But as President Barack Obama’s GOP critics lambaste him, as John McCain did for a “feckless foreign policy in which no one believes in American strength any more,” it’s worth remembering that some things haven’t changed since the bad old days. Because even at the height of the Cold War, the United States generally held back from direct confrontation with the Soviet Union in the face of its most provocative acts within its own sphere of influence — and no American president has ever had good options to the contrary.
When Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest to crush the Hungarian rebellion in 1956, Dwight D. Eisenhower was privately appalled and enraged. But, confronting global hotspots from Suez to Berlin to Southeast Asia, he confined himself in his State of the Union address two months later to saying only, “The recent events in Hungary demand that all free nations share to the extent of their capacity in the responsibility of granting asylum to victims of Communist persecution.”
When Soviet tanks smashed the Prague Spring of 1968, Lyndon Johnson’s secretary of state Dean Rusk — enmeshed in the geopolitics of the Vietnam war — let it be known that American foreign policy should content itself only to “demonstrate informally and tactfully that the USA welcomes gladly the steps of Czechoslovakia towards normalization.”
When the Soviets engineered martial law in Poland in 1981, that master cold warrior, Ronald Regan himself, did not “begin bombing in five minutes,” (as he once joked he might like to in a sound check for a radio address).