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Ask Auntie Pinko

May 12, 2005
By Auntie Pinko

Dear 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.

What gives?

Sayville, NY

Dear Rich,

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 deploy troops?

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 their effectiveness.

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 people.

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 Pinko!

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