The 1990s as History

Mr. O'Neill is the author of A Bubble in Time: America During the Interwar Years, 1989-2001 (Ivan R. Dee, 2009).

I began writing my book during the 1990s with the idea of duplicating my history of the 1960s, Coming Apart, which came out in 1971 hot on the heels of that turbulent decade. But other projects intervened and the moment passed when I could offer an instant history of the period. This worked to my advantage I now believe as, unlike the sixties, the nineties was not a self-defined decade. The sixties itself was not even a decade, as the events and movements we associate with it such as Birmingham, Selma, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the New Left, Black Power, and the Vietnam War, seldom begin as early as 1960, and, except for the war, were largely over by 1969. The interwar years, by which I mean the period between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the war on terror, are not so easily characterized. Although unintended, the extra time I gained by putting the manuscript aside provided me with a big asset but also a big liability.

The liability is that the presidency of George W. Bush was such a total disaster that it made all previous presidents going back at least to Herbert Hoover look good by comparison. It therefore became something of a struggle to evaluate Bill Clinton on his merits, or lack thereof. I finally concluded that the “New Democrat” vision propounded by Clinton, Al Gore and others did more harm than good. It reduced government expenditures by cutting personnel and programs to dangerously low levels, while also embracing such dubious Republican principles as free trade, capital punishment, deregulation, and most disgracefully, a welfare “reform” program that consisted largely of kicking single mothers and their children off the roles.

His failure to secure health care reforms from what was at the time a Democratic congress secured his place as a mediocre president, a designation he redeemed somewhat during his last year in office when through executive orders he preserved so much of the public domain that even Bush-Cheney could not reverse all he had done for the environment. Clinton did better in foreign affairs, often reluctantly, as when he finally sided with the Croats and Bosnians to end Serbian aggression, and later saved Kosovo from Milosevich and his fellow barbarians. Clinton presided over budgets that by the end of his second term were generating big surpluses. These did not result from brilliant management so much as the stalemate between Clinton and the Republicans who gained control of Congress in the 1994 elections. Congress blocked Clinton from increasing social programs and he prevented passage of the massive tax cuts that the GOP thirsted for and finally achieved in 2001, benefiting billionaires at the expense of most Americans. Oddly, at the time many commentators assumed the Clinton surpluses would become permanent, although anyone with half a brain should have been able to see that politics, not economics, lay behind them.

My book is an effort to write a narrative history of the entire period, so while I have chapters on Presidents Bush I and Bill Clinton I also deal with various other topics, such as the first Gulf War during which George H. W. Bush carefully avoided making all the mistakes that turned his son’s occupation of Iraq into such a fiasco. I have material on the O.J. Simpson trial, the Smithsonian’s unfortunate Enola Gay exhibition, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, TV’s most brilliant accomplishment during this period. I devote a chapter to race-based college admissions, not because they were a grave social problem but because they received far more press and electoral attention than any other aspect of affirmative action and make it possible to study the process with a level of detail not available otherwise.

Although narrative history is by its nature largely descriptive I do have a thesis, which is that the interwar years constituted a period of missed opportunities. I have already mentioned health care reform, which, to their everlasting shame Democratic congressional leaders did not even bring to a vote. But another scandal is the complete failure of Democrats and Republicans alike to take advantage of the Cold War’s end to shrink and restructure our armed forces. The American military was developed over many years to fight a conventional war with the Soviet Union, and also to generate jobs and profits—pork being an essential feature of every Pentagon budget. When the Soviet Union collapsed so did its military, giving America a chance to completely rethink its defense policies. Instead the armed forces simply reduced their ranks, shrinking the number of people in uniform while hanging on to every expensive weapons system. One absolute travesty was to continue production of the F-22, an incredibly expensive aircraft designed to fight a Soviet advanced fighter that never got off the drawing boards. We now have more than 180 of these planes, which have never been flown in combat because their targets do not exist. When the current secretary of defense attempted to shut down this program the manufacturer barely bothered to defend the machine on its merits, pointing out instead that workers in 44 states contribute to its final assembly, making the F-22 the most expensive job creation program in American history.

Everyone who pays attention knows about the preposterous F-22, but little attention is given to, for example, the eleven super-carriers the nation possesses, expensive ships that must be protected by large and costly battle groups. No other country has even one of these behemoths, for the simple reason that they are extremely vulnerable to anti-ship missiles and can only be used against third world countries that lack this technology. Both parties routinely claim to be in favor a strong defense, but neither party admits that much military spending is all about jobs and profits and has little to do with defending America. The cost of this bloated system is also disguised. The official Pentagon budget requests do not include the costs of occupying Iraq and Afghanistan. The expense of maintaining nuclear weapons is borne by the Department of Energy, while half of NASA’s budget is devoted to military activities. In these and other ways the true burden of defense spending is concealed from the public. Republicans like it that way and treat every effort to rein in military expenditures as tantamount to treason, while Democrats are completely intimidated by the issue. Thus, ending the Cold War had no long term effect whatsoever on the ballooning military-industrial complex. The events of September 11, 2001, of course, made all this worse.

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