75 Dartmouth Faculty Protest Bush Degree: A Teachable Moment

By Professor Jeffrey Hart

The statement signed by 75 Dartmouth faculty members is so riddled with errors that it would not be worth comment, except that when the word “professor” precedes a name people are apt to assume that what follows is based on scholarly standards.

At the June 12 Commencement about a dozen graduating seniors and some in the audience stood up and turned their backs when former President George H.W. Bush was awarded an honorary degree. Many more were probably misled by the Dartmouth faculty statement but were unwilling to be rude.

I am especially concerned that Dartmouth undergraduates will believe the statements made in this accumulation of misinformation.  I will number the most egregious, and add the letter “a” as I provide the contradicting facts:

1. “President George W. Bush launched his political career in 1963 as a Goldwater Republican, aggressively campaigning against civil rights legislation while denouncing Medicare as ‘socialistic’.”

        a) Since Medicare was not passed until 1965 Bush could not have

       campaigned against it in 1963, and so he could not have called it “socialistic.”

        b) In 1964 Goldwater was the Republican nominee. As a Republican,

        Bush had to support him. This does not make Bush a “Goldwater

        Republican. It is inconceivable that Bush would agree with the agenda

        of Goldwater’s (ghost written) Conscience of a Conservative. This was

        a radical agenda, and Bush was a moderate Republican. Everything in

        Bush’s political career indicates that he supported civil rights. 

       c) Goldwater did vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which had

       come forward from President John F. Kennedy). This vote was dis-

       graceful, and had nothing to do with Bush.

2. “As a CIA Director under Gerald Ford and as Ronald Reagan’s vice

     president in the 1970s and 1980s, he was not only involved in illegal

     operations in Central and Latin America that left countless dead but also

     in the Iran-Contra Scandal.

     a) Resistance to Communist penetration of the Western hempshere was bi-partisan.

        Early in his administration President John F. Kennedy sought to

        overthrow the Castro regime in Cuba with the ill-fated Bay of Pigs

        operation. In view of the thousands of Cubans murdered by the Castro

        regime or consigned to the concentration camp on the Isle of Pines, this

        was not an ignoble goal. In fact, Ernesto “Che” Guevara was executed

        by the Bolivian military when he was trying to export revolution to


        Much has been written about the Bay of Pigs operation, and several

        professional historians agree with me that it was a CIA-Department of

        Defense operation.

        They were dealing with an inexperienced president. It was

        impossible for 1500 Cuban exiles to overthrow a government backed

        by a large regular army, a large militia, and pervasive internal security


        It seems likely that CIA director Allen Dulles and his assistant

        Richard Bissell calculated that with 1500 Cuban exiles in trouble on the

        beach, NO American president could refuse to make this an all-out

        American invasion. An alternative might have been to secure the

        perimeter, and recognize the exiles as Free Cuba.

        Had Castro been overthrown, we would have avoided the Cuban

        Missile Crisis in which Khrushchev tried to move further into the

        Western hemisphere, even at the risk of nuclear war.

        And thousands of Cubans who had been murdered by Castro would

        be alive today.

        Be that as it may, this was launched by a Democratic president, and

        had nothing to with George H.W. Bush, either as CIA director or as

        Vice President.

c) REPEAT: Resistance to the spread of Communism and Soviet influence in the Western Hemisphere was  bi-partisan.

 3. George H.W. Bush was involved (as vice president) in “the Iran-Contra scandal.”

       a) In Nicaragua (the largest nation in Central America) the Sandinistas seized power in 1979 from a right-wing dictatorship. The Sandinistas subscribed to contradictory principles: 1) political democracy 2) economic equality. The latter meant a forcible equalization of wealth, Marxist and socialist ideas contradictory to democracy. Autocratic rule resulted, a ruling junta made up of five Sandinista officials, Daniel Ortega in effect the leader.

The junta allied itself with Cuba and the Soviet Union, receiving financial and military aid from both. Resistance to the Sandinistas grew, and was called the Contras. (At a reception in Washington I met a former Sandinista leader who was now a Contra leader, known now as “Commandante Zero.”)

b) The Reagan administration was determined to aid the Contras (I was aware of this first-hand) But it was blocked from providing aid directly by the Boland Amendments, three amendments attached to appropriations legislation. They were attached to legislation because they could not have mustered the necessary votes to pass them otherwise. A later Congress repealed the Boland amendments. Under pressure the Sandinistas held an election and were voted out of power in 1990.

c) The Reagan administration circumvented this by selling anti-tank and antiaircraft weapons to Iran and passing the needed funds along to the Contras.

All of this was complex, but the Boland Amendments did not specify any criminal penalties. Reagan might have cited the Monroe Doctrine and openly supported the Contras. He certainly would not have been impeached.

4.  “And who can forget the infamous Willie Horton ads exploiting racial sentiments in his [GHW Bush’s] 1988 campaign against Michael Dukakis.”

a) On October 2,  Willie Horton and two accomplices robbed Joseph Fournier, a 17 year-old gas station attendant and fatally stabbed him multiple times. He was sentenced to life in prison. On parole, he showed up in Maryland and raped a woman, pistol whipping her fiancée. He was sentenced to two life terms plus 85 years. The Maryland judge refused to return him to Massachusetts, commenting that he might get another parole.

NB: Parole is usually granted to prisoners as the end of their term approaches, in order that they may live for a while in ordinary society. I know of no state other than Massachusetts that grants parole to murderers serving life sentences.

b) Dukakis ruined his chances of re-election by defending the Massachusetts parole policy. When asked about murder and the subsequent rape he gave a wonkish reply about why he opposed capital punishment. (Some years later I was chatting with former New York State Governor Mario Cuomo, an intelligent and rather charming man. The Willie Horton murder and rape came up. What would he do, I asked, if his fiancée had been raped by a convicted murderer. Mario Cuomo said, “I would hope the police got to him before I did.”

c) The “infamous” Willie Horton ads. You can see these by googling Willie Horton 1988. They show him as he was, beard, etc. And yes, he was black. 

That was not the fault of the Republican campaign.

5. The statement signed by 75 Dartmouth professors fails to mention the fact that the Reagan presidency, followed by the George H.W. presidency finally won the Cold War, which had begun during the Truman administration.

President Reagan and President George H.W. Bush win the Cold War:

President Reagan understood from Margaret Thatcher that Gorbachev might be cooperative. Indeed, Gorbachev was a reformer. Glasnost plus Peristroika: openness/truth plus new thinking (reform). Gorbachev knew that the Soviet economy was a basket case.

Reagan’s approach in a series of summits with Gorbachev was to ensure that he stayed in power. Against the advice of Nixon and Kissinger – who believed that power not personalities was what mattered – Reagan knew that US pressure on Gorbachev might lead to a military takeover. So Reagan eased Gorbachev’s position with arms limitation agreements, etc. The result was that the Soviet Union was about to become Russia again. Reagan had a backchannel advisor, Suzanne Massie, author of Land of the Firebird and an expert on Russia, who knew what was taking place behind the “iron curtain.”

In Poland, Lech Walesa and his Solidarity movement, and the presence in the Vatican of the Polish Pope, undermined the power of the Soviet Union in its Polish satellite. In fact, John Paul II was so important to Catholic Poland that Bulgarian intelligence sponsored an assassination attempt; and Bulgarian intelligence did not free-lance this: it was a KGB project.

In his historic visit to Berlin, Reagan made his famous demand, “Tear down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev.” Nikita Khrushchev had ordered the wall constructed because too many East Germans were fleeing Communism and moving to West Germany.

But the Wall did not come down until 1989, during the presidency of George H.W. Bush.

The important book on what happened then is Michael Beschloss’ At the Highest Levels (1993) a study of  how President George H.W. Bush and his national security advisor Brent Scowcroft managed the transition in the Soviet Union. The Baltic states became independent. Ukraine and Georgia became independent. The Communist regimes in the East bloc were overthrown. With the Wall smashed Germany was unified. The Cold War was over. The breakup of the Soviet Union constituted, in the opinion of Vladimir Putin, the greatest demographic disaster in history. It also finished Communism., except in North Korea and Cuba. (China threw away Marx but retained Lenin: the elite party.)

6. The Statement ends with an evocation of the Recession that began in 2008 and the misery it has caused, suggesting that another honorary degree and guest might have been more appropriate. There will be another Commencement. The Recession is not going away anytime soon. But the demonstrated accomplishments of former President George H. W. Bush are certainly deserving of this recognition.

The Statement signed by 75 Dartmouth Professors gives former President George H.W. Bush no credit for his historic accomplishment. Reagan and Bush won the Cold War, completing the work of Truman, Marshall, Acheson and the containment rationale set forth by George Kennan in his Foreign Affairs article signed X. Reagan and Bush both deserved a Nobel Peace Prize. They won the Cold War without firing a shot.

The Faculty Statement lacks historical scholarship expected of Dartmouth professors. It may mislead many Dartmouth undergraduates who trust them. It also is unforgivable for academicians who are supposed to have professional standards.

  • Defenestrator

    1a) Before a law passes, there is a debate about that law. For example, in 1963, Kennedy proposed health care for the elderly. That passed the Senate in 1964, but failed in the House. Medicare came out of that first debate. George HW Bush called it “socialized medicine.”

    1b) In 1964 Goldwater was the Republican nominee. As a Republican, Bush had to support him.
    No, he didn’t.

    2a) Resistance to Communist penetration of the Western hempshere(sic) was bi-partisan.
    That does not stop it from being illegal.

    3a) The Sandinistas subscribed to contradictory principles: 1) political democracy 2) economic equality.

    …etc etc etc