Failure in Vietnam and the Rise of “Reagan”
How did the failure of the US in the Vietnam War fuel the rise of Ronald Reagan and his kind of conservatism? That failure fueled Reagan’s rise to power because that failure wasn’t perceived as a failure of the underlying political paradigm. According to that paradigm, call it “political realism,” power in the form of advanced technology and managerial skills will enable the US to control the world, both at home and abroad. As Prouty has put it, the US created “a great machine” in the guise of the Department of Defense, the CIA, NSA, and DIA, armed with the most advanced weapons and entrusted it to people educated in our elite institutions to be its managers.
Insofar as the US failed in Vietnam but didn’t see that failure as attributable to our politics of realism, then Reagan – or any other politician, conservative or liberal – could claim that our national security state, our “great machine,” needed strengthening, not dismantling. Which is of course what has happened.
In a way, Reagan et. al. turned Eisenhower’s warning about “the military-industrial complex” on its head. For Reagan et. al., it wasn’t the complex that was dangerous; it was the incompleteness of the complex that was dangerous. For Reagan, the military-industrial complex was the key to US survival and hegemony, and should therefore be embraced, fortified, and extended as far as possible. Reagan’s “conservatism” and Eisenhower’s represent two very different kinds of political regimes, with Reagan’s being imperialistic and Ike’s being, at least dimly, republican. Reagan’s conservatism points toward endless wars, wars that need not be won to serve their purposes, while Eisenhower’s conservatism points toward “a crusade for peace.”
That both Kennedy and Nixon ran against Eisenhower in the 1960 presidential election illustrates just how “unrealistic” Eisenhower’s politics seemed then – and seem now.
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