Commentary, Chris Collier, 12 Jan10
Simon Schama makes a point of beginning his programme in Korea, not Vietnam, and with another post-war president, Harry Truman. But Truman took over at the end of a victorious war, where no-one back home doubted the rights and wrongs. Not so Afghanistan.
Truman then found himself facing a new foe, a predictable foe, in Russia, and the Berlin Blocade and the Cold War ensued. But few predicted his second foe, Korea, backed by Communist China. Just what unknowns, beyond Afghanistan, that we don’t know, in Rumsfeld-speak, might lie in wait for Obama?
Truman chose containment not aggression (Macarthur, who he sacked, would have risked all) in the Korean War, pushing forward the frontiers of freedom as far as they would reasonably go, given the millions-strong Communist forces on the other side of the 38th parallel, but going no further. Yet 37,000 Americans still died in Korea before the 1953 armistice. This is the war from which Schama wants Obama to draw lessons, not the ignominy of Vietnam.
Can, as Schama argues, Obama bring back that mixture of idealism and realism that Harry Truman showed, can he bring clarity and coherence where Bush and his cabinet had been mired down by puzzle and confusion as their war turned against them, bring to bear the lessons and legacy of Korea, not the mistakes of Vietnam and Iraq? Can he also restore confidence and trust in America, something that in 1945 the free world took for granted, but post Iraq especially, no more?
Freedom, as Truman said, is not free. It has to be fought for. But it is also indivisible. Schama remarked on all the burgers and nuggets and cappuccinos on sale on the streets of Seoul, and we all of us saw the bright lights and the sameness now evident in Seoul and so many world cities – but we also sensed there what Schama sensed, that there was a buzz, something positive, a sense of freedom in action. Freedom indivisible. Other peoples may not want to enjoy quite the Westernised freedom of Seoul, but they also want no truck with tyranny.
No wonder Obama took so long before deciding on a troop surge in Afghanistan. Who knows what could flow for Obama and America from failure?