Reagan and the Myths of American Militarism


Reagan categorically rejected what in the wake of Vietnam had become the prevailing wisdom about war, soldiers, and the contemporary American military experience. More than anyone else, he deserves the credit for conjuring up the myths that nurtured and sustain present-day American militarism. The benefits that Reagan derived from these inventions were not lost on other astute politicians who profited by his example and who helped to keep those myths alive…

…As president, Reagan, whose own military experience was confined to a stint making Army Air Corps training films in World War II Hollywood, spoke to and about soldiers with great frequency, going out of his way to convey his gratitude, respect, and affection. Soldiers, Reagan let it be known, were special people.

This message was integral to the Great Communicator’s overarching political strategy. As Norman Podhoretz has noted, Reagan “made free and frequent use of patriotic language and engaged in an unembarrassed manipulation of patriotic symbols; he lost no opportunity to praise the armed forces, to heighten their morale, to restore their popular prestige.” As a result, “he also helped restore confidence here in the utility of military force as an instrument of worthy political purposes.”…

…For Reagan, it was self-evident that Vietnam had been “a noble cause.”Noble too were the soldiers who had endured that war. Nameless others had wronged America’s fighting men, misusing and mistreating them, and denying them the victory and honors that were rightfully theirs. Reagan would not repeat these errors; he would champion soldiers, correcting the injustices done to them in the 1960s by providing the soldiers of the 1980s everything that they needed and more. “I know there’ve been times when the military has been taken for granted,” he told an audience of sailors during his first months in office. “It won’t happen under this administration.”

By implication, Reagan was establishing support for “the troops”—as opposed to actual service with them—as the new standard of civic responsibility. Despite the president’s penchant for flag-waving rhetoric, the standard he set was notably undemanding. Reconstituting U.S. military power, Reagan tacitly promised, was not going to entail sacrifice on the part of the average American. Indeed, both as a candidate and once in office, he categorically rejected any suggestion of reviving the draft. Military service was to remain strictly a matter of individual preference. To anyone making that choice Reagan granted the status of patriot, idealist, and hero; of citizens he asked only that they affirm that designation…

…The soldier—now set apart from his or her fellow citizens—become the preeminent icon of the Reagan recovery. Soldiers, said Reagan, made possible the rebirth of American patriotism. Soldiers refurbished the nation’s ideals and embodied its renewed sense of purpose. “Who else but an idealist,” the president asked rhetorically, “would choose to become a member of the Armed Forces and put himself or herself in harm’s way for the rest of us?”

Soldierly idealism figured prominently in the little stories with which Reagan habitually embroidered his major speeches, evidence that the spirit of Martin Treptow was indeed enjoying a revival. With Congress quibbling about defense spending, for instance, Reagan told of receiving “a letter from a hundred marines stationed over in Europe, and those marines write me . . . and say ‘If giving us a pay cut will help our country, cut our pay.’”


  1. Bacevich, Andrew J. The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. Print. 105-109.

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Filed under History, Notes on History, Politics

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