Five deferments, including one for bone spurs, kept Trump from fighting in the real thing. He later described his dating life as “the equivalent of a soldier going over to Vietnam” and avoiding STDs “my personal Vietnam. I feel like a great and very brave soldier.” Because he attended a military-themed boarding school, he “always felt that I was in the military.”
Now, with the novel coronavirus spreading, Trump embraces a new military role: “A number of people have said it, and I feel it, actually. I’m a wartime president.”
Some call the pandemic Trump’s Katrina or Trump’s Iraq War. But in terms of American lives that will be lost, this is far greater than both. This may be the most consequential failure of government since Vietnam, in which 58,000 Americans and countless Vietnamese died.
During the Vietnam War, as the New Yorker’s Susan Glasser pointed out, the U.S. military’s daily briefings from Saigon, full of false claims about progress, were dubbed the Five O’Clock Follies. Trump seems unaware of this ignominy when he holds daily briefings full of false claims and dubious medical advice — typically scheduled for 5 p.m.
Vietnam-era leaders from President Lyndon Johnson down spoke falsely of the “steady” and “dramatic” war progress, and, most famously, as my colleague Karen Tumulty noted, of the “light at the end of the tunnel.” Trump, whose rosy predictions about vaccines and antidotes are routinely contradicted by his experts, has recently announced, repeatedly, “light at the end of the tunnel.”
The similarities are substantive, too. In the Vietnam era, civilian leaders ignored the military and intelligence warnings that the war would end in stalemate or worse. Trump in January and February failed to take action on intelligence showing the threat posed to the United States by the pandemic. Likewise, he didn’t heed alarms sounded by White House official Peter Navarro, who pleaded in January and February for a massive response, and accurately warned that the virus could put millions of lives in jeopardy and cost trillions of dollars.
Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara refused to authorize the troops military leaders said they needed. Trump has similarly resisted governors’ pleas for ventilators. “The president says it’s a war,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo complained. “Well, then, act like it’s a war!”
The Nixon administration moved forcefully to punish and to discredit those who revealed the grim truth about the war, even trying to steal psychiatric records of Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg. Trump has sidelined inspectors general for the Pentagon and the CIA, and his acting Navy secretary (who has since been forced out) dismissed as “too naive or too stupid” the commander of an aircraft carrier. The commander’s offense: revealing dire conditions aboard his ship, where more than 170 have the virus.
H.R. McMaster, before becoming one of the four people to serve (so far) as Trump’s national security adviser, argued that Johnson’s mistake was to view Vietnam as a danger to his “domestic, political goals.” Johnson resisted calls to use overwhelming force in favor of “gradualism” because he didn’t want antiwar opposition to ruin his domestic agenda.
Trump, similarly, has chafed at attempts to mitigate the virus, saying “the cure is worse than the problem,” and for a time attempting to “reopen” the economy by Easter. He still resists a national stay-at-home policy because of political and economic consequences, giving sanctuary to the virus. The Georgia governor forces beaches to reopen against the wishes of local leaders; the Florida governor lets megachurches have their mega-gatherings.
Anthony Fauci, the federal government’s top epidemiologist, says “I just don’t understand” the failure to have a nationwide directive. But this is war, and, as Trump famously said, he knows more “than the generals.” We pay for his bumbling with lives lost unnecessarily.
This war will be won. But the most enduring consequence of Vietnam — a loss of national prestige — has been repeated. While other nations display competence, the United States, with the highest caseload in the world, asks for help from other countries. We receive relief supplies from Russia. The superpower that once led the world, the richest nation on Earth with the most vaunted medical expertise, has been brought to its knees by poor leadership.
For this, Trump has earned his bone spurs.
The Washington Post is now the only place you can read my columns online. Sign up for this special subscription offer to keep reading. And thank you!