David Brooks: The Party of Jimmy or JFK?
David Brooks, in the NYT (Feb. 17, 2004):
Between 1940 and 1968, the American people trusted the Democratic Party in times of war. But Vietnam shattered that trust. So if we're going to talk about Vietnam during this campaign, as I guess we are, let's not talk about how many days George Bush served in the National Guard, or how many rows John Kerry sat from Jane Fonda at a protest rally. Let's talk about the meaning of the Vietnam War, and what lessons each party has drawn from that disaster.
The Democrats Americans trusted, from Harry Truman to John Kennedy, lived in the shadow of World War II. They'd learned the lessons of Munich and appeasement. They saw America engaged in a titanic struggle against tyranny and believed in using military means for idealistic ends. They also had immense confidence in themselves and in their ability to use power to spread freedom.
Their confidence took them into Vietnam and into the quagmire. There were two conflicting lessons that could be drawn from that experience. Scoop Jackson Democrats saw Vietnam as a bungled battle in what was nonetheless a noble anti-Communist war. Most of these people ended up as Republicans.
But most Democrats and John Kerry was very much a part of this group saw Vietnam as a refutation of the cold war mentality. These liberals saw the bungling and the lies as symptoms of a deep sickness in the military-industrial complex. So we got movies like "Dr. Strangelove" and "M*A*S*H," which treated military life as insane.
These Democrats saw Vietnam as an indictment of a Manichaean good vs. evil worldview, of an overweening arrogance that led hawks into parts of the world they didn't understand. Most of all, they saw it as an indictment of American nationalism, the belief that America was culturally superior and should venture around the globe defeating tyranny.
Hence Democratic foreign policy in the 1970's was isolationist at worst, modest at best. Democrats eschewed flag-waving and moralistic language about the Soviets. Jimmy Carter talked about root causes like hunger and poverty. For many liberals, as Charles Krauthammer recently said, "cold warrior" was an epithet.
These liberals were horrified when a group of former Democrats, led by Ronald Reagan and Jeane Kirkpatrick, led a hawk resurgence. The Reaganites believed in American exceptionalism, saw themselves as the heirs to Truman and Kennedy, and sought to confront and defeat the evil empire. The Democratic establishment again, with Kerry playing a crucial role recoiled from such language, and opposed the Reagan arms buildup.
Most Americans decided that Reagan was right about the world, and that the Democrats were naïve.
But the end of the cold war put an end to that debate. And as the Balkans crisis deepened, the Democrats shifted. Suddenly Democrats were boldly committing troops around the globe, without even bothering to ask the U.N. The Vietnam syndrome seemed to be over. Democrats seemed set to re-emerge as a confident, tough-minded and hawkish party, ready to use force and reassert America's exceptional world role.
Now, in the midst of the war against Islamic totalitarianism, the crucial question is this: Is the Democratic Party truly set to reclaim the legacy of Truman and Kennedy, or is it still living in the shadow of Vietnam?
comments powered by Disqus
David Lion Salmanson - 2/20/2004
The thing about this Brooks article is, if we are in a war against Islamic totalitarianism, why are our allies Saudia Arabia and Pakistan?
- Five Things You Need to Know to be a Better Digital Preservationist
- Book on Losing British Generals Wins American History Prize
- Stanford scholar explores civil rights revolution's positive impact on the South's economy
- Harvard Historian Nancy Koehn on Amazon's Tentacular Reach
- Q&A with historian and author Nick Turse