George H. W. Bush flying a TBM Avenger off the light aircraft carrier USS San Jacinto (CVL-30) in 1944
In the 20th century, the American political system produced no man better qualified to be president of the United States of America than George Herbert Walker Bush who died earlier this week. Before becoming president, Bush had been a combat pilot, oilman, Congressmen from Texas, diplomat to both the United Nations and China, Director of the CIA, and Vice President for eight years.
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More than anything else it would be the lessons of World War II which influenced his statecraft.
“Ambitious and self-confident but perhaps not self-assertive enough.” A school report from the elite and Phillips Academy said of Bush in 1940. A year later George H.W Bush enlisted in World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Due to the training necessary to become a flight officer he missed out on much of the early war and did not join active combat in 1944.
Bush flew 58 combat missions in World War II and once had to bail from his damaged war plane. Yet, In October 1987, Newsweek labelled him a “wimp” and despite the urging of his presidential campaign staff in his three presidential runs never campaigned on his war record.
The first combat veteran of World War II to be president was JFK — who also saw service in the Pacific. Bush would be the last and was deeply influenced by what he felt were the lessons of World War II, and the application of those lessons to American foreign policy mattered for Bush.
Bush along with JFK were the only two American presidents since World War II to not pen a memoir. Instead in 1999, he penned a book on international relations with co-authored with Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed.
George H.W Bush was a realist in the vain of Nixon and Kissinger. Bush’s advisors James Baker and Brent Scowcroft also fit this mold and a shared world view forged out of the perceived lessons of World War II – the lessons of Versailles, Munich and Tehran.
The Lessons of World War II
The harsh peace terms inflicted on Germany in 1919 under the Versailles Treaty fed a feeling of victimization amongst many Germans that Hitler fed on throughout his political career and eventually to World War II. In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain appeared to reach an accommodation with Hitler’s territorial ambitions. This did nothing if not encourage Hitler to start even more ambitious conquests a year later. The Lesson of Munich is that petty tyrants can become power hungry despots. When World War II finally started, it is unlikely the allies would have won the war without the sacrifices of the Soviet Union – a totalitarian state as vile as Germany’s. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that sometimes America must work with tyrants toward a greater good. In Tehran in 1943, FDR perhaps the first meeting between an American president and dictator from the Old World — FDR insulted Churchill to ingratiate himself with Stalin.
These might not be the most important lessons of World War II but, as the first president to rule the United States as sole super power these were the ones Bush applied most readily.
This last lesson came easily to Bush who an able diplomat was serving as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and China. Just as the United States had leveraged Communist Russia against the Nazis, the Nixon administration sought to leverage Communist China against Moscow. Later as Vice President, he unabashedly told Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos – then in the twilight of his presidency that “We love your adherence to democratic principles and the democratic process. ” Bush also tread lightly when China crackdown on reform-minded protestors in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
As president, his willingness to reach out to dictatorships began with his inaugural address.
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“There are today Americans who are held against their will in foreign lands and Americans who are unaccounted for,” said the new president standing on what he called the front porch of democracy, “Assistance can be shown here and will be long remembered. Good will begets good will. Good faith can be a spiral that endlessly moves on.” The language was coded appeal to Iran for assistance in freeing Americans held by Iranian supported militants in the Middle East. Iran spurred the initiative.
In standing up to Saddam Bush, in 1990 the president was applying the “Lesson of Munich.” Just like bullies in a kindergarten sandbox – the sooner you confront them, the better. In fact, Bush according to his biographer was willing to face impeachment to eject Saddam and his million-strong Iraqi Army from Iraq.
Nor was Saddam the only one bandito he tangled with. Bush also authorized military operations in Panama to remove its head of state Emmanuel Noriega due to his ties to drug cartels. Noriega had dealt with every American administration since President Eisenhower (Noriega had volunteered to spy on Communist classmates), and Bush had met him twice before assuming the presidency. During the 1988 Presidential Debate, Governor Dukakis tie Bush to Noriega and by extension the drug trade. The invasion launched to capture Noriega drew censor from the United Nations.
Another World War II era insight — the Lesson of Versailles also influenced his thinking in pursuing a fair peace with the Soviet Union. The Berlin Wall came down without much of kerfluffle. It was a political mistake his son would famously declare “Mission Accomplished” but, it was the prudent thing to do. In a quiet summit on Malta on December 3, 1989, Bush and Gorbachev declared an end to the Cold War. This careful balancing act was arguably George H.W Bush’s greatest foreign accomplishment and it prevented hardliners from reviving the Soviet Union in the short-term or worse — a second Russian Civil War.
Indeed Bush thought of German unification and gracious acceptance of the end of the Cold War in terms of the lessons of Versailles. He didn’t want to solve old problems by creating new enemies. This also influenced his thinking in not pursuing the fleeing Iraqi Army back to Baghdad in 1991 – which was opposed by Colin Powell. The fact that such an operation would fall beyond the bounds of the United Nations mandate was also important given that the Soviet Union supported the initial operation. Later presidents such as President Obama’s operations in Libya would find such norms of international law quaint. Conversely, former President Nixon opined that ending the war was Bush’s greatest political mistake and could have allowed him to turn the 1992 presidential election into a plebiscite on patriotism.
Bush pushed hard to station American troops in Saudi Arabia. This made more military sense than a direct amphibious assault, Bush a veteran of the Pacific Theatre in World War II veteran knew something about. The stationing of American troops in Saudi Arabia home to two of Islam’s holiest sites proved potent propaganda for the kingdom’s extremists – notably Osama bin Ladin.
Bush often failed to grasp extremist of all stripes. Like his father Senator Prescott Bush and President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Bush was a moderate Republican.
Bush’s long political career began in 1960, and amongst his generation of Republicans, only Senator Bob Dole’s career (1950-1996) would stretch longer. Bush became the first Vice President since Martin Van Buren in 1837 to be directly elected to the presidency.
The result of being in the White House for 12 years allowed almost continuity in government it also meant that Bush entered the 1992 election exhausted but, also perhaps more out of touch with the American public than other presidents. During the campaign, he committed some blunders likely brought on by this fatigue
“Don’t cry for me Argentina” He once told a crowd in 1992 — he was in New Hampshire. Earlier that same year he vomited into the lap of Prime Minister of Japan, Kiichi Miyazawa, during a visit to Japan.
These were mistake but, his biggest may have been maintaining Vice-President Dan Quayle as his running mate. Many Republican insiders favored he select national security expert Colin Powell in a potential dream ticket.
Like President Van Buren, H.W. Bush had to contend with a faltering economy and a surprisingly popular populist challenger. In Van Buren’s case Andrew Jackson. In Bush’s Ross Perot, a fellow wealthy Texan who he had antagonized years earlier in Texas.
Perot didn’t win of course but, his third-party run – the most successful of the modern era certainly offered a political template for political neophytes with presidential ambitions. One that Donald Trump copied when he ran successfully for the presidency in 2016.
Bush was shocked by the defeat which speaks to his inability to convert his foreign policy successes into domestic political gains – a potential pitfall for any president focused on national security.
An important lesson in its own right for future generations of politicians.