In his State of the Union address, President Bill Clinton said
of the Cold War: "One of the greatest sources of our strength
throughout the Cold War was a bipartisan foreign policy. . . .
Because our future was at stake, politics stopped at the water's
What? Politics did not stop at the water's edge. That's where
politics truly heated up.
The bipartisan consensus on fighting the Cold War lasted
approximately from 1945 to 1965. The period of 1965 to 1989, it
seems absurd to have to remind people, was a period of profound and
bitter division over foreign policy.
The Republican Party remained committed to opposing communism.
That commitment took many forms. It meant support for a very strong
and technologically advanced American military. (The Democrats
decried spending for weapons "we don't need and that don't work.")
It meant support for the government of South Vietnam (which
Democrats opposed and which spelled Vietnam's doom). It meant
support for freedom-fighter movements around the globe - the
Contras in Nicaragua, the mujahadeen of Afghanistan and Jonas
Savimbi's forces in Angola.
Most of all, opposition to world communism meant a muscular and
firm antipathy to the Soviet Union and its interests.
Date it however you like (the Tet offensive of 1968?), but at a
certain point between 1965 and 1970, most of the Democratic Party
simply resigned from fighting the Cold War. There is no other way
to say it.
For the Democratic Party, the Vietnam War was not just an
unsuccessful or unfortunate move on the Cold War chessboard. It
marked instead a sea change in the way Democrats saw the United
States. For Democrats, Vietnam undermined the entire anti-communist
enterprise. The struggle for South Vietnam's freedom came to be
seen as pointless or, worse, an effort to impose America's corrupt
system abroad. And Democrats began viewing the Cold War in terms of
moral equivalence - merely two giants maneuvering for power.
Starting with the cutoff of aid to South Vietnam in 1974, the
Democratic Congress opposed nearly every significant Cold War
policy. Richard Perle, assistant secretary of defense during the
Reagan administration (and dubbed the "Prince of Darkness" by those
who preferred a softer line toward the Soviets), recalls that
during sensitive arms-control negotiations with the Soviet Union,
the Democrats in Congress were constantly undercutting the
administration's position by floating alternative policies of their