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Relationships of Presidents and Generals Discussed

The NewsHour takes a look at the history of presidential relationships with key generals. A foreign policy expert and a professor discuss some of the nations' most important commander-in-chief and general teams.

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  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Has there ever been a battlefield general who played such a pivotal role for his president as General Petraeus did this week? To explore that, we turn to Thomas Keaney, executive director of the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. He's a retired Air Force colonel. And NewsHour regular Ellen Fitzpatrick, professor of American history at the University of New Hampshire.

    Welcome to both of you.

    Tom Keaney, have we ever seen a situation as we saw this week in which there was such attention focused on a battlefield commander that the president himself said he was waiting for the assessment of that commander before he went to the country with his own way forward?

    THOMAS KEANEY, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies: Frankly, no, we have no real precedent for that. We have examples of generals who have had prominent political roles, but none that was tied so much with the administration strategy, where General Petraeus actually becomes the voice of that strategy.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Do you agree, Ellen Fitzpatrick, no real precedence in terms of the public role that he has taken?

    ELLEN FITZPATRICK, University of New Hampshire: I think it is true, specifically speaking, but more broadly, in 1967, Lyndon Johnson employed General William Westmoreland very similarly during the Vietnam War. And the parallels are interesting, because in August of 1967, for the first time, public opinion polls showed that a slim majority of the public didn't feel that the war was going well, that we were winning the war.

    And Johnson began a concerted campaign — it was an ongoing one — to try to shape public opinion. He called Westmoreland back from Vietnam. And in the fall, Westmoreland gave a speech before Congress, he appeared on "Meet the Press" with the ambassador to Vietnam, Ellsworth Bunker, to make the case that there was light at the end of the tunnel, that the enemy was weakening.

    He even suggested that we might be able to draw down troops before long. And, of course, a couple of months later, the Tet Offensive occurred.