The Ambiguities of “Cut and Run”

By Thomas Michael Holmes


Mr. Holmes is a historian at the University of California San Diego and a writer for the History News Service.

Gazette Note:  We’ve included this article in our Heroes category in honor of the brave political leaders like President Eisenhower who have had the courage, and the good sense, to “cut and run.”  Long live Archilochus. –Hardly Waite.


Karl Rove’s recent “cut and run” accusations against the Bush administration’s Democratic opponents ought to be answered. What one person sees as “cut and run” might be seen by another person as a responsible decision; it’s all in the eye of the beholder. Let’s examine some relevant recent history.

Did Dwight D. Eisenhower “cut and run” in Korea in 1953? It was Ike who told the nation that if he were elected he would go to Korea and, by implication, end the war. It is generally conceded that Eisenhower did the responsible thing when he quickly completed the truce negotiations that ended the fighting in the Korea.

Would Harry Truman have been accused of “cut and run” in September 1950, three months after the initial invasion of South Korea, had he accepted the status quo ante bellum following the rout of the overextended North Korean forces at the 38th parallel? Instead, Truman followed the advice of General Douglas MacArthur and elected to “liberate” North Korea. As the United Nations forces approached the border of the People’s Republic of China at the Yalu River, communist China entered the war and almost drove the UN forces off the southern tip of the Korean peninsula.

Had Truman been willing to “cut and run,” tens of thousands of American lives might have been saved and North Korea might not have been condemned to the isolation it has experienced ever since.Ê In the end, the war lasted for another three years. America sent 1.8 million of our own into the fray: 54,200 were killed, 103,300 were wounded and 8,200 were listed as missing in action. We ended up at the 38th parallel, right where we were in September 1950 — and where we remain today.

Did Richard Nixon “cut and run” in Vietnam? Who can forget the television footage of the American embassy in Saigon being evacuated by helicopter in 1975 as we left those Vietnamese who had depended upon us to the tender mercies of the North Vietnamese communists? They might feel, with some justification, that America had “cut and run.”

Yet in retrospect, it appears that the responsible thing for Nixon to have done in 1969, when he first entered the White House, would have been to follow the example of President Eisenhower and pull the plug on the Vietnam War. It is worth remembering that almost half the 58,000 Americans killed in Vietnam died during Nixon’s presidency.

The real mistake during what we call the Vietnam War was Lyndon Johnson’s, when he escalated the war after the bogus Tonkin Gulf Resolution. An even greater mistake, made at the end of World War II, was to have allowed the French to reestablish their colonial rule throughout Indochina after the Allied forces had liberated it from Japanese occupation. It was the fall of French colonial rule in 1954 that triggered America’s disastrous involvement in Vietnam.

Did Ronald Reagan “cut and run” in 1983 after 241 American servicemen died in Beirut in the suicide bombing of the Marine barracks? Some would say that it wasn’t the fact that Reagan pulled the American troops out of Lebanon that was the mistake; the real mistake was the fact that those Americans were put into an untenable position in the first place.

Did President George Herbert Walker Bush “cut and run” after the coalition’s qualified victory in the First Gulf War in 1991? The Shiites of southern Iraq might say so. The elder Bush not only pulled out of Iraq, but on the way out he invited the Shiites to overthrow their repressive dictator, Saddam Hussein. Then, when they attempted to do so, American forces stood by and watched while Saddam’s army ripped the Shiites to shreds.

It’s ironic that the elder Bush, the current president’s father, would later explain that he didn’t intervene because he didn’t want the U.S. to become bogged down in an Iraqi civil war. He didn’t have to. American air power, deployed outside of Iraq, could have destroyed Saddam’s army, just as American planes, deployed outside of Iraq, recently killed the insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

This reminds us of another part of Karl Rove’s recent statement, that if the United States had “cut and run” in Iraq, Zarqawi would still be there plotting against us. But it was Jordanian and Iraqi intelligence that tracked and located Zarqawi, allowing for the successful American strike, with aircraft based outside of Iraq.

One might also argue that the decision of the Bush administration to re-deploy American forces from Afghanistan to Iraq constituted a “cut and run” decision that has seriously jeopardized the chances for the success of that mission.

Charges of “cut and run” have been leveled over the years by politicians on both sides of the aisle. Upon closer examination, it turns out to be a blunt rhetorical instrument that tends to obscure, rather than illuminate, difficult decisions in complex situations.

Reprinted courtesy of the History News Service.