“I have often before now been convinced that democracy is incapable of empire.” So one ancient Athenian politician complained when his countrymen rejected his advice during the Peloponnesian War.
“Democracy is acknowledged folly,” said another Athenian politician, after his career took a nosedive. Sour grapes, sure, but not unusual. Today democracy still has plenty of critics. Pundits criticize democracy for its turbulence and corruption, while praising authoritarian governments for their efficiency and ability to think big.
Yet one thing all these critics miss is that democracies do an excellent job of throwing out leaders whose policies fail, especially when it comes to war.
An anniversary this year underlines the point. Fifty years ago on Saturday, March 31, 1968, U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson shocked the world. He closed a televised speech with the announcement that, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”
Living as we do in post-private times, it’s hard to imagine any president keeping the content of a major speech secret, but LBJ did. Nor did the world know until later that on top of political woes in an election year he also had a worsening heart condition. Johnson’s major policy problem, however, was the Vietnam War.
Besides withdrawing from the presidential race, in his speech Johnson announced a unilateral U.S. decision to stop its aerial bombing campaign of most of North Vietnam. The president had no prior concession from North Vietnam on the table. He did, however, have the military failure of the North’s Tet Offensive in January-February, which did not achieve the enemy’s military objectives.
It didn’t matter. Johnson learned as France’s leaders did in Algeria less than ten years earlier, that military victories mean nothing if they don’t break the enemy’s will. And in 1968 North Vietnam’s will remained strong. America’s will, however, really was breaking. That’s what the political turmoil in the streets, on the campuses, and in the presidential primaries all meant.
And so Johnson bowed to reality. He announced the first cutback in America’s military effort in Vietnam as well as the end of his political career. Johnson’s party lost the election in November 1968 and Richard Nixon became president. Nixon slowly pulled out of Vietnam but ran into other troubles, to put it mildly.
In leaving office Johnson was in good company. Earlier, President Harry Truman concluded that he couldn’t run for reelection in 1952 because of his failure in the Korean War. In 1957 British Prime Minister Anthony Eden was forced out after a humiliating British defeat in its armed intervention in Egypt over the Suez Canal.
For a classic example let’s go back to where I started, the Peloponnesian War. After failing to achieve victory in a war he had championed, Athenian leader Pericles was forced out of office. Democratic statesmen don’t come any greater than Pericles, but even he had to accept the people’s will.
Democracy has many flaws but tolerating military failure isn’t one of them. Democratic leaders who lose wars have short shelf lives. Many a dictator, by contrast, holds on to power in spite of defeat and discontent.