“I will go to Korea.”
For years, it was considered one of the most famous and momentous speech lines in American political history.
Fifty-five years ago today, Gen. (ret.) Dwight D. Eisenhower, then a candidate for president, uttered that line as part of a speech that, not just in that one line but in its entirety, was an oratorical and substantive masterpiece. And many of its words and themes are eerily appropriate today.
First, though, allow a digression. You see, what led me to research Korea in the past several weeks, and thus to Ike’s speech, was a visit to what I think is both the most moving and the most underappreciated of all of Washington’s war memorials. The Korean War Memorial, off at an angle to Abe Lincoln’s right as the Lincoln statue gazes out from its own Memorial, induces goose bumps. Large gray statues, phenomenally lifelike and accurate to the nth degree in terms of their attire and equipment, seem to move in regular platoon order, in a wedge, through unfamiliar territory, heads swiveling to the side to be alert to possible enemy ambushes. Along the perimeter, a black granite wall catches their reflections, making the whole platoon (from one angle) look like it is twice as big with a wedge twice as wide, sneaking through the brush.
The wall itself is laser-etched, in white, with more than 2,500 faces taken from actual photographs of our soldiers in Korea. The effect is haunting.
Meanwhile, where the wedge comes to a point, in front of the lead soldier, the American flag proudly waves. A pretty fountain, in an attractive semi-circular design, is behind that. Along another granite walkway up front, the stunningly high numbers of the dead, wounded, and captured — American, Korean, United Nations — are listed. (The number of American dead, 54,426, is astronomical compared to the less than 4,000 Americans who tragically have died in Iraq.)
Along the walkway opposite from the main granite wall are listed the names of all 22 nations that contributed to the U.N. effort. And in the space between the flag and the lead soldier is an inscription carved in granite: “OUR NATION HONORS HER SONS AND DAUGHTERS WHO ANSWERED THE CALL TO DEFEND A COUNTRY THEY NEVER KNEW AND A PEOPLE THEY NEVER MET.”
For Americans in the 1950s, that was reason enough to fight and to sacrifice.
By all means, if you are in D.C., go to the Korean War Memorial…
NOW, BACK TO EISENHOWER’S SPEECH, which is a near-perfect reminder of why Americans fought in that far-off land. The speech’s message is still valid today.
“There is a Korean war, and we are fighting it for the simplest of reasons,” Eisenhower said, “because free leadership failed to check and to turn back Communist ambition before it savagely attacked usâ€¦. There is no other reason than this: We failed to read and to outwit the totalitarian mindâ€¦. The lesson is this: To vacillate, to hesitate — to appease even by merely betraying unsteady purpose — is to feed a dictator’s appetite for conquest and to invite war itself.”
Maybe too many Americans have forgotten this lesson, but if one substitutes the word “terrorist[s]” for the words “Communist,” “totalitarian,” and “dictator,” the same principles apply.
Eisenhower also complained that pre-conflagration warnings were ignored, when, in the words of those warnings, American forces should not have been withdrawn “at the very instant when logic and common sense both demanded no retreat.”
But the warnings were not heeded, the troops were withdrawn, and war did come. And then people began asking when it would end. (Sound familiar?) To which the old general replied: “To these questions there are two false answers — both equally false. The first would be any answer that dishonestly pledged an end to war in Korea by any imminent, exact dateâ€¦. The second and equally false answer declares that nothing can be done to speed a secure peace. It dares to tell us that we, the strongest nation in the history of freedom, can only wait, and wait, and wait. Such a statement brands its speaker as a defeatist.”
And this: “The vital lesson is this: To vacillate, to appease, to placate is only to invite war — vaster war, bloodier war…. Appeasement is not the road to peace; it is only surrender on the installment plan. I will always reject appeasement.”
Remember, this was the sainted Ike, now celebrated as the great, wise, moderate statesman. Yet here he is rejecting, just as President George W. Bush does today, any specific date for removing forces from an increasingly unpopular war, and here he is insisting that retreat abroad means a more widespread surrender that must not be allowed to occur.
But wait: There’s more. Today, President Bush is widely mocked for his assertion that our freedom is in any way dependent on a commitment to freedom in as many places across the globe as possible, and for supposedly extravagant language toward that end. But here’s what the “moderate,” “realist” Eisenhower had to say 55 years ago today: “The vast majority of Americans of both political parties know that to keep their own nation free, they bear a majestic responsibility for freedom through all the world.” And then Ike closed his speech by repeating, twice, including as the very last four words of the oration, the idea of the foreign war that “this is a crusade.”
(I guess that is a politically incorrect thing to say today. Political correctness is a pity.)
Oh — and just before that closing sentence, Eisenhower, very Bush-like, said that “victory can come only with the gift of God’s help.”
Ike had the right ideas and ideals. Yes, those ideals must always be leavened by realism and backed by competent execution. One can legitimately argue about the degree of realism or competence that the Bush administration has shown. It would be a grave mistake, however, utterly alien to the American tradition, to reject the truth that freedom abroad makes us safer at home. Free nations tend not to attack other free nations.
And — to bring us full circle — anybody who wants to better appreciate freedom’s preciousness, and its cost, should find time to visit the National Mall and see the memorial to the Americans who fought so nobly for a noble cause on the Korean peninsula, half a world away.