Vietnam, the Democrats and foreign policy

The conventional wisdom, both in the blogosphere and in Washington, is that although the Democrats were right about Vietnam, their anti-war advocacy destroyed their credibility on foreign policy, allowing the Republicans to take the mantle of national security. The lesson is supposedly clear that current Democrats should not be too aggressive in an antiwar stance.

So let me ask a naive question: is this really true? How do we know?

I can offer a counter-story. It wasn’t Vietnam that destroyed the Democrats’ credibility: it was Jimmy Carter. For 444 days, American hostages sat in what used to be the US Embassy in Tehran, and the United States did nothing. In the meantime, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and the President appeared shocked that “Brezhnev lied to me.” Then Iran released the hostages on Reagan’s first day in office, creating the impression (perhaps true, perhaps not) that his bellicose statements had cowed the mullahs, and then he invaded Grenada. Altogether, this gave the public the idea that the GOP would do what needed to be done to protect America, and the Democrats wouldn’t.

So on this accounting, Vietnam had nothing to do with it.

I don’t know if the counter-story is true. But it’s certainly plausible, and we should be able to do better than just to throw around ex cathedra statements about why the public takes certain views of the parties’ foreign policy. What evidence is there to believe the current conventional wisdom?

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.