By Brian Williams, Anchor and managing editor
President Bush got everyone's attention this week when he raised the specter of World War III while discussing the potential nuclear threat posed by Iran. The risk of a third world war is the classic doomsday scenario, and it turns out -- as Andy Franklin's research confirms -- it's one that has been invoked by presidents since – well, since soon after World War Two.
Harry Truman mentioned World War III frequently, saying that avoiding such a war was part of the rationale for American involvement in Korea ("We are in a fight to stay out of World War III"), and for maintaining a strong military ("We must maintain large armed forces for a long time to come, if we are to protect our freedom and prevent World War III.") He also raised the subject in a political context more than once, while taking on some of his Republican critics. In a June 1951 speech, Truman said, "Partisan efforts to label our foreign policy as appeasement -- to tag it as a policy of fear or timidity -- point to only one thing: They point to our "going it alone" down the road to World War III." In the 1952 presidential race, Truman campaigned for Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson – and against Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower. In an October 1952 speech, Truman said of Eisenhower, "I thought he would stand firmly behind the great defense effort we are making to hold off Communist aggression and prevent World War III… My friends, that is not the case." In another speech that same month, he said, "No matter what the Republican candidate says, we shall not engage in appeasement. To do that would be to take the sure road to World War III." Eisenhower won that year, of course, and history records that World War III did not break out during his presidency. In his 1956 re-election campaign kickoff speech, President Eisenhower observed, "The only way to win World War III is to prevent it."
The subject of World War III emerged again in the 1960 presidential campaign. Democratic nominee John F. Kennedy brought it up in a speech to the American Legion on October 18, 1960. Kennedy cited the popular 1957 novel (and 1959 movie starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner) "On the Beach," about "the lone American survivors of World War III." Kennedy noted that one of the characters talks about running for president, and then said, "That is not the presidency for which I run. I don't want to be the president of a nation perishing under the mushroom cloud of a nuclear warhead."
Republican nominee Richard Nixon warned that Kennedy's policies could actually trigger a third world war. In a letter to Kennedy dated October 23, 1960, Nixon criticized him for advocating U.S. support of a popular uprising in Cuba to overthrow Fidel Castro. Such a policy, Nixon told Kennedy, "would give Mr. Khrushchev a valid excuse to intervene in Cuba on the side of the Castro government…If this happened, your policy could lead to World War III." Nixon's comments eerily foreshadowed the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco and the subsequent Cuban Missile Crisis.
President Lyndon Johnson invoked World War III more than once. In an October 1966 speech, Johnson vowed that "American boys, almost half a million of them," serving in Vietnam, "are never going to tuck their tails and run. They are never going to surrender. They are going to stay there until this aggression is checked before it blooms into World War III." A year later, addressing a growing chorus of criticism, Johnson said, "I only wish that those who bewail war would bring me just one workable solution to end the war… [but] it must be a solution that does not call for surrender or for cutting and running now. Those fantasies hold the nightmare of World War III." And in a surprise visit to Vietnam itself just two days before Christmas in 1967, LBJ told U.S. troops in Cam Ranh Bay, "What you men are doing here today, you may very well prevent a wider war, a greater war -- a World War III"
Ronald Reagan repeatedly mentioned World War III in the context of his summits with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. As Reagan recalled in a 1988 speech to the United Nations, "I said at the first meeting in Geneva that this was a unique encounter between two people who had the power to start World War III, or to begin a new age of peace among nations."
And this past Wednesday was not the first time President Bush himself has mentioned World War III. Speaking in Orlando on September 21, 2006, Bush said, "And now Iraq is the central front on the war on terror. I hear people in the United States [say], 'Well, that's not true.' My advice to them is to listen carefully to the words of the enemy. Osama bin Laden has called Iraq World War III."
Finally, a postscript. Observant readers will note that the title of today's blog is taken from the Bob Dylan song of the same name: "Talkin' World War III Blues," from his second album, Freewheelin,' released in 1963. Dylan may have come to mind because he reached something of a milestone this week. Bob Dylan has performed live throughout his career, but for a long time his tours were intermittent, rare, or non-existent. But since 1988, he's been on the road pretty much non-stop. Fans call it the "Never-Ending Tour," and Tuesday night in Dayton, Ohio, that tour made it to show number 2,000. Pretty amazing for a guy who got his start almost a half-century ago. Thanks, Bob.
We've got a terrific Friday edition of NBC Nightly News in the works for you. I look forward to having you join us. Have a great weekend.