Two startling facts keep coming back to me. The first is that every president from the election of Dwight Eisehower in 1952 to the end of George H.W. Bush’s term in 1992 drew on their experience as a World War II veteran in their election campaign. And the second is that no Vietnam War veteran has been president, and it’s now unlikely one ever will be.
There was conscription for both the Second World War and the Vietnam War, from 1940-73. All men between the age of 17 and 45 were liable to be obliged to serve in the military. In the Vietnam war more than 8.7 million Americans were conscripted. Every man could expect to serve, unless exempt through work in a war-related occupation, disability or education.
There have been two presidents who actively avoided the Vietnam draft and three major party candidates who were veterans, but lost. Two of them – John Kerry and John McCain – came to prominence as veterans. (Ronald Reagan served in the First Motion Picture Unit during WWII, but didn’t see active service).
The most stark example of this pattern was John Kerry vs George W. Bush in 2004. Kerry was a highly decorated veteran running for president at a time of war. Bush dodged the draft, serving in the Texas Air National Guard. Kerry commanded Swift boats, and was both wounded in action and awarded a Silver Star for bravery. In a direct choice between a war hero and a draft dodger, the American people chose the draft dodger.
Al Gore, although not widely recognised as a Vietnam veteran, missed out on the presidency to the younger Bush in 2000, in another direct race between a veteran and a draft dodger. Gore had served as a trooper, in part to support the reelection prospects of his father, then a Senator from Tennessee. Much of the speculation about Bush junior’s soft service placement focused on the influence of his father, then also a congressman. Of course, Gore won. But he never became president…
John McCain also plays a major part in this story. A US Navy air pilot, he was shot down over Hanoi and spent 5 and a half years in military detention in North Vietnam. He ran for the Republican nomination against Bush junior in 2000, and defeated Bush in the New Hampshire primary, before suffering serious skullduggery. In 2008, McCain secured the Republican nomination for president, eventually losing to Barack Obama – who was too young to have served in Vietnam, being 14 when the war ended.
The first president too young to have served in World War II was Bill Clinton. Clinton defeated the elder Bush in 1992 on the back of an economic slump and as part of a generational change. Interestingly Bush lost to another draft dodger despite having recorded the highest ever approval for a serving president in the wake of the Gulf War. Bush senior was shot down in the Pacific theatre during World War II and narrowly escaped death.
Clinton was of the right age to serve in Vietnam, but participated in the anti-war movement, and avoided the draft because he objected to the war. The generational change was, perhaps, overdue with Bush senior and Reagan among the oldest presidents to have served. Clinton was 22 years younger than Bush, and the age gap showed in the election. It showed even more in 1996 when Clinton defeated Bob Dole, another World War Two veteran.
As the Cold War had dramatically thawed during the Bush term, and as veterans became older, it was perhaps understandable that the need to have a president who had experienced war would seem less important. Having a president who wore Levi 501s and played the saxophone caught the mood of the early ‘90s.
Finally, Donald Trump dodged the Vietnam draft – his former lawyer Michael Cohen has said he made up an injury. Interestingly there is barely any attention paid to Joe Biden’s draft deferments. Despite being exactly the right age to serve in Vietnam, and receiving 5 deferments (four educational and one on health grounds) the focus on Biden’s war record has never played significantly in public, unlike Clinton, George W. Bush and Trump.
In five out of the seven elections since 1992, draft dodgers have become president. The other two were Obama’s victories, one against a Vietnam veteran, John McCain. And whoever wins, today will make it six out of eight.
In 1992, 1996 and 2000, the explanation is perhaps simple. The Cold War had come to an end. Superpower conflict had subsided. War records were largely unimportant. Though the smear campaign that John McCain was a North Vietnamese sleeper agent – a Manchurian candidate – who had been turned while in detention in Hanoi was an important, if bizarre, part of Bush’s primary victory. But this generational shift was from one where serving in World War II was a requirement, to one where having served in Vietnam was a liability for McCain and Kerry.
It seems odd that draft dodgers have had so much success in the post-9/11 world. In 2004, John Kerry’s war record was turned upside down by a group claiming to be “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth”, set up by the same two people who led the smear on McCain. They claimed that Kerry had lied about his record. This was untrue, but managed to turn a real strength into a weakness, resulting in a second term for the younger Bush.
Where Clinton was a principled objector to the Vietnam War, George W. Bush was the other sort of draft dodger: someone using his family’s social and political capital to avoid a war he had no problem with. Trump is another child of the wealthy who used his position to avoid serving. Despite his enthusiasm for American military prowess.
The McCain story doesn’t stop with his defeat by Obama. Draft dodger Donald Trump had a difficult relationship with him. And Trump’s immense popularity with the Republican core vote, and his difficulty with McCain, maybe tells us why no Vietnam veteran will be president.
Trump is notoriously reluctant to visit the graves of dead US soldiers, as detailed by the Atlantic. In 2018, he failed to complete a scheduled visit to the graves of marines who died at Belleau Wood in the first world war. He is reported to have asked “why are we going to that cemetery? …it’s full of losers.”
Belleau Wood is the site where the US Marine Corps stopped the German advance on Paris in 1918, helping turn the war. It is one of the most significant sites in US military history. Likewise, Trump claimed McCain was “not a war hero” because “I like people who weren’t captured.” He also referred to Bush senior as a “loser” because he had been shot down. He claimed that his own personal Vietnam was “trying to avoid catching a sexually transmitted disease”.
The failure in Vietnam casts a long shadow over American political life. In a country famed for military adulation the first clear defeat is obviously a significant milestone.
The extent, though, to which Vietnam veterans have failed – given the status of Kerry and McCain – in particular is notable. It suggests that while a World War II service record was a prerequisite for being president, having served in Vietnam, however courageously, is an opportunity for your opponent’s supporters to lie ruthlessly about you. Lies that can only work if the war in question is seen as unheroic, or a failure.
One more thing. This has all happened despite the fact that Vietnam was the Baby Boomers’ war, and every president since 1992 has been a boomer. It seems likely the next generational jump will skip to Millenials, missing out Generation X entirely.
If Democratic presidential contender Pete Buttigeg runs again in 2052, he will be younger at the age of 70 than Trump (74), Biden (77), Sanders (79) and Warren (71) are now. Of the 11 candidates to make it to the Democratic primaries, only two – Gabbard and Yang – were from Generation X. Neither was a serious contender.
Kamala Harris is (just) a Baby Boomer, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez is a Millennial.
As with Vietnam veterans, it seems likely that the generation whose youth was shaped by the zenith of neoliberalism will never take the White House.