GHW Bush and the Legacy of 'Vietnam Syndrome'

American men used to fear being drafted. That ended after the Gulf War.

I said yesterday that GHW Bush’s presidency, short as it was, marked a turning point in the history of the Republican Party. He was the last GOP president to take federal budgets seriously, and he was the last Republican president to take a realist approach, which is to say a parsimonious approach, to advancing and enforcing the liberal international order that emerged after the Cold War collapse of the Soviet Union.

While I stand by my argument that he was better than his son in managing international relations, I should add that Bush Senior was vulnerable to the same temptation all Republican presidents have been tempted by, perhaps even more so due to his image, among hawkish conservatives, of being an effete Yankee. That temptation was to make up, somehow, for US military failures in the Vietnam War.

Indeed, the Gulf War was seen by many as having overcome what was then called the “Vietnam Syndrome,” which was public aversion to using military action for fearing of getting bogged down in a foreign country for decades. Because Operation Desert Storm, as the international coalition was called, was over in a few months, that was taken as a sign that American might had been made right. We were restored. It was also taken by some to mean that presidents should not be afraid of going to war.

I never understood what had been restored, but a lot of people believed it, not just Republican hawks. This, coupled with our new responsibility in that new liberal international order of being the world’s cop, meant that Democratic presidents were also pushed and pulled into using military power, preferably airstrikes under Bill Clinton and drone strikes under Barack Obama. Along the way much of the country forgot the lessons of Vietnam, lessons the GOP willfully refused to learn.

Before 1990, it was still possible to find very conservative white Americans with mixed feelings about Vietnam. This was before Fox News. This was before conservative talk-radio. This was after a decade of Hollywood movies questioning the legitimacy and meaning of a conflict that conscripted hundreds of thousands of men. (Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and Hamburger Hill all came out in one year, 1987.) You could still express a deep love of country blended with a deep suspicion of the US government.

I speak with some experience. I was 16 in 1990. After school, I worked at a nearby grocery store. I remember what Tommy, 19, said the week the entire country turned its attention to this new thing called CNN. (It was actually a decade old by then, but it was new to us country folk who did not have ready access to cable TV back in the day.) I doubt Tommy could have found Kuwait on a map, much less anything outside the tri-county area we lived in, but I could see he felt the pressure of being draft age.

“This time next year, I expect to be drafted and kicking some A-rab ass,” Tommy said one day as we were stocking the cereal aisle. I was less than two years away from draft age. If Tommy was scared, I was scared, too. I’m guessing we weren’t the only ones.

Of course, we didn’t worry long. About six months later, by the time of my 17th birthday, the Gulf War was over. That might have been the last time young American men worried about getting drafted into fighting one of many post-Cold War conflicts. That might have been the last time young American men felt any sense of obligation in the prosecution of their country’s foreign wars. I think it was a turning point.

Eventually, Fox News and conservative talk-radio told millions of white conservative men (and women, but mostly men) they had nothing to have mixed feelings about, that the US should have stayed in Vietnam to finish the job, and that the liberals were to blame for losing. And these millions of white conservative men never had any reality with which to check conservative lies and propaganda, because no American president ever asked them to sacrifice in the name of country, to submit to a military draft. Not even a terrorist attack resulting in over 3,000 dead Americans was enough for a president to make such a profound demand. Instead, he told us to go shopping.

This all began with George Bush.

Alas, it didn’t end with his son.

—John Stoehr

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Yeah, Beto should stay in Texas

A new Harvard CAPS/Harris poll was released this morning showing that Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke are one, two and three among Democrats whom respondents believe are presidential material. I can’t agree more with the Washington Monthly’s Nancy LeTourneau, who said O’Rourke should stay in Texas.

I’m prepared to let O’Rourke and his family decide what to do next—as long as he stays in politics. But when even John Cornyn is talking about Texas becoming a purple state, it’s hard to imagine a goal more important than making sure that happens. As a former Texan, this isn’t just personal for me, although as Hooks said, there is a lot of damage the GOP has inflicted that needs to be repaired. It’s also about a state that is second only to California in the number of electoral college votes (not to mention House seats) on the brink of turning blue. That is the ultimate game-changer. If O’Rourke can do any more to make that happen, he should stay in Texas.

—JS

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Speaking of Joe and Bernie

The former vice president said last night that, “I'm the most qualified person in the country to be president.” That was catnip to a Washington press corps that’s always on the lookout for presidential overtures, especially from Joe Biden.

Biden has been a contender since 1988. (Full disclosure: he and Bob Dole are my favorite “characters” in Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes.) He might be serious, but I doubt it, because Biden (and I say this with love!) is a swaggering blowhard.

So don’t take his remarks too seriously, and don’t take seriously any poll showing him ahead of the rest. Those polls, as of right now, don’t have much value. What they are measuring is Biden’s name-recognition, not the party’s desire for him to run.

Same thing for Sanders. Poll after poll show the Vermont senator with high approval ratings, but that’s mostly the result of respondents knowing his name. At the same time, Democratic respondents approve of him, but again, that doesn’t necessarily mean they want him to run. It could mean they want him to keep being Bernie.

If you follow me on Twitter (and you should!), you’ll notice many people yesterday were drawing a straight line between Sanders’ polling and Sanders’ viability as a candidate. That’s understandable. The numbers are what they are. But with a little context, one can see that they are not more than what they are, which isn’t much.

After all, when Hillary Clinton is included in that Harvard/Harris poll, she comes in at third. Does anyone believe the party would like her to run again? I don’t think so. Again, the poll is measuring name-recognition for the most part. It is what it is.

—JS

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Break through the noise!

American politics is simpler and more complex than the media suggests. That’s why there’s the Editorial Board. For $5 a month or $55 for the year, you can break through the noise to see what’s really going on, and why. I know you’ll love it!—JS

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