Echoes of Vietnam: Bush and Kerry

This AP story, “Echoes of Vietnam in presidential campaign 35 years later,” makes an interesting point:

Kerry, part of the class of 1966, signed on with the Navy late in 1965, then had months to ponder his decision before actually entering officer candidate school after graduation. The war, his decision, his doubts, all hung over him as he spoke at commencement the following June.

“What was an excess of isolationism has become an excess of interventionism,” he told fellow students. He had to know his life was set on a course for Vietnam.

For Bush, a member of the class of 1968, his last year in college seemed to signal the end of a time of innocence.

“The gravity of history was beginning to descend in a horrifying and disruptive way,” he wrote in his 1999 biography. “By the time the ball dropped in Times Square to welcome 1968, the situation in Vietnam had escalated from a conflict to a raging war. Every night the newscast included a body count.”

Bush debated his options over Christmas break back home in Houston, took a pilot aptitude test after he got back to school in January, and chose the National Guard. He would fly planes like his father did in World War II, but he had to know the odds of going to Vietnam were low.

Nearly 40 years later, the choices made by these two young men are reverberating through the presidential campaign as part of a larger debate over patriotism, leadership, duty, character. Each man is defined in part by the path he chose, and by the level of commitment he demonstrated along the way.

“We are all hostage to decisions we made in the past,” said Douglas Brinkley, a history professor at the University of New Orleans who has written a book about Kerry’s war years. “The bottom line is Kerry went and Bush didn’t and it’s an uncomfortable fact for a president” who has so eagerly wrapped himself in the flag as commander in chief.

Yet Brinkley said the two-year age difference between Kerry and Bush is an important backdrop to the courses they set.

In 1965, when Kerry decided to enlist, students “still saw the world in black and white,” Brinkley said, and “not serving wasn’t really an option” for the son of a foreign service officer. “His big decision was which branch of the military to join,” said Brinkley. “Did he want to go to Vietnam? No. But how could he live with himself if he finagled his way out of his duty?”

By the time Bush joined the guard in 1968, Brinkley said, the horrors of Vietnam were playing out nightly on television and sentiment against the war was hardening. “By 1968, smart kids weren’t going. It became OK not to go. … So Bush looked for a way not to go,” he said.

“If he had been the class of ’66, it may have been different for George W. Bush.”

I hadn’t really thought about that before, but there’s a lot of truth in that. Vietnam was my dad’s war; everything I know about it came second hand and years down the line. But a comparison of the popular culture portrayals of the war in the mid-1960s versus the late-1960s would certainly demonstrate a massive attitudinal change.

Vietnam was the last pre-professional war in U.S. history. Most of the officers and virtually all of the troops were short-timers, many of whom served because they had no choice. Rightly or wrongly, we had a system in place–unlike WWII, for example–that allowed the sons of the wealthy and those smart enough to get into college to skip the war if they wanted. Many did. Clearly, Bush could have served in Vietnam if he’d wanted to–his father eagerly volunteered for duty in WWII. But Vietnam, epecially in 1968, was a wholly different kind of war.

Comparatively few of the top political figures from the cohort that could have served in Vietnam, did. Neither Bush nor Dick Cheney did (to be fair, Cheney was a little older and had kids). Ditto Howard Dean or John Edwards. Wesley Clark, of course, was a West Pointer who chose a military career for himself. So, Kerry was the only one of the current contenders for president who went to Vietnam without much to gain (unless he was thinking back then of mentioning it every other sentence for the rest of his days).

Perhaps because I came of age in an era where it’s just assumed that wars would be fought by professionals who volunteered to serve, this doesn’t particularly bother me. My dad served in Vietnam and made a career as an Army NCO. I was in Desert Storm and got out. Most of the people I know made different choices.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Brian Drozd says:

    Okay, my knowledge of this is mostly second hand, but wasn’t the unit Bush signed up for one of the ones actually flying in Veitnam at the time? So how was W’s decision to sign with the National Guard as a pilot a way to avoid going to Veitnam?

  2. James Joyner says:

    Brian,

    Not as far as I know. Indeed, the planes they were flying were essentially obsolete.

    I don’t charge that Bush joined the Guard as a draft dodging device, though. My point is that as a Yale grad who passed a flight physical, he could have certainly volunteered for active duty and gotten a slot to Vietnam had he so desired.