US’s military failures that presidents survived — and some they didn’t

Barbara A. Perry

President John Kennedy declared about April 1961’s Bay of Pigs fiasco, “Victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan.” Just a few days after Fidel Castro thwarted 1,400 CIA-trained Cuban freedom fighters who invaded their homeland to overthrow the Marxist dictator, JFK told the press, “I am the responsible officer of this government.” Despite a devastating defeat at the hands of the communist regime just 90 miles off the coast of Florida, Kennedy’s approval rating soared to 83 percent.

The 35th president, who suffered another Cold War catastrophe when the Soviets and their East German allies erected the Berlin Wall in the summer of 1961, would use that symbol of communist tyranny in the most evocative speech of his brief presidency. On the western side of the wall in June 1963, he proclaimed, “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words‚ Ich bin ein Berliner [I am a Berliner].” The crowd of more than 400,000, separated from family and friends by a menacing concrete barrier, roared their approval. Kennedy managed the messages around his military debacles and maintained presidential strength despite them.

Images of East Germans scrambling through barbed wire, jumping from windows, trying to evade armed communist soldiers guarding the Berlin Wall, or tearfully waving at loved ones across the ugly obstacle, most closely resemble the current heart-rending scenes of distraught refugees at the Kabul airport.

President Biden can take some comfort in a long line of predecessors, from the Founding generation to modern commanders in chief, who suffered seemingly catastrophic defense failures but ultimately emerged successful in war victories, reelection wins, public approval and/or historic rankings.

It’s hard to imagine a more humiliating circumstance than the one faced by President James Madison when, during the War of 1812, the British captured Washington, igniting the Capitol and White House, forcing the chief executive and first lady to flee for their lives across the Potomac River to Virginia. Yet history remembers Madison as the “Father of the Constitution” and the eventual victor in our second war with Great Britain.

Abraham Lincoln’s election prompted the South to secede from the Union, and federal forces lost the Civil War’s first battle with Confederates at Manassas, Va., in 1861. As the bloody war between the states raged into 1864, the president faced a potential reelection defeat. He overcame naysayers, saved the Union, and earned a place among the three greatest American presidents.

The sinking of the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana Harbor (1898), the British steamship Lusitania, carrying American passengers (1914), and most of our Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor (1941) could have spelled doom for the presidents then in office — William McKinley, Woodrow Wil-son and Franklin Roose-velt. Yet they all prosecuted the resulting wars (Spanish-American and World Wars I and II) successfully and gained reelection. FDR joined Lincoln and Washington in the trio of presidential greats.

Al Qaeda’s terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001 represented a gross “failure of imagination” on the part of the U.S. military, and many blamed President George W. Bush for neglecting intelligence reports that might have helped him avoid the disaster. Yet he achieved reelection in 2004 and has experienced a remarkable rise in his post-presidency approval ratings to over 60 percent, despite ongoing criticism over the Iraq war.

Likewise, Ronald Reagan’s presidency could have floundered on terrorism’s shoals, after Hezbollah killed 241 American Marines at Beirut, Lebanon’s airport in 1983. But Reagan captured a landslide reelection victory one year later and remains a revered figure among political conservatives for winning the Cold War.

Vietnam provides the most intriguing example of defense policy’s paradoxical impact on presidential administrations. U.S. forces repelled the 1968 Tet offensive, launched by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong Communists that winter, but it caused President Lyndon Johnson to lose control of the war’s narrative.

The resulting “credibility gap” between him and the electorate forced his exit from that year’s election, much as the Korean War’s toll had prompted President Harry Truman to forgo a reelection attempt in 1952.

During the 1968 campaign, Richard Nixon claimed he would implement a Vietnam peace plan, but more than half of the nearly 60,000 American casualties in that war occurred during his presidency. Nevertheless, President Nixon trounced Sen. George McGovern in 1972.

The disastrous defeat and withdrawal of American forces from Saigon in 1975, with the last helicopter lifting off the roof of the U.S. embassy there, stranding thousands of South Vietnamese allies, seems a precursor to our abandonment of Afghanistan.

That tortuous exit from Southeast Asia certainly contributed to President Ford’s loss in 1976 to Jimmy Carter.

Carter’s defeat after one term followed radical Islamists’ 1979 seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran, and the taking of 52 Americans. Every evening CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite ended his broadcast with the tally of how many days the hostages had been held captive. Worse, Carter’s attempt to rescue them literally crashed and burned when a sandstorm and operational failures brought down military aircraft in the desert outside Tehran.

Even as a lame duck, President Carter worked to his term’s last moment to free the hostages. He succeeded, but only after his successor took the oath of office did the Iranians release their American prisoners.

Having barely survived the sinking of his PT boat in the Solomon Islands and experienced the death of his brother and brother-in-law in Europe during World War II, John Kennedy well knew the price paid by those in uniform. He also saw the irony of military service, commenting at a 1962 press conference, “There is always inequity in life. Some men are killed in a war and some men are wounded, and some men never leave the country, and some men are stationed in the Antarctic, and some are stationed in San Francisco. It’s very hard in military or in personal life to assure complete equality. Life is unfair.”

President Biden knows that fact all too well, but he should remember that more of his predecessors have survived military failures than have not. Unlike most previous commanders in chief, however, his challenge in addressing the Afghanistan debacle at the end of an “endless war” is compounded by unending news coverage and social media posts that depict presidential failures in one continuous and damaging loop.

Barbara A. Perry is Presidential Studies director and Gerald L. Baliles Professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. Follow her on Twitter @BarbaraPerryUVA.

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