With political conventions in the news, we might reflect on the New Orleans gathering of Republicans in 1988. Nominated at last for the presidency, George Herbert Walker Bush fought for his political life in his acceptance speech.
He began there to turn around his political fortunes. He came to New Orleans seventeen points behind Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, the Democratic candidate for president. Bush spoke lyrically of America’s voluntary associations as “a thousand points of light.” And he promised, fatefully and all too memorably, never to raise taxes. “Read my lips,” he said he would tell Democrats in Congress, “no new taxes.”
We know how that political promise turned out. Still, it was in his New Orleans address that he began his march to a 40-state victory the following November.
What might be considered interesting in an historic perspective is what he did not pledge to do. For a candidate considered strongest in foreign policy, then-Vice President Bush did not say he would seek to reunite Germany. He did not assure Americans that the reunification of Germany would be achieved on his watch with no bloodshed, with NATO allies Britain and France agreeing, albeit warily, to go along. He did not suggest that the world’s other Super Power, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), would grudgingly accept the idea of one Germany, democratic, peaceful, but fully incorporated into NATO.
If George H.W. Bush had promised such a stunning outcome, Americans and the world would have thought he’d lost that famous Bush virtue—prudence. And yet that is exactly what did happen in Bush’s one-term presidency.
Germany’s Ambassador to the United States, Klaus Sharioth noted in a speech to a Heritage Foundation audience in 2009 that Americans had sent sixty million of their uniformed sons and daughters to his country from 1945 through 1990. This unheralded act of magnanimity continued through Democratic and Republican administrations.
This outpouring of generosity from one nation in defense of another had never been seen before, Germany’s envoy stated. He thanked his audience for their nation’s help. Ambassador Sharioth’s moving statement stirred his hearers, so unused are we Americans to such eloquent expressions of gratitude.
If Churchill was correct to call Lend Lease “the most unsordid act” in history, then U.S. support for German freedom in the decades following World War II surely ranks second.
In truth, Britain’s “Iron Lady,” Mrs. Thatcher, and France’s wily Socialist president, Francois Mitterrand, were less than enthusiastic about a united Germany. Both leaders had their reasons. Both nations had been deeply scarred by their World War II experience of German power and aggression. In the new era, however, it was a united Germany’s economic clout that gave its neighbors cause for pause.
In Rome, a Polish Pope was uncharacteristically quiet about a reunited Germany. Poland had suffered perhaps more than any other nation from Germany’s brutality in Hitler’s war.
The only world leader clearly excited by George H.W. Bush’s strong support of one Germany was the man at the center of the drama, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. He had staked his entire political career on reunification. To accomplish this goal peacefully would give him just claim to stand above Bismarck in the ranks of German statesmen.
President Bush’s reasoning for his support of one Germany was simple. For forty-five years the United States had given its word that we sought a peaceful, democratic, and self-governing Germany. Now, at this historic juncture, how could we not back the Germans’ quest?
Bush 41 was not in Cleveland last week. He and his son, Bush 43, were two of the prominent No Shows at this year’s Republican National Convention. At 90, the senior Bush’s health might have precluded his attendance even if political differences had not.
The increasingly frail 41st President of the United States surely deserves a Nobel Prize for Peace for his enlightened and, yes, prudent diplomacy in a dangerous era. Not only did he guide the world toward German reunification, he carefully avoided “dancing on the Berlin Wall.” Had he not resisted calls to spike the ball in the end zone, we might have seen the death throes of an evil empire take a far more violent turn.
While I continue to express sharp criticisms of the broader foreign policy legacies of Bush 41 and Bush 43, I am happy to acknowledge that on this one, the senior Bush was right, and many of us Reagan administration alumni were wrong.
Germany’s conduct since reunification in 1990 has been a model of peace and justice. Americans can be proud of our part in bringing this about. And we can express our appreciation by nominating George H.W. Bush for a Nobel Prize for Peace.
I do so move.
Robert Morrison is a former Reagan official and senior fellow at the Family Research Council who blogs from Annapolis.
Photo Credit: President George H. W. Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev hold a press conference at the Helsinki Summit, Finland on September 9, 1990. George Bush Presidential Library, via Wikimedia Commons.