In the wake of this weekend’s sad news, many have noted that George H.W. Bush strikes us now as a figure from another era. Bush’s career spanned that era, and his death should move us to think about what it got right and wrong, and what we have done since.
On his 18th birthday, six months after Pearl Harbor, Bush signed up for the Navy and served until a month after the Japanese surrender. From then on, from Yale through his time in the oil business in Texas, and on to Congress, the UN, the RNC, the CIA, and the White House, Bush moved through some of the key institutions of the postwar American and global order. It was an order built and sustained by the two generations that had fought the war together—the older generation of commanders and leaders, and the younger generation of soldiers and citizens.
At its core were a set of institutions and structures—diplomatic and military alliances, political arrangements, economic compacts, cultural forms and expectations at home and abroad—that these two generations built up in the wake of the war. They responded to victory in war by consciously constructing a new global order because they recognized that, even though they had won, the world after the war would be very different from the world before it. It would be defined by new conflicts as well as new opportunities, and avoiding another cataclysm would require intense effort and organization on a global scale.
George Bush’s life was a kind of catalog of some of these efforts and organizations.