For all the great things that George H.W. Bush accomplished during his presidency, there’s at least one historian who thinks not so much: Northwestern University history Professor Michael Sherry.
Sherry’s willfully blind assessment of the Bush’s great four years in the White House amounted to condemnation by faint praise. Two sources (here and here) sum up in identical language Sherry’s flawed perspective before Bush died:
While his administration had noteworthy moments, from sending troops to capture Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega early in his presidency to joining with Russian President Boris Yeltsin to announce the conclusion of the Cold War, overall the one-term Bush presidency left an “indistinct mark on America,” according to Northwestern history Professor Michael Sherry, who wrote that “except for the 100-hour Gulf War, it featured no grand event, great speech, dismaying scandal, ideological crusade, or decisive political turn.” [Emphasis is mine.]
Sherry weaves a similar fantasy in his American Scholar review of William E. Leuchtenburg’s book TIn the Shadow of War: The United States Since the 1930s. Sherry observed that Bush took a cautious approach that reinforced America’s militaristic culture. He continued:
Such caution reflected and reinforced the often joyless and uncertain response of Americans to the Cold War’s end. An apparently triumphal end to this titanic struggle might have seemed bound to unleash patriotism, self-satisfaction….Yet no sustained euphoria seemed to connect the dots of these discrete moment,” he wrote. [Emphasis is mine.]
A “joyless and uncertain response?” Wrong. Maybe in academia, where the left holds sway, the end of the Cold War elicited a” joyless and uncertain response.” But for the rest of us, it ended almost 50 years of unnerving and numbing fear that all of civilization could be wiped out by mutually assured destruction–well illustrated by the black satire film, Dr. Strangelove.
For those who lived through those terrifying days, the end of the Cold War was an event of historic proportions. The Cold War was indeed a war, fought on so many fronts in so many different ways and every bit as consequential to our national survival as was World War II. The threat was ever present, as reminders came every day in the newspaper as the murderous Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s finger hovered close to the Red Button. And in the presence in Chicago of Nike anti-air missiles on the lakefront and in forest preserves in the vain hope that they could shot down Soviet bombers.
Sure, it wasn’t like Times Square when World War II ended. The Cold War slowly died, without hats and horns, as the Soviet Union croaked in stages from the inherent flaws of socialism and Ronald Reagan’s military spending that the Kremlin couldn’t match.
But to suggest that Bush’s contribution to ending the Cold War was minimal and merely noteworthy is like saying the President Harry S Truman’s contribution to ending World War II was incidental. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world faced an uncertain future–fear of a united Germany, fear of stability in the newly freed Eastern Bloc nations, fear of what would replace communism in Russia–the latter it turned out decades later to be a truly fearsome possibility. Bush successfully worked to ensure stability and the widespread extension of democracy.
Here’s History.com’s narrative about Bush’s role in ending the Cold War, if you care to judge for yourself.
To pooh-pooh or to ignore Bush’s other significant and lifelong achievements– including his World War II military service under fire–is to allow partisanship and ideology arrogantly blind yourself to facts. I’m not an apologist for Bush (I voted for his opponent, Michael Dukakis) and I certainly acknowledge Bush’s mistakes. But damning him with faint praise is flawed scholarship.
To suggest that Bush’s achievements are merely ho-hum is ignorant when you look at the positive reaction to his quick and victorious end to the Persian Gulf War to free Iraq-occupied Kuwait. For example, check out the effusive praise on the House floor of Democratic House Speaker Thomas S. Foley and the unanimous acclaim he received for that triumph..
Bush clearly didn’t deserve the left’s wide-spread mockery during his presidency that apparently continues to live today in the minds of some academics and liberals. The end of the Cold War was a world, epic-making occasion that overshadowed many of the achievements of other modern-day presidents.
Not the least of his historic contributions was the example of his decency, bipartisanship and optimism–items in short surprise in these days as entire generations grow up believing that none of those virtues are possible.
My vote against him as president was clearly a mistake.