“America has a genius for great and unselfish deeds,” said Pope Pius XII. “Into the hands of America God has placed the destiny of an afflicted mankind.”
That’s an inspired quote from Pope Pius XII. I’m one of the few who has bothered to trace its origins. He stated it in an exclusive published in the January 5, 1946 Collier’s Weekly. I know because I’ve had to document it in my writings on Ronald Reagan. Reagan loved that quotation. He likely first read it in Hollywood, as an FDR Democrat who, like the pontiff, saw a unique greatness in America and its role on the global stage. The line would surface repeatedly throughout Reagan’s public speeches and personal letters, particularly during the mid-1970s—when he was running for president in the hopes of helping to make America great again.
I documented 11 occasions during his presidency where Reagan quoted Pius XII and/or that quotation. “In the days following World War II,” said Reagan in a typical example, “Pope Pius XII said: ‘The American people have a genius for great and unselfish deeds; into the hands of America, God has placed an afflicted mankind.’”
In sum, the last time I noticed any politician use that quotation was President Ronald Reagan on June 23, 1987—that is, until last week, 28 years later, May 13, 2015, when Senator Marco Rubio shared it in a memorable speech to the Council on Foreign Relations. Said Rubio:
Only American leadership will bring safety and enduring peace. America led valiantly in the last century—from Truman to Kennedy to Reagan. And because of our leadership, that century became known as the American century.
Following the end of World War II, Pope Pius XII noted as much. Here’s what he wrote: “America has a genius for great and unselfish deeds. Into the hands of America God has placed the destiny of an afflicted mankind.”
Well, I believe America still has that genius. I believe mankind remains afflicted, and I believe that its destiny still largely remains in our hands. And I believe that this generation of Americans will continue to advance the cause of peace and freedom in our time. And when we do, not only will America remain safe and strong, but the 21st century will also be an American century.
It was a Reaganesque close to a Reaganesque speech reminiscent of Reagan’s American century. From start to finish, Rubio’s remarks reminded me of our 40th president and what made him stand out. It was a speech that shows why Marco Rubio stands out. The current crop of Republicans candidates for the White House is an outstanding one, far better than those who sought the nomination in 2008 and 2012, and many with Reagan-like qualities, but Rubio especially strikes me as the closest to Reagan we’ve seen in a while.
The various reasons why I believe that, from Rubio’s thoughts and style and tone and broad popular appeal (among other things), is a subject for a longer column, but, for now, consider this very instructive speech, and its striking parallels to the 40th president.
Rubio started not by quoting Reagan or Pius XII but John F. Kennedy (who, for the record, personally had known Pius XII from the outset of his papacy). Rubio quoted JFK’s final speech, given to the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce the morning he was assassinated. Rubio captured a Kennedy sentiment that was very much Reagan’s, and is very much not Barack Obama’s:
President Kennedy, like most presidents before and since, understood what I believe our current president does not: that American strength is a means of preventing war, not promoting it. And that weakness, on the other hand, is the friend of danger and the enemy of peace.
Reagan called this peace through strength. “American foreign policy,” Reagan asserted, must focus on “the prevention of war,” and such would be achieved by a strong military, not a weak one. “We will maintain sufficient strength to prevail if need be,” Reagan stated in his January 1981 inaugural, “knowing that if we do so we have the best chance of never having to use that strength.”
This was a theme throughout Ronald Reagan’s presidency and also throughout Marco Rubio’s speech, especially in Rubio pointing to gains made by the Russians and Iranians under the Obama presidency, just as candidate Reagan had pointed to gains by the Russians and by Iranian Islamists under the Carter presidency.
Reagan would later say of Moscow, “[I]t was obvious that if we were ever going to get anywhere with the Russians… we had to bargain with them from strength, not weakness. If you were going to approach the Russians with a dove of peace in one hand, you had to have a sword in the other.”
Barack Obama has done just the opposite. He approached Vladimir Putin with a dove in one hand and a bouquet of roses in the other—and Putin bit the head off the dove and stomped on the bouquet. Obama showed weakness, not strength.
As Rubio noted in this speech, under Obama, “we’ve seen an emboldened Russia invade Ukraine.” Under Jimmy Carter, we saw an emboldened Russia invade Afghanistan, the first direct Soviet military intervention outside the Warsaw Pact since World War II. Putin’s aggression is the strongest Russian external intervention since Afghanistan under Carter.
Rubio also criticized Obama’s soft treatment of the Iranian regime, allowing the Islamists there to secure gains from an American president that they arguably haven’t achieved since Jimmy Carter.
Thus, says Rubio, in what could be a recap of what Reagan said of Carter, the current president’s policies have generated a world “far more dangerous than when President Obama entered office.”
In a line that Reagan could have spoken of Carter’s détente-driven dealings with Brezhnev, Rubio said that Obama’s “desperation to sign a deal, any deal,” has served our “adversaries over allies.”
And here’s another Rubio line on Obama that smacks of Reagan’s criticism of Carter’s poor leadership:
He wasted no time stripping parts from the engine of American strength. He enacted hundreds of billions in defense cuts that left our Army on track to be at pre-World War II levels, our Navy at pre-WWI levels, and our Air Force with the smallest and oldest combat force in its history. He demonstrated a disregard for our moral purpose that at times flirted with disdain. He criticized America for having “arrogance” and the audacity to “dictate our terms” to other nations.
Thus, continued Rubio, in yet another echo of Reagan’s frustrations with Carter:
America plays a part on the world stage for which there is no understudy. When we fail to lead with strength and principle, there is no other country, friend or foe, willing or able to take our place. And the result is chaos….
It is up to our next president to right the wrongs done by our current one. It is up to our next president to properly fund and modernize our military. It is up to our next president to restore our people’s faith in the promise and the power of the American ideal….
While America did not intend to become the world’s indispensable power, that is exactly what our economic and political freedoms have made us. The free nations of the world still look to America to champion our shared ideals. Vulnerable nations still depend on us to deter aggression from their larger neighbors. Oppressed peoples still turn their eyes toward our shores, wondering if we hear their cries, wondering if we notice their afflictions.
That was totally Ronald Reagan’s understanding of America’s place in the world. The nation should be a voice to the captive peoples of the captive nations.
Even more poignant, candidate Rubio in this Council of Foreign Relations speech then laid out the “three pillars” of his “foreign policy doctrine.” They’re remarkably harmonious with a March 1980 speech that candidate Reagan delivered to the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, where Reagan laid out “three broad requirements” for his foreign policy. Here is how Reagan detailed the three in the unedited handwritten text later found by scholar Kiron Skinner: “First it must be based on firm convictions, inspired by a clear vision of, and belief in Americas future. Second, it calls for a strong economy based on the free market system which gave us an unchallenged leadership in creative technology. Third, and very simply we must have the unquestioned mil. ability to preserve world peace and our national security.”
Remarkably, Rubio laid out three essentially identical legs: 1) American military strength; 2) American economic strength; and 3) American “moral clarity” in foreign policy. These were all so Reagan-like that Rubio fittingly invoked Reagan:
Just as Ronald Reagan never flinched in his criticisms of the Soviet Union’s political and economic repressions, we must never shy away from demanding that China allow true freedom for its 1.3 billion people. Nor should we hesitate in calling the source of atrocities in the Middle East by its real name—radical Islam.
As president, I will support the spread of economic and political freedom, by reinforcing our alliances, resisting efforts by large powers to subjugate their smaller neighbors, maintaining a robust commitment to transparent and effective foreign assistance programs, and advance the rights of the vulnerable—including women and the religious minorities that are so often persecuted—so that the afflicted peoples of the world know the truth: the American people hear their cries, see their suffering, and most of all, desire their freedom.
That was fully and completely Reagan, who had sought to re-moralize American foreign policy as a beacon of freedom after the confused, disastrous presidency of Jimmy Carter. He insisted, especially via speeches like the Evil Empire address, that America needed to spell out the moral differences between its system and the Soviet system. Reagan later said such candor was needed to “philosophically and intellectually take on the principles of Marxism-Leninism.” “We were always too worried we would offend the Soviets if we struck at anything so basic,” he said. “Well, so what? Marxist-Leninist thought is an empty cupboard.”
And so, Reagan said it. The enemy was totalitarian communism; today it is totalitarian Islamism. That needs to be understood and said.
Ronald Reagan wasn’t afraid to say it, and neither is Marco Rubio, and what a refreshing change that could bring to the Oval Office once again.