A New History,” 2005.

As I write these lines, the current occupant of the White House remains silent, as in Silence Gives Consent. In this case, to war.