Surely It Can’t Happen Again. Or Can It?

Surely It Can't Happen Again. Or Can It?

The following is a column written by Joe Wilkins and reprinted here with his permission. The title of the column is "Surely It Can't Happen Again. Or Can iI?"

     Steve Bannon is the controversial senior White House advisor who recently aced the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Homeland Security out of their traditional rights of regular attendance at meetings of the National Security Council. It was a classic power-grabbing political maneuver. Today's word is that President Trump signed the relevant Executive Order without being fully briefed on what he was signing. That I can believe. Bannon surely did know what he was doing. He spent seven years as an officer in the US Navy, then worked at Goldman, Sachs, then made money peddling racism and white supremacy running a right-wing website Breitbart News until the day Donald Trump fired his old campaign manager and brought in Mr. Bannon and Mrs. Kellyanne Conway.

Bannon was so good at selling fear and racism on behalf of candidate Trump that he's now the senior advisor to President Trump. He is one successful fearmonger. One of his Trump team colleagues is former General Michael Flynn, now National Security Advisor to President Trump. Flynn, currently under investigation for illegally playing footsie with the Russians during the election campaign and the transition period, has an unfortunate reputation for chaotic and intemperate management, conspiracy theories, and giving credence to what is known as "fake news." Flynn accepted payment for a speech given in Moscow to RT, a Russian Government English-language propaganda entity. Then he dined with Putin. Bannon and Flynn are a well-matched team and have big plans for the Trump Administration.

     There is a problem, of course, one that has intrigued writers for thousands of years. It's in stone on the statues flanking the entrance to the National Archives building in Washington, DC. On one is engraved "What is past is prologue"; on the other "Study the Past."

What the past teaches is that wanna-be dictators and their henchmen hold on to power by stirring up public fears. Such men are hugely ambitious but deeply insecure. They fear the clock is running out on their power. Their window of opportunity is already slowly closing. It is only 21 months to the next Congressional election. Opposition candidates are already licking their chops.

     What do the insecure do when they feel their power slipping away? They look for scapegoats to frighten the masses. Their bogeyman of choice is usually foreign. In this country in early days it was the British; then it was the French; and eventually it was the Nazis. Then Communists, and today terror organizations like Al Quaeda, ISIS, and their spawn.

     When at last the public wearies of foreign bogeymen, strongmen inevitably turn to stirring  up domestic fears: Chinese immigrants, anarchists, unions, Catholics and Jews in the late 1800's and the early 1900's, which gave way to fears of Italian immigrants and the Mafia; of Irish immigrants and Tammany Hall and the Pope; of Jews and their alleged international banker's conspiracy; of the great black migration from Southern plantations to northern cities. Today it's Muslims. Very soon it will be any federal judges who dare crimp Trump's power. That's as predictable as tomorrow's sunrise and has already begun.

     What led me to write about this topic was reading Stephen Bodiansky's excellent 2016 book "Code Warriors," about the creation and growth of the National Security Agency, especially his account of the Gulf of Tonkin fiasco. If you haven't time to read the whole book, read at least the 26 pages from page 253 through 279 when the author recounts the events of August, 1964. Then, as now, the Congress, the Presidency and the Courts were dominated by the same party. The Democrats controlled Congress back then, just as Republicans do today. Then, as now, we had an ego-driven President – Lyndon Johnson – with dreams of glory and worries about election. The NSA, clawing its way to power based on its dominance in signals intelligence, fed LBJ inflammatory but dubious reports that two US warships, the Maddox and the C. Turner Joy were fired upon by North Vietnam while patrolling the Gulf of Tonkin. Bodiansky describes the confused melee that took place that dark night:

     "In the words of one of the Maddox's radar operators, in rough seas with a heavy chop, with a low overcast sky the Maddox and a second destroyer, the Turner Joy, fired hundreds of rounds in a wild, four-hour-long running zig-zagging encounter in which their crews claimed to have seen gun flashes, searchlights, torpedo wakes and radar and sonar contacts indicating attacks by multiple enemy boats that fired twenty-six torpedoes."

     As LBJ was later heard to quip, "It could have been whale farts those sonar boys were hearing!" Yet he used the incident to hustle the Senate for a resolution giving him unlimited war powers, on the basis of which over 55,000 American troops were eventually to die in Vietnam. Meanwhile he won  election by an overwhelming landslide. Only two Senators had the guts to challenge the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on the Senate floor; Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska. When they demanded to see the ship's logs as proof the US warships were not in North Vietnam's territorial waters, they were hooted down by their Senate colleagues. I was there; saw it myself, and had lunch with Morse minutes later. You can find the story in my book "Kennedy's Recruit."

      An ambitious, egotistical President; a power-seeking White House staff; a favor-currying intelligence agency and a craven US Senate combined to cost more than 55,000 troops their lives, and billions of American tax dollars. That all happened under the Democrats, and I have no doubt it will happen again if and when somebody like Steve Bannon or Michael Flynn thinks he has good intelligence about some threat in the Middle East or the South China Sea and runs to a gullible President Trump shouting "The sky is falling!".

     Nor is Congress likely to stop them. Our own local congressman, Republican Frank LoBiondo, is Chairman of the House Special SubCommittee on CIA Operations and has real power if he is willing to confront the problem. But he wasn't in Congress when the Gulf of Tonkin resolution passed nor, for that matter, is anybody else from that day still there. There is no institutional memory to protect us, so if Congressman LoBiondo is asleep at the switch, we will all be in trouble. 

Editor's Note: This column was written just before Michael Flynn resigned as National Security Advisor in the Trump Administration.

Joe Wilkins is the author of three books, including "Kennedy's Recruit," "The Speaker Who Locked Up The House" and "The Skin Game And Other Atlantic City Capers." All are available on Amazon's Kindle.