President Bush in Saudi Arabia

President Bush in Saudi Arabia

In most instances, the personal deliberations of presidents making the decision to send Americans to war are outside public knowledge. While there may be public speeches outlining the case for war, those public deliberations can differ widely from the president’s personal deliberations.

Through a series of diary entries and letters to family, however, the internal deliberations of President George H. W. Bush in the lead up to the first Gulf War can be explored. Not only do these documents illustrate the difficult decision Bush faced, they demonstrate a keen sense of humanity.

Saddam Hussein

Saddam Hussein

The conflict leading to the first Gulf War began on August 2, 1990 when Iraqi president Saddam Hussein ordered his armies across the desert border into Kuwait. The American diplomatic machine immediately got to work and soon the United Nations passed multiple resolutions, including a demand that Hussein leave Kuwait not later than January 15, 1991. 1

Despite the international support for ousting Hussein from Kuwait, President Bush’s letters and diary entries illustrate that the decision to go to war was not an easy one. This becomes evident in President Bush’s December 31, 1990 letter to his five children.

While the president wrote of his hope that Hussein would comply with the United Nations’ directives, it is clear he struggled with the decision to risk American lives to free Kuwait of its Iraqi invaders. Linking the decision to resist evil to the lead up to World War II, he rhetorically asked his children “[h]ow many lives might have been saved if appeasement had given way to force earlier on in the late ‘30’s or earliest ‘40’s?” 2

Recognizing the simple answer to this hypothetical, President Bush also worried that it would be American lives risked to liberate Kuwait. He wrote that the “question of loss of life still lingers and plagues the heart.” 3

In his January 12, 1991 diary entry, President Bush continued to worry on these same themes. He wrote: “I worry about the loss of innocent Iraqi life. I worry about the protection of the Soviets who are finishing their contracts. I worry most of all about our own kids that are going into battle.” 4

That Bush felt the weight of a decision to send troops to fight Hussein is clear in his January 13 entry: “It is my decision-my decision to send these kids into battle, my decision that may affect the lives of innocence. . . . It is my decision that affects husband, the girlfriend, or the wife that is waiting, or the mother that writes, ‘Take care of my son.’” 5

On the eve of the American air campaign, President Bush continued to worry about the effect of war on human life. In response to Iraqi public demonstrations in Baghdad, Bush wrote: “And I think, ‘Oh God, save their lives.’ There’s a kid that comes on television and I pray to God that [the bombs] will be accurate and we will not hit that child.” 6

On January 15, 1991, the deadline passed without the Iraqi dictator withdrawing his forces from Kuwait. Two days latter, the American air attack began. In slightly over a month, the entire war would be over as a general ceasefire was declared. 7

Looking back over the success of the first Gulf War in terms of satisfying objectives and limiting American casualties, it is easy to ignore the grueling decisions that had to be made to secure victory. Putting American lives on the line is difficult and through President Bush’s correspondence and diary entries, it is evident these matters weighed heavily on his mind and heart.


  1. Millett, Allan R. and Peter Maslowski, For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America. The Free Press, 1994, 631-32.
  2. Bush, George. Letter to George Bush, Jeb Bush, Neil Bush, Marvin Bush, and Doro Bush. December 31, 1990.
  3. Id.
  4. Bush, George. The Diary of George H.W. Bush. January 12, 1991.
  5. Bush, George. The Diary of George H.W. Bush. January 13, 1991.
  6. Bush, George. The Diary of George H.W. Bush. January 15, 1991.
  7. Millett, 639, 641.