Former President George H.W. Bush, who fought in World War II as a naval aviator and as the 41st president from 1989 to 1993, led American forces to decisive military victories over major powers including Iraq and Panama, died peacefully on Friday night at his home in Houston. He was 94 years old.
Bush began his long and distinguished career in public service as a sailor in 1942, when he enlisted in the Navy to avenge Pearl Harbor. By 1943, he was the youngest Naval aviator, flying a Grumman Avenger torpedo bomber against the Empire of Japan. He flew 58 combat missions and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism after being shot down and rescued by a submarine.
"They wrote it up as heroism," Bush later told his biographer of the medal, "but it wasn't -- it was just doing your job." His other military decorations included three Air Medals and the WWII Victory Medal.
After graduating from Yale, making a fortune in Texas oil, and serving as a congressman, director of the CIA and vice president under Ronald Reagan, Bush ascended to the presidency as a Republican in 1989. Within months, he ordered U.S. forces to invade Panama. The invasion toppled a generic Latin America dictator who may or may not have worked for the CIA and was a forgettable success. But the move was widely praised at the time for giving the military a "soft ball" to help it get over its post-Vietnam malaise.
By the end of 1989, probably because the Commies thought Reagan was still president, the Soviet Union crumbled. Sensing decisive victory was at hand, Bush skillfully talked Russian leaders into signing a "strategic partnership agreement" in which Russia threw in the towel in the Cold War in exchange for American promises that NATO would not expand even "one inch eastward." This landmark agreement paved the way for NATO to expand 500 miles eastward towards Moscow and incorporate a dozen post-Soviet states, securing peace in Europe for generations.
Bush won his second war in the Middle East in 1991 after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. In response, Bush assembled an international military coalition to expel the Iraqi invaders from Kuwait and shake the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all. American forces and their allies charged across the desert and killed tens of thousands of Iraqis, liberating the small kingdom and keeping the price of oil reasonable. In the victorious aftermath of the war, American held its last unironic military parade.
Scholars agree that Bush's victories enabled the military achievements of his successors. His actions to secure the contemporary rules-based international order and establish lasting American hegemony laid the foundation of contemporary American foreign policy.
"He is the reason we have enjoyed three decades of unfettered strategic raiding by U.S. forces in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and probably some places you couldn't even find on a map," said Luke Schumacher, an international relations scholar at the University of Chicago. "As we all know, those actions which have secured core American national interests. We would not be here without George H.W. Bush."
President Donald Trump, among others, has praised Bush's legacy.
"You know, he got shot down -- and you know how I feel about people who got shot down -- and we could have beat Japan sooner, but, in the end, he was a winner," Trump told reporters at the White House. "And who doesn't love winning? America loves winners."