The Democrats have apparently decided to make an issue out of President Bush’s military service during the Vietnam war. Over the past twenty-four hours or so, Terry McAuliffe, Max Cleland and John Kerry have all raised the subject, and the Democratic press is salivating.
The essential facts are not in dispute: George Bush joined the Texas Air National Guard in 1968, when members of that unit were serving in Vietnam. He trained as a fighter pilot, and was regarded as highly skilled by his instructors. He served the equivalent of 21 months of active duty. (A typical draftee of the time, as I recall, served 24 months.) Bush was never sent to Vietnam, and in 1973 he was honorably discharged, whereupon he left Texas to attend Harvard Business School. The basic facts about President Bush’s service are here.
The Democrats don’t quarrel with any of this; their charge is that, for the period from May 1972 to May 1973, when Bush was in Alabama participating in a political campaign, there is no record of his attending any National Guard meetings. Bush has said that he did miss some meetings in Alabama, but made them up when he returned to Texas, which is permitted. And there are records of his ongoing National Guard activity after he moved back to Texas in May 1973, although he stopped flying in 1972.
What I want to emphasize is a very fundamental point which, for some reason, has been absent from the discussions of this issue that I have seen. The Democrats would have voters believe that while John Kerry was risking his life in Vietnam, George Bush was skipping Guard meetings in Alabama. But note the chronology: The peak of American involvement in Vietnam was in 1968 and 1969. It was in those years that Kerry piloted a boat on the Mekong River. At that time, Bush, who is 2 1/2 years younger than Kerry, was training to be a fighter pilot, and could reasonably have expected to be posted to Vietnam at some future point.
But the war was soon to wind down. Richard Nixon was elected in November 1968 on a pledge to end the war. In April 1969, John Kerry left Vietnam. By August 1969, peace talks with the North Vietnamese had begun. By late 1969, troop levels in Vietnam were declining.
In April 1970, President Nixon announced the withdrawal of another 150,000 soldiers. By the end of 1970, American troop levels had declined to one-half their peak level. By May 1972, when Bush moved from Texas to Alabama and his attendance at National Guard training became spotty, troop levels were down to barely more than one-tenth of their peak. In January 1973, President Nixon announced a peace agreement with North Vietnam, and in March 1973, while Bush was working on the Alabama campaign, the last American soldier left Vietnam.
I have no doubt that by the time President Bush moved from Texas to Alabama, he was playing out the string in terms of his National Guard commitment. At that point, it was obvious that he wasn’t going to Vietnam. Demobilization was the order of the day. At the time when the Democrats allege that Bush was “AWOL” and a “deserter,” his involvement in the Air National Guard was indeed winding down, for a good reason: the war was over. But he finished out his commitment and was honorably discharged.
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