George Herbert Walker Bush enlisted in the Navy on his 18th birthday. While at Naval Aviation Pre-Flight School in North Carolina, Bush described the crude propaganda handed out as “sickening,” saying that intelligent people were being “brainwashed,” even though they are smart enough to know why they are here and what they are fighting for. After losing a friend at sea named Jim Wykes, George Bush realized how impactful war was to those back home, especially to families. George Bush wrote a letter to the Wykes family trying to bring them hope about their lost son although he felt Jim was not going to be found.
In a letter, Bush expresses what he believes should happen to the Nazis following the war’s end, saying that the leaders of Nazi Germany deserve to be killed and that he hopes “our government and our allies act boldly and powerfully and mete out severe but just penalties,” or he hears “these 4 years of blood should have been for naught.” Bush perhaps felt the most guilt out of all the presidents who served in the war because of a plane crash that took place in 1944 near Chichijima that “forever changed his life. His plane was shot by Japanese anti-aircraft guns, and he escaped the plane using his parachute while the other two men didn’t hear Bush’s calls to eject and were killed.
Bush said that “I wake up at night and think about it sometimes,” and that “I’m not haunted by anything other than the fact I feel the responsibility still for the lives of the two people that were killed.” Bush certainly felt the cost of war, and even in 2002 he asked the question “why me? Why am I blessed? Why am I still alive? That has plagued me.” This idea of the luck of war has lived with many veterans wondering why they were the ones to survive while others died. Though he was just a young man barely past 18, Bush said “I knew fact certain that I wanted to serve duty, honor, country. But again, I hate telling you this because I don’t wanna be sounding like I’m different – I’m not.”
He shared the same attitude as many other veterans from World War II, refusing to be viewed as a hero but as someone who simply did what needed to be done. Recalling the plane crash and his time in the war, Bush’s innocence was lost, and his perspective of the world widened after living a sheltered childhood, saying “I felt sick to my stomach. I was crying, I gotta confess. I don’t feel badly about that incidentally, I was scared, I was 20 years old, and I thought about my family, and I thought about survival.” Bush describes the loss of his innocence saying that his “horizon needed expanding” and that “these letters are letters written from the heart from a loving son to his parents — letters from a kid sometimes homesick, sometimes scared.”
Following Reagan’s presidency, Bush defeated Michael Dukakis in 1988 to become the 41st president, and much of Bush’s presidency revolved around foreign affairs, primarily in the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Persian Gulf War. The Soviet Union had been declining for several years, and various factors including the Sino-Soviet split, the reunification of Germany, various independence movements, and the Soviet-Afghan War led to its collapse and subsequent dissolution in 1991 under Bush’s presidency. Decades of conflict and presidencies came to an end with the collapse of the world’s second largest power and with Bush just so happening to be there when it finally occurred.
The Persian Gulf War occurred in 1990 following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of neighboring Kuwait, an act which many in the international community viewed as an unprovoked act of aggression. Bush led a coalition against Hussein, ultimately forcing the Iraqis out of Kuwait in a matter of months through quick and forceful warfare, which would later be known as the Powell Doctrine.
With the approval ratings of Gorbachev and Yeltsin being 19 percent and 32 percent respectively, unrest within the USSR was expected at any moment. Following both the collapse of the Soviet Union and the failed coup in 1991, Bush exercised restraint in how the U.S. would react to communism’s downfall. While some wanted Bush to “dance on the wall,” and “for most political leaders such a victory would occasion loud self-congratulation.” Many Americans were baffled by Bush’s silence after such a historic moment to which half of a century culminated. Bush told the media that “I’m elated, I’m just not an emotional kind of guy.” Bush told Americans that Soviet collapse was “a victory for democracy and freedom, for the moral force of our values,” like freedom, liberty, and democracy. Bush wrote that “I was pleased to watch freedom and self-determination prevail as one republic after another gained its independence,” acknowledging the freedom gained by the Baltic states, Central Europe, and the Caucasus regions. While Bush was pleased that the USSR had fallen apart, leaving the U.S. as the sole superpower in a unipolar world, he veered away from possibly antagonizing Russia through a reaction that could be perceived as “public triumphal rhetoric.” His restraint was crucial to a steady, calm Soviet dissolution, and it prevented any type of escalation that could have cost soldiers’ lives. Bush saw no need to escalate a situation that was calm on its own.
However, Bush exercised his role as commander-in-chief in 1990 when he waged war against Saddam Hussein, a man he believed held values antithetical to American ideals. In a radio address to the nation, Bush recalled his experience in the war, saying “I’ve seen the hideous face of war and counted the costs of conflict in friends lost.” He formed a coalition and was sure to acquire the support of the United Nations, avoiding the perception of a unilateral war. Bush said that “we’re working through international organizations. That’s one thing I learned by forging that tremendous and greatly–highly successful coalition against Saddam Hussein.” Such a coalition and just cause for war refuted any charges that the U.S. was engaging in Western “neo-colonialism.” Another method in which the war was justified to appear more like a “good war” than unilateral action was that Congress put the issue up for a vote, granting the president authority with a 250-183 vote in the House of Representatives and a 52-47 vote in the Senate. Bush was able to justify the war as a war against aggression saying that “we are ready to use force to defend a new order emerging among the nations of the world — a world of sovereign nations living in peace.” Bush referred to Saddam as “Hitler revisited,” saying that he was a dictator who could not be satisfied or appeased. Bush told crowds that “I’m reading a book…about World War II and there’s a parallel between what Hitler did to Poland and what Saddam Hussein has done to Kuwait,” and that “this aggression is not going to stand.” In this war, Bush made sure to have clear objectives unlike in Korea and Vietnam. Support for Bush’s foreign policy handling was the highest since German surrender in 1945, even reaching 90 percent support.
Bush advocated against cuts to the military budget, believing that it would “risk the peace,” while also advocating for American membership in NATO, which he called “the greatest peace-keeping organization ever made.” His balance between careful restraint and righteous indignation demonstrated both sides of a man who believed in the ideals of American greatness, democracy, and self-governance in a world with America as its sole power. He acknowledged what he believed in the closing statement of the 1992 debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, saying that his “philosophical underpinning” is “democracy and freedom,” saying that “the Cold War is over. The Soviet Union is no more, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the Baltics are free.”
Although experience in war has an impact on the way presidents think about war and peace, their personal service is minimal in regards to any change it has on their decisions. However, values and ideals from wars, especially from a “good war” like World War II always hold significant weight in regards to decisions around war and peace, being bolstered by ideals such as liberty, freedom, democracy, self-determination, and opposition to tyranny. Whether they be Eisenhower’s lessons about preserving both life and peace, Nixon’s lessons about avoiding wasting American lives unnecessarily, or Bush’s lesson about balancing restraint and intervention for just causes, World War II and those who fought in it have had profound impacts on American foreign policy. For leaders around the world who follow in the footsteps of these men, all of whom sacrificed a great deal of their lives fighting or ideals they believed in, these men’s lessons and lessons from World War II are strong ones to follow. As the United States continues with its relations with other countries, how will the ideals of World War II continue to impact diplomatic decision-making, and how long will they continue to do so in a rapidly-changing world, brewing with conflict?
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Bush, George H.W. “Radio Address to the Nation on the Persian Gulf Crisis,” 5 January 1991.
Crabb, Cecil and Mulcahy, Kevin. “George Bush’s Management Style and Operation Desert Storm,” Presidential Studies Quarterly, 25, No. 2, Spring 1995: 251-265.
Engel, Jeffrey A. When the World Seemed New: George H.W. Bush and the End of the Cold War. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2017.
Fontaine, Richard. “American Foreign Policy Could Use More Prudence,” The Atlantic, 3 December 2018.
“George HW Bush recounts harrowing plane crash,” CNN, 1 December 2018.
“Presidential Debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot,” 11 October 1992.
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