Two Tales of Texans:
LBJ, George W. Bush, and the Lone Star Wars
Two presidents from Texas,
two long and bitter wars, what I have called the Lone Star wars after the
nickname for the state of Texas. There are important similarities in the
mistakes made in the Vietnam
and Iraq Wars, mistakes caused by significant defects in the predominant way of
thinking of American foreign policy makers.
Perhaps it is no accident that both these wars were undertaken during
presidencies of men from Texas,
since these characteristic flawed ideological views are more widely and deeply
embedded in Texan political culture than in the rest of the country. This article will only skim the surface of
the profound issues raised by the Vietnam
and Iraq Wars for the U.S.
and the global system. It will paint in
very broad strokes the myths and stereotypes of Texas,
what in the language of the postmodernists might be called some of the “grand
narratives” of Texas politics and
history, rather than analyze deeply the more complicated realities and finer
points of one of the largest and most diverse states in the union. Data on the continuing regional conflict that
politics will also be presented and analyzed.
This article cannot capture the complex
careers of Lyndon Johnson or George W. Bush or the intricate inner workings of
the Johnson and Bush presidencies.
However, there are important generalizations that can be made about the Vietnam
and Iraq wars,
the Johnson and Bush presidencies, and the world view of Texans which I will
argue crystallize key aspects of American foreign policy.
This paper will not cover the first
Iraq War fought by the first President Bush, even though he was also a war
president from Texas. The first Iraq War was qualitatively
different from the second. Because it
was over quickly it was not so costly in blood, treasure, or to the U.S.
position in the world. In fact, it was
widely supported not only by American allies but by most of the nations of the
world, including most Muslim nations, and endorsed by the UN. The decision making was not reckless; in
fact, the decision not to continue on into Baghdad
after the liberation of Kuwait,
so fiercely criticized by conservatives in the 1990s, seems so much wiser
Tall Tales of Texas
joined the union in 1959, Texas
was the largest American state. Texas
has always had a reputation of being a larger, brasher version of America,
of highlighting what is uniquely American, from the 19th century cowboy to the
20th century oil baron. Texas
has a very unusual history for an American state. It was once part of Mexico,
it was once an independent nation, and it was once part of the rebellious
Southern states. The “lone star” on the Texas
flag symbolizes the Texas spirit
of independence, a sense of Texas
exceptionalism that parallels the creed of American exceptionalism.
In this section I will introduce three
icons of Texas culture and
briefly discuss how they symbolize key components of the Texas
heritage that have not only shaped Texas
politics and Texan political leaders but also reflect elements of a
characteristic American view of the world:
1. the cowboy, 2. the oil baron, and 3. the Baptist believer.
The cowboy is a symbol of American
independence and individualism recognized around the world. From movie panoramas of the Wild West, to the
macho cowboy on a horse enjoying a smoke in the great outdoors in cigarette
commercials, to cowboy hats as an instant symbol of wealth and independence,
Hollywood and Madison Avenue have projected across the globe the image of the
lone courageous man or an ad hoc band of men with guns bringing justice to a lawless
frontier. This is largely a myth about
the settlement of the West, which actually spread more from river or railroad
towns outward rather than through random isolated ranchers or homesteaders. Cowboys were never a significant part of the
western population, and play no important role in today’s urbanized, industrialized
However, the mythology of the cowboy
does have a grain of truth. The cowboy
plays such a large role in American legend because he symbolizes how Americans
want to see themselves, as free rugged individuals unbound by legal systems or
social customs. Unfortunately, the
cowboy image also captures the unilateralist, lawless elements of U.S.
foreign policy—the desire of many U.S.
foreign policy elites, and particularly Texan presidents, to be able to act
free of restraints of law and convention, just like a cowboy out on the range,
beyond the reach of society.
The oil baron is another Texas
icon—rich, ruthless, and reckless. Texas
has the richest oil deposits in the U.S.
It is the Saudi Arabia of U.S. states,
although its wells are starting to run dry.
While Texas is not as
completely dependent on oil as Saudi Arabia,
roughly one quarter of the state’s revenue comes directly from the oil business
and much of the state’s economy is lubricated by oil. Both Presidents Bush started their careers in
the oil business.
Of course, few Texans own oil wells. Not that many are even employed in the
industry, which is highly capital intensive.
But the oil industry has had its impact on the character of the Texas
elite. The oil business is high risk,
high reward. Most oil drilling ends in
complete failure, in empty holes in the ground.
Oil men are always seeking new reserves to exploit. They are high stakes gamblers, who have to be
unafraid to take big risks. Perhaps
these are not the traits most advisable for the man who decides whether to take
the most powerful nation on earth to war.
A final cultural stereotype associated
with the U.S. South generally, but particularly with Texas,
is the Baptist true believer. The 19th
century traveling tent show preacher who denounced public school teachers who “blasphemed”
that monkeys are our ancestors also taught that white Americans had a Manifest
Destiny to rule all of North America and all the lesser
non-white races therein. The new, slick
21st century megachurch media maven, with thousands of members and
hundreds of thousands in book sales and/or television viewers not only espouses
“creation science” and the subordination of women to men, but also that the
United States is the nation chosen by God to set the world on a righteous
No longer do many fundamentalist
preachers teach that white skin ordains one race to rule another, but most still
do teach that cowboy country is God’s Chosen nation, the new Promised Land,
even the new Israel. Many churches implicitly or even explicitly
teach a kind of 21st century Protestant election, that capitalism is
God’s economics. Individuals and nations
who follow its rules have God’s blessings to prosper and rule the world, while
the poor, benighted fools who do not must be forcibly shown the way.
That these new doctrines of election and
salvation select essentially the same people and nations for top dogs and
subordination as the old racist doctrines is rarely commented upon. Many of these fundamentalist preachers and
their followers also believe that God will lead the U.S.
to victory in Armageddon, a cataclysmic global nuclear war in which God finally
Of course, most Texans’ daily lives
are more shaped by 21st century consumerism than by biblical
precepts. Texans, like most Americans,
spend more time at the mall than at church.
And most churches in Texas
do not teach that God is seeking nuclear war.
But the grain of truth is the widespread belief throughout the U.S.,
but even more explicitly and firmly held in Texas,
that God is on our side, that U.S.
foreign policy is literally a crusade, and that the U.S.
has a literally divine mission to “save” the world. A more secularized version of this myth is
even more widespread throughout America,
where liberalism, democracy, and capitalism replace Christianity as a kind of
civil religion, an ideology that justifies America’s
special role in world history.
Many experts on the origins of the U.S.
view of itself and the world have noted the recurring theme of the U.S.
as the “promised land” in American Christianity. However others have argued that the doctrine
that has driven U.S.
foreign policy since U.S.
entry into World War I under President Wilson, that the U.S.
has a special, divinely sanctioned role to play in reordering global politics, actually
casts the U.S.
as the “Christ nation,” literally savior of the world. (Gamble) In other words, U.S.
foreign policy suffers from a kind of “Messiah complex.” Take for example George W. Bush’s second
Inaugural Address, widely accepted as the most important speech of his
forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom…Not because
we consider ourselves a chosen nation; God moves and chooses as He wills. We
have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in
dark places, the longing of the soul. When our Founders declared a new order of
the ages; when soldiers died in wave upon wave for a union based on liberty;
when citizens marched in peaceful outrage under the banner "Freedom
Now" - they were acting on an ancient hope that is meant to be fulfilled.
History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible
direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty.
America, in this young century, proclaims
liberty throughout all the world, and to all the inhabitants thereof. (Bush)
Although at one point Bush explicitly
denies seeing the U.S.
as the “chosen nation” of God, the rest of the text shows a profound sense of
divine mission. President Bush clearly believes that “God moves and chooses” in
human history and the direction “He” chooses for “all the world” is American
Contrast this arrogant assertion that
“god is on our side” with John Kerry’s admonition in the 2004 campaign that the
preferable way to bring religion into politics is to “pray we are on God’s
Texas History: A Very
The stereotypes in the first part of
this paper are only a crude introduction to Texan exceptionalism. The history and politics of Texas
are actually quite complex and from the 1830s through the 1870s quite turbulent. This fascinating story is beyond my means to
tell in any detail, but the basic facts are well known.
was originally a province of Mexico. However, East Texas
was good cotton growing country, attractive to the plantation owners of the American
South. Yet Mexico
abolished slavery in 1829. White
Americans had been crossing over the border to set up cotton plantations in Texas,
and after 1829 they began agitating for independence, with the goal of joining
the U.S. Soon there were more white Americans than
Mexicans, and in 1836 Texas
declared itself an independent nation. Mexico
fought to hold on to its rebel province but Texas
gained de facto independence, although Mexico
continued to claim Texas as its
later petitioned to join the United States
and was granted statehood, which sparked the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848. The United
States won this war and essentially stole
the northern 40% of Mexico,
what today is the American southwest, the states of Texas,
New Mexico, Colorado,
Nevada, and California.
soon became unhappy in its new home however, when Republican Lincoln was
elected president promising to recognize no new slave states and upset the
historic balance between free and slave states in the U.S. Texas
was one of the 11 Confederate states that seceded from the U.S.
in 1861, which brought on the U.S. Civil War.
After the Civil War, Texas,
like all the defeated Southern states, was occupied by the Northern army and
forced not only to free its slaves, but to give political and social rights to
the freed slaves. Whites resisted
fiercely, forming paramilitary resistance groups, the best known being the Ku
Klux Klan. The North was finally forced
to end its occupation in 1877 and white supremacy and racial segregation were
established in Texas and
throughout the South.
During its move from Mexico
to the U.S.,
out of the U.S.,
and back in again, Texas was a
battlefield in three wars, first a war for its independence from Mexico,
a war between the U.S.
and Mexico over
its annexation, and then the U.S. Civil War.
Texas was forged in a crucible of fire, like many states born in war,
but also having its formative years defined by wars, and its first hundred plus
years defined by white domination of black and Latino, with violence and civil
strife just barely below the surface.
The political history of Texas
since the Civil War is another intriguing story which is beyond the scope of
this paper. For almost a century from the
end of Reconstruction in 1877 to the presidency of Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s,
Texas politics was overwhelmingly
controlled by a racist, chauvinistic Democratic Party, determined to keep
blacks and Latinos from political participation and the United
States on an expansionist, and later
militantly anti-communist path.
The Mexican-American War achieved the
long-held American goal of a continental territory spanning from the Atlantic
to the Pacific. However, many
Southerners, particularly Texans, were not completely satisfied that the United
States had yet achieved its true Manifest
Destiny. They had their eyes on Central
America, Caribbean islands, and even Mexico. Sam Houston, the first Governor of Texas and
the first United States Senator from the state, openly proclaimed his intention
to go after the rest of Mexico.
From the 1870s to the 1960s U.S.
military forces were sent to intervene in conflicts in Central
America and the Caribbean in dozens of
cases, perhaps as many as 100 times.
Actual territorial acquisitions were few—Puerto Rico,
the Panama Canal Zone, and virtual control of Cuba. But the Caribbean Sea
became known as an American lake and no government in Central
America survived long without America’s
blessing. Texas Democrats were leaders
in this expansion of American power.
Johnson, the Bush Family, and Texas Politics
The story of Lyndon Johnson embodies several
massive transitions in the Texas politics
and the national Democratic Party. LBJ
rose to power in a racist Texas Democratic Party and never once publicly or
privately broke ranks with his segregationist southern colleagues until he
began maneuvering for his presidential candidacy in 1960. Johnson failed to win the Democratic
nomination for president, but John Kennedy selected him as his running mate and
he became vice president in 1961.
However, in 1963 when Vice President Johnson was suddenly thrust to
power after Kennedy’s assassination, he abandoned his segregationist past and
staked his entire presidency on civil rights and voting rights for
African-Americans and expansive social welfare legislation that would transform
American politics, government, and race relations.
In the two whirlwind years of 1964 and
65 Johnson passed 1) enfranchisement of the majority of African-Americans who
still lived in the South, 2) a major expansion of the U.S. welfare state,
including new medical insurance programs for the poor and aged, the first national
aid to local education, and a wide range of new programs to help the poor, and 3)
the Vietnam War, a conflict that entangled U.S. forces for almost a
decade. These policies unleashed a set
of changes in the party system that are still felt today. The character of the Democratic Party was
forever altered, as it became the home of African-Americans grateful for
Johnson’s leadership in getting them the vote nationwide and ironically also
peace activist determined to stop Johnson’s war and prevent other similar
conflicts in the future. Meanwhile,
conservative southern whites, who had once been the base of the Democratic Party,
increasingly drifted to the Republicans.
One result of the Johnson legislative
blitz was that for the first time in U.S.
history African-Americans were effectively able to vote throughout the South,
ending centuries of white monopoly on political power. Latinos in Texas
and other Southwestern states gained similar advantage from Johnson’s
legislation. The vast majority of African-Americans
and a significant if lesser proportion of Latinos have come to vote
Democratic. The once all-white southern
Democratic Party is now a multi-ethnic coalition. However, many whites, dissatisfied with
sharing power, have over the years gravitated to the Republican alternative,
which although not officially segregated like the old Democratic Party, is
still overwhelmingly white, particularly in the South.
At the national level, while the
Republicans have been making dramatic gains in the South, the Democrats have
been making smaller gains among liberals in the rest of the country, but not
enough to match the Republicans. The
Republicans, once clearly the minority party, have caught up, and perhaps
surpassed the Democrats, who are no longer the majority party. With the migration of the southern conservative
wing of the Democratic Party to the Republicans and the liberal northeastern
wing of the Republican Party to the Democrats, the once ideologically diverse
parties are now almost purely polarized, with all the left forces on the
Democratic side and all the right forces on the Republican side, although
moderates remain in both parties. While
from the 1920s through the 1960s Republicans were more cautious about
supporting military interventions overseas, this is no longer the case.
The changes in Texas
politics are even more dramatic.
Democrats had once held a virtual political monopoly in Texas,
controlling the governor’s mansion and the state legislature for a century with
no serious opposition. But as
African-Americans and Latinos moved into the Democratic Party and larger
numbers of conservative whites moved to the Republicans, the Texas Republican
Party revived and eventually came to rule.
Texas is now a majority
Republican state, and was the training ground and launching pad for George W.
Bush’s presidential quest.
The effect of the changing party
system on the partisan balance in the Texas
state legislature is only a little more striking than in the average southern
1901 to 1959 Democrats held virtually every seat in the Texas state legislature. Republicans held no more than one Texas
Senate or two Texas House seats in any Texas legislature and except for one Populist elected in 1901 no
third parties were represented. When Republican
John Tower took Lyndon Johnson’s former Senate seat in 1962, he was
the first Republican to win a Texas-wide election in over 100 years. In 1966, after President Johnson pushed
through the civil rights and social reform legislation so unpopular in Texas, Republicans re-elected Tower as Texas Senator, elected
two Republicans to the U.S. House of Representatives, including George Bush,
Sr., and elected more members to the Texas legislature than any time in 90 years. Republican numbers
in the Texas legislature and the U.S. congressional delegation grew steadily in the 1970s-1990s. In
1978 Texas elected its first Republican governor in over 100
years. By 1986 Republicans won not only
the gubernatorial race, but more than 1/3 of the Texas House seats. By 1996 Republicans won a majority in the
Texas Senate to support Governor George W. Bush, who had been elected in 1994.
of Republican gains in Texas state politics culminated in 2002 when Republicans
solidified their hold as the majority party in Texas. They won all
statewide offices under contest, a majority in both the Texas House and Senate,
a majority of U.S. House seats, and continued to control both U.S. Senate
Just as the presidency of Lyndon
Johnson was a key trigger in this national and Texas
political realignment, so the Bush family was a central set of characters in
this drama. George Bush senior was a key
figure at the beginning of the Republican emergence and George W. Bush was a
key figure in the final attainment of a Republican majority in Texas
politics. In 1966, Bush the elder was
one of the first two Republicans elected to the U.S. House of Representatives
from Texas in 90 years, which
launched his national political career. But
as an elected Texas Republican the elder Bush was a very rare bird. By the time of Bush the younger’s
governorship and presidency the Republicans were decisively establishing
themselves as the majority party in Texas
politics. When Bush the elder joined the
national House of Representatives, he was part of a Republican minority which
would remain a minority for 40 consecutive years. In 2002 Bush the younger became the first
Republican president to govern with his party in control of both houses of
Congress in 50 years.
and Bush: Different Men, Different Presidencies
While Lyndon Johnson and George W.
Bush are both sons of Texas, on
the surface that seems to be just about all they have in common. The Bushes are a wealthy, powerful political
dynasty with roots in New England and the military-industrial complex, transplanted
into Texas oil, and joined by marriage with the Walker family (the W in George
W. Bush and George H. W. Bush stands for Walker), another wealthy dynasty tied
to the military-industrial complex. (Phillips)
Johnson, on the other hand, came from
a simple middle class family in the hill country. (Miller) The contrast between the patrician and the
commoner, the boy with a silver spoon in his mouth and the self-made man could
hardly be greater. Johnson got his
baptism in politics as a student leader at San Marcos Teacher’s College. George W. Bush’s began his political career
running for governor of Texas.
Michael Lind, a Texan himself, argues
that Johnson and Bush represent two different Texan political-economic
traditions. (Lind 2002) Johnson comes
from the modernist tradition, which
is eager to embrace
the Space Age and the Information Age…a high-tech state-capitalist economy, in
which government, business, and universities collaborate to promote innovation
in computer science, biotech, and other cutting-edge fields, and in which
public institutions supply needed investment capital, and expertise…a broadly
egalitarian meritocracy, not a traditional social order stratified by caste and
class. (Lind 2003)
On the other hand Bush represents a
a society with a
primitive extractive economy based on agriculture, livestock, petroleum, and
mining, whose poorly educated workers lack health protection and job safety. In
this Texas, low wages and inadequate spending on public goods like education
and pollution abatement are considered a source of comparative economic
advantage…a cruel caste society in which a cultivated but callous oligarchy of
rich white families (dominate). both the
elite and the majority in this Texas
share a profound social conservatism and an attachment to military values
unknown anywhere else in the English-speaking world, except in other Southern
states. (Lind 2003)
Certainly in domestic politics Johnson’s
and Bush’s visions were completely different.
Johnson was a product of the New Deal, a believer in government activism
to solve economic and social problems.
In his early presidency Johnson, going against his Texas
heritage, used his legendary legislative skills to procure passage of historic
civil rights bills that did more to heal the racial wounds of American society
than any president since Lincoln
freed the slaves. Johnson’s Great
Society was a second New Deal, the second greatest expansion of government
social programs in American history, creating government medical insurance for
the elderly and the poor, national aid to poor school districts, great food and
other assistance to those in poverty, and more.
Many blame Johnson for setting in motion large increases in government
spending, but his programs lifted millions out of poverty, provided health care
to millions who would otherwise not have had it, and improved the lives of
millions of poor people and middle class people experiencing temporary economic
hardship. While it has become popular to
criticize the expansion of government in Johnson’s time in the abstract, with a
few exceptions the actual programs created are still hugely popular with the
George W. Bush comes from a different
background and a different generation, and his domestic policies reflect that. His most important domestic priority has been
tax cuts, which have gone disproportionately to the wealthy. The tax cuts are also quite popular. However, compared to Johnson’s programs,
Bush’s impact on domestic policy has been small. He will be forever remembered for his
terrorism war, particularly the Iraq War.
Despite the differences in the men and
their domestic policies, both Johnson and Bush led the U.S.
into disastrous wars, wars of aggression that were not necessary and not right.
Vietnam and Iraq: Common Threads
There are certain common threads in
the Vietnam and
Iraq Wars. First of all, the reasons
given to the American public and the world for the wars do not fully explain
the decisions to go to war. It is not
just that both missions have failed to accomplish their goals. It is that the justifications for going to
war in the first place have proven to be gross and ultimately transparent
the U.S. was
ostensibly fighting to protect the freedom of the Vietnamese people and keep South
Vietnam from going communist. (Furer, Hunt) However, that is not the way the vast majority
of Vietnamese people saw the American presence.
had been fighting for its freedom from the Chinese, the French, the Japanese,
and the French again before the Americans stepped in as the last in a long line
of foreign forces trying to run Vietnam
from afar. It was actually the United
States that had insisted on the partition of
southern and northern zones after independence from France
in a vain attempt to rally minority anti-communist forces in the south. It was the United
States that blocked promised elections to
reunify the country because it knew the independence leader, Ho Chi Minh, who
was also a communist, would win. By the
forces began arriving in the hundreds of thousands, to the Vietnamese the U.S.
was just another in a long line of foreign occupying powers.
Similarly, while President Bush
portrays victory in the war in Iraq
as crucial to his terror war, each day the war drags on more terrorists are
created in Iraq
and the rest of the Muslim world. Saddam
Hussein was an evil and aggressive dictator, but he had been thoroughly
defeated and humiliated and stripped of his weapons of mass destruction after
the first Gulf War. Furthermore Saddam
was not likely to share what weapons he had with even Iraqi loyalists much less
independent Islamic militants he despised and who despised him and who Saddam
could not control.
So what does account for these
decisions to go to war? Any explanation
of major decisions of U.S.
foreign policy must begin with the brute fact that the United
States is the global hegemon and all its
major actions are driven by a desire to maintain its hegemonic position. The U.S.
has world-wide economic, political, and military interests that lead it to
intervene in all kinds of conflicts around the world. The U.S.
calculates its national interest on a global scale, regarding much of the world
as within its strategic domain. That is
the basic reality of U.S.
foreign policy at least since 1940.
However, the Vietnam
and Iraq Wars were massive miscalculations of U.S.
national self-interest, highly unadvisable uses of military force for a global
hegemon. The outcome of these conflicts
shows that neither war was a rational choice for furthering the project of
American hegemony. Furthermore, they
were errors in the same direction. More
than simple miscalculation led to the same kind of immense mistake being made
twice. It is not so much the fact of U.S.
intervention, which can be taken as “normal,” that needs to be explained, but
rather the same enormous error in judgment being repeated. So something more must be at work, something
more is needed to truly understand these tragic fiascoes.
One of the most common explanations
given for the Iraq
war is access to resources, namely oil.
No one can deny that the entire Middle East is a
strategic theater for the U.S.
and its allies. You don’t see large
numbers of U.S.
troops in Antarctica.
However, there are a couple of
problems with the simple “blood for oil” thesis. First of all, there are no such similar
resource riches in Vietnam. There are important resources in the
Southeast Asian region, but nothing like the oil in the Middle East. So access to resources is not as good an
explanation for the Vietnam War.
But more importantly, the Iraq War is
a mind-bogglingly costly way to secure oil.
war has already cost over $300 billion dollars, roughly half the annual GDP of
Korea, not to mention the almost 3,000 American lives and 20,000 wounded or
tens of thousands of Iraqi dead or the hundreds of thousands wounded, or the
millions terrorized. (National Priorities Project, Zfacts) The global price of crude
oil has jumped from less than $20 a barrel before talk of the Iraq
invasion began to spook the markets to the current range of $55-77 dollars a
barrel. (Department of Energy) If the Iraq War is an investment in oil, it
is the worst investment ever made.
Another common suspect to explain this
over-reliance on military force in both Vietnam
and Iraq would
be the military-industrial complex. Certainly one traditional explanation of the
recurrence of war in the capitalist era is the profitability of war for the
so-called “merchants of death.” And it
is certainly true that the U.S.
has a massive military-industrial complex.
spends almost as much on its military as the entire rest of the world combined.
Yet while the military-industrial
complex gives the U.S.
certain capabilities, it does not require presidents to use those
capabilities. Having capabilities is
like having tools. Certainly, when an
American president looks in his tool belt, he finds a lot of military tools and
few diplomatic tools. However, choosing
to enter a major war has high domestic and international political costs.
And the military-industrial complex
gets most of its profits from high tech weaponry, not simple ground wars. In the 21st century world, the artists
of the military-industrial complex have become true virtuosos. The war profiteers get their profits whether
there is war or not. A sense of foreign
threat and some low intensity conflicts are necessary to make the case for
weapons sales. But major wars like Iraq
or Vietnam are
not necessary for business anymore.
Senator William Fulbright, the author
of the Fulbright Scholarship program, was an early opponent of the Vietnam
War. He gave many speeches in which he
denounced American hubris in Vietnam
and eventually wrote a book entitled The
Arrogance of Power. Certainly
power has at times made the United States
arrogant and overconfident of its ability to shape events in far off lands with
ways of life beyond the ken of Washington or Wall Street. As conservatives are so fond of pointing out
about the domestic state, power corrupts and great power corrupts greatly.
In fact, it was to a large degree
successes that tempted the U.S.
to take the big risks it did in Vietnam
and Iraq. In the 1950s the U.S.
had successfully waged several low intensity counterinsurgency conflicts
against communist guerillas or populist revolutionaries, most notably in Iran,
and Guatemala. The U.S.
believed it was only applying tried and true methods of counterinsurgency when
it began its campaign against the Viet Cong after Vietnam
won its independence from France.
Similarly, it was the ease of victory
in the first war with Iraq coupled with the fall of the Soviet empire which led
the neoconservatives in the U.S. to believe that not only would Saddam’s regime
topple at the slightest push, but that the Americans would be welcomed as
liberators, that they would be perceived in Iraq much as they were viewed in
eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet empire.
So in both the case of Vietnam
and the case of Iraq
a series of recent successes left the U.S.
feeling virtually invincible. The Cuban
missile crisis or the events of September
11, 2001 which came before each war both would have seemed to have
shattered the American illusion of invincibility. However, subsequent behavior indicates these
events were both processed more like wounds to narcissistic pride than warnings
of the limits of American power. Failure
to heed warnings about the limits of one’s power and about the consequences of
one’s actions on others are classic signs of hubris.
No doubt American arrogance engendered
a carelessness and disregard of consequences that contributed to the mistakes
in Vietnam and Iraq. Yet arrogance alone does not seem to explain
errors of such magnitude, particularly mistakes that are so similar.
Is it simply a coincidence that America’s
two great elective wars in the past half century have been embarked upon by
presidents from Texas? It is worth exploring how Texan mythology
highlights elements in American national character and foreign policy thinking
that led Texan presidents into making the same poor policy choices. Let us return to the icons of Texan culture
to see if they shed light on the behavior of Presidents Johnson and Bush.
War is risky business, even if you are
a superpower. Exalted ideals can be
advanced or defended and great national advantage can be won in war. However, many lives are lost and enormous
sums of money are spent even if things go well, and if things do not go well
the cost in lives and treasure is exponentially greater.
Yet the Texas
oil baron is acculturated to taking big risks.
The Bush family has invested a fortune in oil and Lyndon Johnson,
although not an oil man, rose quickly to high office as a high stakes political
entrepreneur. Once in the White House
they were willing to gamble other people’s lives and treasure on the promises of
military victory and glory. High stakes
risk taking is not uniquely Texan, but it is perhaps more highly esteemed in
Texan culture than in the rest of the U.S.
Of course, the true believer,
convinced that God or the immutable forces of history are guiding his actions,
need not fear any worldly power. Driven
by self-righteousness, by a kind of Messiah complex, it has become U.S.
foreign policy doctrine that only American power can save the world, that in
the words of Bill Clinton, the U.S.
is the “indispensable nation.” Even
highly secularized politicians almost universally believe this special American
Presidents Bush and Johnson brought
from Texas politics an additional
belief that made the Messiah complex more deadly, a superstitious belief in
military power as the fetish that solves all foreign policy problems. During its move from Mexico
into, out of, and back into the U.S. Texas was the central battlefield in two
wars and a minor theater in another, first the war for its independence from Mexico,
second the war between the U.S.
and Mexico over
its annexation, and then the U.S. Civil War.
In their formative wars with Mexico Texans achieved their independence
and then their integration into the U.S.
by military force. Although Texans were
on the losing side in the U.S. Civil War, the use of paramilitary violence by
the Ku Klux Klan and others helped keep whites in absolute power in defiance of
the national government for almost another century. From its formative years up until the civil
rights movement and Vietnam War in the 1960s, the “lesson” Texans had learned
from their history was that war and violence works, especially when applied to
non-white people. The Messiah from Texas
is anything but the Prince of Peace.
Superstition is like religious faith
in that it cannot be contradicted by reason.
But superstition is unlike religious faith in that it makes an
unbreakable connection between belief and particular actions in the mundane
world. A faithful person can realize
that his actions are in error and change his beliefs about the relationship
between his faith and his actions in the world.
A superstitious belief cannot be contradicted by experience. It becomes a false idol which demands ever
greater sacrifices when it fails to produce results.
So for example, when the
neoconservatives in the Bush administration interpret the history of the
Vietnam War, they do not see the U.S.
on the wrong side of history and the will of the Vietnamese people. They see the failure of the U.S.
to apply enough military force early enough and long enough to achieve its
objectives. In this religion, the idol
of military force cannot fail. Failure
can only be explained by acolytes failing to sacrifice enough at his altar.
Those with the Messiah complex have a
simple picture of the world divided into good and evil. In the days of the Cold War the U.S.
was the leader of the “free world” and the Soviet bloc was the dominion of
godless communism. Such simple minded
Manichean dualities cloud the mind. Most
allies in the “free world” for most of the Cold War were military dictatorships
from South America through southern Europe,
and most of Asia, including South
Socialism was a major force in the liberation movements that ended
colonial rule of most of the world’s population. It was exactly this misunderstanding of the
nature of the liberation movement that contributed greatly to the American
miscalculation in Vietnam.
Similarly, George W. Bush sees an axis
of evil in the world. After 9/11 he
plainly spoke that nations were either with the U.S.
or against us. He has proclaimed a
doctrine of unilateral pre-emption that puts the U.S.
above international law, unbound by mere human institutions when it chooses to
go to war, like a divine power. And like
kings of old who claimed absolute divine power, George W. Bush has proven to be
quite humanly fallible.
Finally, the cowboy looms so large in
American mythology, not because cowboys were so important in building America,
but because that is how Americans like to imagine themselves, as rugged
individuals alone against nature, unbound by social convention. The recurrent theme of the cowboy movie, of
the lone independent gunman bringing order to the lawless range, captures much
of how America
wants to see itself in the world.
allies counseled against both the Vietnam
wars. In the case of Vietnam
it was almost unanimous, with former colonial power France
giving dire warnings and only Australia
and South Korea
sending their own forces to fight. In Iraq
after 9/11 there was marginally more support with roughly half of America’s
NATO allies eventually sending troops, although many have since withdrawn
them. But significantly, none of America’s
Islamic allies sent fighting forces. In
the case of Vietnam
the U.S. first
avoided the UN and then blocked UN consideration of the issue. The UN was deeply involved in Iraq
from the time it sanctioned the first Iraq
war, but it specifically rebuffed a U.S.
request to authorize a second Iraq
war. Cowboy country went ahead on its
flag has 50 stars symbolizing the 50 states.
The flag of Texas has a
single star, symbolizing that Texas
was once an independent nation. Texas
is nicknamed the Lone Star state, and since Texan presidents elected to invade Vietnam
and Iraq I have
chosen to call them the Lone Star wars.
The term Lone Star also symbolizes U.S.
unilateralism, the U.S.
acting as a lone cowboy in what it perceives as a lawless world, unbound by the
advice of friends and allies much less existing international law.
Red States, Blue States: The Geographic, Political, and Ideological Divide
Both the Vietnam
and Iraq wars
eventually proved quite divisive on the home front. In both cases, temporary unity of purpose
gave way to weariness with weekly casualty reports and impatience with
intractable foreign political chaos.
The ideological divisions over the
wars are expressed in geographical fault lines that match the overall patterns
of support for the political parties. A
southern-western axis, anchored by Texas,
often called the red states because that is the color used on TV election maps,
tended to support both the wars and these days the Republican Party. A bi-coastal axis, supplemented by Midwestern
isolationism, which TV designates the blue states, tended to oppose the wars
and these days tends to support the Democratic Party. If a mapping of the opposition in the U.S.
Senate to the resolution that gave President Bush the authority to go to war in
compared to the 2004 electoral vote map, the geographic pattern is quite
similar. President Bush and the war
resolution are supported in most of the West and the South, while opposition to
Bush and the war are both strongest in the Northeast, the upper Midwest
and the Pacific Coast.
These differences can be explained
somewhat by demographics. The antiwar
states are more urbanized. They have a
higher proportion of African-Americans, immigrants, and poor, all groups that
historically have been less likely to support adventurist foreign policies,
perhaps because they tend to bear most of the burden of fighting while getting
few if any benefits that come from victory.
There are regional economic factors at
work also. Coastal areas have ports and
economies that depend on trade, which can be upset by international
conflicts. While Midwestern farmers like
to sell their grain and meat abroad, they have strong isolationist tendencies,
historically not seeing what their stake is in the conflicts of Europe
Rural Southerners, on the other hand,
are historically more expansionist and militaristic. The old cotton culture quickly exhausted the
land and put a high premium on acquiring new land. Thus historically Southern politicians were
expansionist, lusting after territory in Mexico,
Central America, and the Caribbean. Controlling the slave population required
paramilitarization of Southern society and so military training was widespread
among white males. The Civil War
experience, when the South nearly won despite being badly outmanned and
outgunned because of its superior military training and tactics, further
ingrained a tradition of military service as a badge of honor in southern
While regional differences in views on
foreign policy could be reduced to demographics and economics, there is also an
autonomous ideological dimension.
Americans from all regions have a strong sense of the superiority of the
American way of life over other cultures and of America’s
mission to reform the world. The Messiah
complex runs deep across all regions. But
in the red states there is a greater enmity toward the rest of the world, a
greater sense that large parts of the rest of the world are implacably hostile
to the U.S.,
and irredeemably evil. The true faith
must be spread through the sword.
In the blue states the sense of
superiority tends to have a more cosmopolitan flavor. There is more confidence that the rest of the
world will eventually come around to the American model and thus Americans can
be more reconciled to differences as the inevitable process of Americanization
unfolds. The Messiah will win the hearts
and minds of the world through the superiority of his institutions and
life-style so there is less need for the sword.
on Resolution Authorizing the War in Iraq
Both Senators Against
One Senator Against
Both Senators For
George. “Inauguration 2005.” White House website.
of Energy. “Selected Crude Oil Spot Prices.” http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/international/crude1.html.
William. The Arrogance of Power. New York, Random House, 1967.
Howard. Lyndon Johnson. Dobbs Ferry, NY, Oceana Publications, 1971.
Richard. The War for Righteousnes. Wilmington, Delaware, ISI Books, 2003.
Michael. Lyndon Johnson’s War. New York, Hill and Wang, 1996.
Michael. “Deep in the Heart of Darkness.” Washington Monthly, Jan/Feb 2003.
Michael. Made in Texas. New York,
Basic Books, 2002.
Merle. Lyndon: An Oral Biography. New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1980.
Priorities Project. “Cost of War.” http://nationalpriorities.org/index.php?option=com_wrapper&Itemid=182.
Kevin. American Dynasty. New York, Penguin Books, 2004.
“Cost of Iraq War and Nation Building.” http://zfacts.com/p/447.html.
There are important similarities in the
mistakes made in the Vietnam
and Iraq Wars, mistakes caused by significant defects in the predominant way of
thinking of American foreign policy makers.
Perhaps it is no accident that both these wars were undertaken during
presidencies of men from Texas,
since these characteristic flawed ideological views are more widely and deeply
embedded in Texan political culture than in the rest of the country. This article paints in very broad strokes
some myths and stereotypes of Texas,
some “grand narratives” of Texan culture, analyzing the origin of these grand
narratives in Texas history and
politics. It briefly sketches the
backgrounds and presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush. Several theories are considered as the
fundamental causes of the mistakes in Vietnam
and Iraq. Finally, data on the regional conflict that
continues to polarize the U.S.
over the war and politics more generally is analyzed.
Keywords: Vietnam War, Iraq
War, Lyndon Johnson, George W. Bush, U.S.