Ask Auntie Pinko
May 12, 2005
By Auntie Pinko
How did Democrats get a reputation for being weak on defense?
I am old enough to remember Democrat Scoop Jackson being acknowledged
as the Senate's military expert, as was Sam Nunn in his time. It
was FDR and Harry Truman who guided us through World War II and
the Korean War. JFK and Lyndon Johnson got us into Viet Nam. It
soon became obvious that that was ill-advised, but at least you
can't say they were gun-shy. There are at least as many armed forces
veterans among Democratic office holders as Republicans.
Yet, polls show Republicans score higher on national defense
and security issues. This notion is so ingrained in the American
public that John Kerry, a documented war hero with a history of
supporting defense budgets, lost to a shirker like George Bush.
It's a mystery, isn't it? I think there are three things at work,
here. The first one is the leadership by many anti-war Democrats
in the effort to bring America out of military involvement in Vietnam
in the late '60s and early '70s. Although it was Democratic Presidential
administrations who played the largest role in promoting that involvement,
initially, once the magnitude of the logistical, moral, and foreign
policy error became clear it was also Democrats who took the lead
in remedying the situation.
There was a strong die-hard faction among both Democrats and Republicans
against ending America's military involvement in Vietnam, right
up to the end. Many are still angry about what they saw as a badly
bungled effort made worse by a thoughtless and humiliating withdrawal.
Some contend that it was efforts on the part of (largely Democratic)
elected officials to second-guess and overrule the military commanders
that prevented American intervention from being effective in establishing
a non-communist regime and defeating the Viet Cong movement.
Auntie could write many pages on my personal opinions about Vietnam,
but I recommend instead that you see a book by Barbara Tuchman,
The March of Folly, for a well-reasoned analysis of the situation.
In any case, the whys and wherefores of how America came to be
involved in Vietnam are not that relevant to the question of why
Democrats are portrayed as "weak on defense." Back in the early
1960s both Parties had large and influential contingents of anti-communist
"hawks" who tended to agree, rather than disagree, on the broad
issues of defense policy. It was only the decision to end American
military intervention in Vietnam that produced a real difference
in perception, even though many Democrats still favored continued
attempts to resolve the situation militarily.
The second factor has emerged in the post-Vietnam era, and is
reflected in each Party's positions on how and when America's military
force should be a factor in foreign policy and international affairs.
In other words, what constitutes "defense," and what are we "defending"
against? What makes the difference in deciding when and where to
As can be seen from the very nearly unanimous decision to move
military force into Afghanistan and make it untenable as a base
for already-established al-qaida forces, Democrats have no hesitation
in applying military force when a clear and present threat of military,
paramilitary, or terrorist violence menaces America. However, Democrats
have historically been more reluctant to use America's military
force to advance the economic interests of American corporations,
and less reluctant to deploy American force as part of international
efforts to prevent humanitarian catastrophes.
Finally, and perhaps most relevantly, the factor of defense spending
and its role in the American budget has often been used to portray
Democrats as "weak on defense." Democrats who question huge expenditures
to wealthy defense contractors can expect to find themselves targeted
by extremely well-funded and well-organized efforts to undermine
While no Democrat would deny the resources needed to maintain the
safety and effectiveness of American troops, legitimate differences
of opinion about what really is necessary have been exploited by
powerful corporate interests. In conjunction with the other factors
mentioned, this has made a powerful, if deceptive, case to the American
It's an important question for Democrats to ponder as we move
into the next election cycles, Rich, and I'm glad you asked Auntie
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