The year was 1972. The election, like the rest of the country, was sharply divided between the “Bomb Hanoi” rhetoric coming from the Nixon re-election campaign and U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy’s impassioned calls of “Come Home, America!”
I was just 21 years old. It was then that I volunteered for the Marines — during Vietnam. Most people would have compared my high draft number (323) to winning the lottery, but not me; I wanted to “do my duty.” Although I never received orders for combat, I eventually earned the title of platoon commander before volunteering again 13 years later at the start of the Gulf War. In the three decades that have passed since Operation Desert Storm, I have started a business and run for office on two separate occasions (once for governor and another for U.S. Senate).
But my years as a Marine and in the political arena have shown me firsthand what President Dwight D. Eisenhower cautioned against in his April 1953 speech before the American Society of Newspaper Editors:
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired… is a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”
Then Eisenhower concludes with a choice for America:
“The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
Just as Eisenhower said 67 years ago, in today’s world, war is far too often the means whereby the powerful expand their influence and control over the lives of everyday people. One can hear this warning again in his iconic farewell address in Jan. 1961:
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”
Yet today, the go-to solution is always more covert operations, more drone strikes, and more regime change. The writers of our Constitution, understanding the human failures of those in power, left the authority to declare war to the legislative branch. In 1787, James Madison warned, “A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive, will not long be safe companions to liberty.”
Then, in 1793, George Washington proclaimed, “The Constitution vests the power of declaring war in Congress; therefore no offensive expedition of importance can be undertaken until after they shall have deliberated upon the subject and authorized such a measure.” Forty presidents later, Ronald Reagan defined America’s role in the world once again with his famous “Peace Through Strength” policy: “The United States will not start fights… We will not seek to occupy other lands or control other peoples. Our strategy is defensive; our aim is to protect the peace by ensuring that no adversaries ever conclude they could best us in a war of their own choosing.”
As we consider the insight of America’s leaders past and present, it appears that very few have maximized negotiations for peace at every opportunity. While Theodore Roosevelt’s policy was “Walk softly and carry a big stick,” he seemed to poke that stick into a lot of eyes.
Reflecting on Eisenhower’s legacy, however, Andrew J. Goodpaster (the former staff secretary to Eisenhower himself) had the following to say in Congress’ 1986 Commission to Commemorate Eisenhower’s “Centennial Birth”:
“The Eisenhower years must first be characterized as years of peace. President Eisenhower, through skillful and forceful diplomacy, was able to end the three-year-old Korean War… He was also able to resolve potentially explosive situations [in] Indochina, Lebanon, the Suez Canal area, Quemoy, and Matsu, without resorting to war.”
So let’s roll the clock forward into the heart of American culture by exploring the down-home wisdom of the legendary Merle Haggard and a few lines of his iconic 2005 ballad, “America First”:
“Why don’t we liberate these United States, we’re the ones that need it worst. Let the rest of the world help us for a change, and let’s rebuild America first. Yeah, men in position are backin’ away: Freedom is stuck in reverse. Let’s get out of Iraq an’ get back on the track, and let’s rebuild America first.”
So where are we today?
At a crossroads — not unlike the Vietnam Era. Just as the song says, freedom is stuck in reverse, as America marches down a destructive path of “forever wars” with no clear objectives, trillions of dollars wasted, no definition of victory, and a mission that changes every month — all while our bravest are ceremoniously escorted to their final resting places in veteran cemeteries across America.
I have observed that the so-called “deep state” (or what Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex”) gains power through perpetual war. To be looking down the wrong end of the barrel can be “hazardous” to one’s health (especially to those with political aspirations).
So what can we do? At every opportunity, we must echo Eisenhower and demand our politicians ask, “What is best for America?” As my dear mother would say, “Good decisions expand future options — poor decisions limit future options.” A strong America, with good roads, better schools, safer neighborhoods and great-paying jobs, is certainly a worthwhile mission. Opportunities will grow, and we will reclaim our place as the “shining city on a hill” for the world.
It’s been 48 years since the tension and uneasiness of the 1972 presidential election. Though “Nixon’s The One” ultimately carried the election, it appears McCarthy’s vision has endured the test of time, his enduring plea resonating louder than ever before: “Come Home, America!”
And as America’s finest return, this old Marine will be standing tall to give them all a salute, as their new mission to rebuild America begins.