Memorial Day: Reflecting on Our Nation’s Father and Ike

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Memorial Day was established to remember those in the U.S. military who died in service to their country. This column reflects on two of our greatest war heroes who went on to serve our country as president – George Washington and Dwight D. Eisenhower — on what they said in their farewell addresses to their fellow countrymen, and in what they might think of America’s current policies of foreign relations, endless war, massive weapons sales, and global surveillance of citizens. And if this is what our brave warriors should fight, suffer, and die for.

George Washington

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George-Washington
General George Washington

Washington’s farewell letter runs over 1,300 words, the first draft written in 1792 with James Madison’s assistance. He was planning to step away from the presidency then, but a bitter feud between Alexander Hamilton, his treasury secretary, and Thomas Jefferson, his Secretary of State, prompted Washington to serve another term, hoping to bring peace to his cabinet and help sustain the government and the nation.

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He finally published the letter, revised with help from Hamilton, in 1796. Within the extensive missive covering the nation’s welfare from the Constitution to unity to education, he discusses the united idea of foreign relations and free trade. And he makes no doubt where he stands.

Foreign Relations

Washington stressed the need to avoid permanent opposition or alliances with foreign nations, often summarized as “foreign entanglements”. As our nation’s father stated in part:

…nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable, when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur. Hence, frequent collisions, obstinate, envenomed, and bloody contests. The nation, prompted by ill-will and resentment, sometimes impels to war the government, contrary to the best calculations of policy. The government sometimes participates in the national propensity, and adopts through passion what reason would reject; at other times it makes the animosity of the nation subservient to projects of hostility instigated by pride, ambition, and other sinister and pernicious motives. The peace often, sometimes perhaps the liberty, of nations, has been the victim.

 

So likewise, a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils…

 

Taking care always to keep ourselves by suitable establishments on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.

One can’t help but think – when considering “permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations” – of Russia and a bit less so China and Iran, and the Washington establishment’s ceaselessly demonizing them, as well as other smaller nations not falling into line with Beltway neocons’ worldview.

World Trade

Washington made it clear he felt American businesses should be encouraged to continue trading with foreign countries, but should keep commerce separate from politics.

The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith…

 

… Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations, are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest. But even our commercial policy should hold an equal and impartial hand; neither seeking nor granting exclusive favors or preferences; consulting the natural course of things; diffusing and diversifying by gentle means the streams of commerce, but forcing nothing; establishing (with powers so disposed, in order to give trade a stable course, to define the rights of our merchants, and to enable the government to support them)…

We think immediately of the White House, Congress, and the hundreds of multinational corporations currently involved in the SECRET negotiations – and efforts to fast-track through Congress – the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership. A number of opponents complain that the agreement would give corporations power over individual nations and their citizens. How do you think the Father of Our Country would feel about that? Do you believe that’s the type of governing the American colonists fought and died for?

Ike’s Grave Warning

PRESIDENT-EISENHOWER
General Dwight D. Eisenhower

While Eisenhower is famous for helping lead the Allies’ troops in defeating Adolph Hitler, he may be even more famous for his wise, grave warning during his 1961 farewell address: beware the growing Military-Industrial Complex:

A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction…

 

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

 

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.

In writing about Memorial Day in 2012 (“Memorial Day: Recalling and Caring for Our Constant Brave”), I dealt in depth with our nation’s problems, due to the growth of the military-industrial complex and the fact that we’re NOT “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry”.

Were Washington and Eisenhower with us today, do you think America would be involved in its obsessive endless Middle-East wars leading to the loss of millions of lives (including thousands of American lives and over 750,000 American military suffering from TBI and PTSD), efforts to goad Russia into war, the National Security Agency’s global surveillance of citizens, and the secret connivance of trade efforts like the Trans-Pacific Partnership? Oh, and let’s also remember the thousands of veterans who are homeless.

Well…what do you think?

I think it’s time we become aligned with George Washington’s “harmony, [and] liberal intercourse with all nations”, and Eisenhower’s  “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry”. It’s time we get organized, get educated, and get active, and take our country back, turning it away from oligarchy and return to striving for democracy. After all, that’s what our brave military fought and died and still suffer for.