‘The moral thing to do,” President Obama said in Sweden recently, “is not to stand by and do nothing.” In the face of the heinous behavior of tyrants, the case for action is always stronger than for restraint — even when action is itself morally ambiguous. Yet when Obama declined to act against Bashar Assad on his own authority, he let loose a potentially historic movement toward restraint on America’s part. Now, against Obama’s urgings, Congress can carry that dynamic of restraint further by saying no to a US military strike and its inevitably negative consequences. Such an action, in turn, would invite the president to step back from a deeply flawed tradition of belligerent and legally dubious interventions that goes back six decades.
Back then, it was President Harry Truman in the cross-hairs of history. Unlike Obama earlier this month, Truman declined to seek congressional authorization for his 1950 intervention in Korea, conveniently designated as a “police action.” In preempting Congress’s power over war-making, Truman set an all-too conspicuous precedent for his successors.
Yet during this same period, Truman made a less famous but equally historic decision: He chose to “stand by and do nothing” in the face of what threatened to be the worst defeat of US forces, as Secretary of State Dean Acheson warned, since the Civil War’s Battle of Bull Run.
Early on in Korea, American fighters under General Douglas MacArthur had seemed invincible, rolling the North Koreans back to the internationally sanctioned border at the 38th parallel and fulfilling the UN mandate. But MacArthur kept going, pushing the Korean enemy toward the border with China. But then the Communist Chinese joined the fray, sending hundreds of thousands of troops against the Americans across a front 300 miles long. MacArthur ordered a desperate retreat, and soon his army had been pushed to the southern end of the Korean peninsula.
At the beginning of hostilities, Truman had vowed to use “every weapon we have,” including the atomic bomb. After all, the bomb was just another weapon in the arsenal, and he had ordered its use against Japan just five years before. “The military commander in the field will have charge of the use of these weapons,” Truman had declared. Facing defeat, MacArthur urgently wanted to strike back at China with atomic bombs. Otherwise, the general warned, he would have to evacuate his army from the peninsula — a deeply shaming American replay of Dunkirk.
Truman risked a total American defeat rather than order nuclear use.
Yet, against every expectation, Truman reversed himself. He ordered MacArthur to fight with what he had. There would be no dropping of the atomic bomb in Korea, or against China. Truman risked a total American defeat rather than order nuclear use. Against the odds, MacArthur’s army held on, then valiantly clawed its way northward, back to the 38th parallel.
Because of Truman’s decision, the war would end in a much-deplored stalemate, embroiling the United States in Asia for decades, and enabling the survival of a brutal Stalinist regime in Pyongyang. Truman’s political standing would collapse.
But far more fatefully, Truman’s decision not to act when pressures to act were enormous simply took the atomic bomb off the table of international dispute. The bomb was not just another weapon, after all. Truman established the precedent of limited war. He put in place the nuclear taboo that has since held through numerous wars where, absent the taboo, nukes would almost certainly have been let loose. Having changed the course of history by using the bomb in 1945, Truman changed history again by refusing its use in 1950.
If the United States were to choose not to launch a military strike against Assad, despite the compelling arguments in favor of doing so, a new course of history could likewise be opened. American unilateralism, presidential overreach, the myth of stopping violence with more violence, the hypocrisy of US moral triumphalism, the absurdity of defending international norms by breaking international law — all of this would be different the day after Congress voted no; after President Obama, reckoning with a dynamic toward restraint that he himself initiated, announced a massive new diplomatic offensive against the Assad regime, in place of the battery of missile strikes that, once, had seemed inevitable. It’s always possible to act. The moral thing to do is to find a way of acting that doesn’t make things worse.
James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.