Six US presidents served overseas during World War II, but none since President George H.W. Bush have gone abroad, if they served at all. At this point, we might get a President who served in Afghanistan or Iraq — that’s South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard or Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton — but it’s almost certain the US will never have a commander-in-chief who served in Vietnam.
It has had three, including Trump, who found a way around the draft. That’s old news, but it doesn’t mean Trump won’t still have to answer questions about it, as he did in Wednesday’s interview with the British journalist Piers Morgan, who asked him if he would have liked to have served.
The interview was conducted in the underground bunker where Winston Churchill led the British government during the Blitz and World War II.
“Do you wish you’d been able to serve? Would you have liked to serve your country?” Morgan asked.
Trump replied by questioning Vietnam, mirroring some of the anti-war sentiment of the ’60s and ’70s.
“Well I was never a fan of that war. I’ll be honest with you. I thought it was a terrible war. I thought it was very far away. Nobody ever — you’re talking about Vietnam at that time and nobody ever heard of the country,” Trump said, adding the non sequitur that, today, the government of Vietnam has been successful negotiating in global trade.
He went on to say that he wasn’t active in protesting the war as a young man, but he didn’t think the US should ever have taken part.
“But, uh, nobody heard of Vietnam and then say well what are we doing. So many people dying. So I was never a fan of — this isn’t like I’m fighting against Nazi Germany. I’m fighting — we’re fighting against Hitler. And I was like a lot of people. Now I wasn’t out in the streets marching. I wasn’t saying, you know, I’m going to move to Canada, which a lot of people did. But no, I was not a fan of that war. That war was not something that we should have been involved in.”
Making up for lack of service with spending
When Morgan followed up, Trump said he’s making up for his lack of military service by being President.
“Would you have liked to have served generally – perhaps in another (way)?” Morgan asked.
“I would not have minded that at all. I would have been honored. But I think I make up for it now. I mean look, $700 billion I gave last year and then this year $716 billion and I think I’m making up for it rapidly because we are rebuilding our military at a level that it’s never seen before.”
This deserves a quick fact check. Trump did not personally give the military $700 billion or $716 billion. Congress did, when it passed appropriations bills last year. Trump signed them, and it is his administration’s responsibility to now spend the money.
But it says something about how he views his role as President and the dismissive way he’s treated Congress and its responsibilities, that he takes personal credit for spending taxpayer money.
Fewer Americans serve
6 Presidents served overseas in World War II
No presidents with Vietnam service
Three of the last four US presidents — Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Trump — had no military service at all. George W. Bush was a pilot in the Texas Air National Guard — his way around Vietnam.
Two other politicians who were of military age during Vietnam are running against Trump as Democrats. They also deferred military service or sought to be exempt. All three are in their 70s, which makes it likely this is the last presidential election in which a Vietnam-era politician will be featured.
Plenty of Vietnam veterans have sought the White House, including medal of honor winner Bob Kerrey, who did not get very far. Several Vietnam veterans got their party’s nomination, including Al Gore, John Kerry and John McCain.
Since the election of Bill Clinton over decorated former military pilot and wartime president George H.W. Bush in 1992, American voters have shown that avoiding service during Vietnam is not a dealbreaker.
A new generation of warrior politicians
A real question in 2020 is whether it’s a desirable plus. There has been no draft since Vietnam, and there have been many fewer Americans serving in the military.
But there are multiple younger presidential aspirants who volunteered for the military and served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gabbard has made her military service a centerpiece of her campaign and cites it as the impetus for her platform of disentangling the US from foreign conflicts.