Forty Years Ago At the Democratic Convention: Democrats, War and Intervention

Democrats have been more rhetorically anti-war than actually so


In 1972, Democrats nominated South Dakota Senator George McGovern for president. Though the war in Afghanistan is America's "longest war," American intervention in Vietnam predated the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident commonly used to mark the beginning of the "Vietnam War," known as the American war in Vietnam. George McGovern opposed that war, saying at the 1972 convention in Miami Beach:

This is the time for truth, not falsehood. In a Democratic nation, no one likes to say that his inspiration came from secret arrangements by closed doors, but in the sense that is how my candidacy began. I am here as your candidate tonight in large part because during four administrations of both parties, a terrible war has been chartered behind closed doors.

I want those doors opened and I want that war closed. And I make these pledges above all others: the doors of government will be opened, and that war will be closed.

McGovern promised that if he won (he lost, spectacularly, to Richard Nixon, who felt the need to try to cheat to win that election anyway), he'd stick to principles, quoting one of America's first modern interventionists, President Woodrow Wilson. Said McGovern:

Let us say to Americans, as Woodrow Wilson said in his first campaign of 1912, "Let me inside the government and I will tell you what is going on there."

Wilson believed, and I believe, that the destiny of America is always safer in the hands of the people then in the conference rooms of any elite.

Woodrow Wilson, yikes. The next Democrat nominated for president, in 1976, was Jimmy Carter. He served as president for four years and boasts that under his administration "we never dropped a bomb, we never fired a bullet, we never went to war". After Iranian Islamists seized the American Embassy in Tehran, the U.S. did crash a helicopter there in a failed rescue mission though. In nearby Afghanistan, in the meantime, Jimmy Carter secretly ordered aid to the Taliban in July 1979, six months before the Soviets invaded. Carter's national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski defended the decision to support the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in a 1998 interview:

That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter: We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war…  What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?

Jimmy Carter may be a self-proclaimed pacifist but his foreign policy was hardly non-interventionist. Carter became a pronounced critic of U.S. foreign policy during the administration of George W. Bush. He took to the New York Times op-ed page in June to argue that "the great escalation in drone attacks has turned aggrieved families toward terrorist organizations, aroused civilian populations against us and permitted repressive governments to cite such actions to justify their own despotic behavior," but failed to mention fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Barack Obama, responsible for those policies, by name once.

In 2008, Barack Obama campaigned on the fact he opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning, something some of his fellow Democratic presidential hopefuls couldn't say themselves. He called Afghanistan the "good war" in 2008 but barely references this time around. The Democratic Convention has been heavy on veterans of America's 21st century land wars but light on policy, except for taking credit for ending the war in Iraq. And since Bill Clinton's speech Wednesday night put Democrats into a 90s kind of mood, here's a reminder that even before Obama interventionist foreign policy was a bipartisan project: