Much in the news today is the nomination of former Republican Sen. and wounded Vietnam veteran Chuck Hagel to be secretary of Defense. He had been a close friend with Sen. John McCain, but the two separated over the Iraq War.
Two historic giants, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, were brought together by World War II and became fast friends.
Eavesdropping on that friendship and the momentous events surrounding it has been a fascinating few days thanks to Jon Meacham’s authoritative and delightful new book, Franklin and Winston.
The two world leaders first connected through Roosevelt’s chief of staff, Harry Hopkins, who cemented the relationship at Ditchley Park, now a conference center where Josephine and I have spent many enlightening weekends over the years. Then it was the 18th-century, 40-bedroom house of Ronald Tree, a member of Parliament.
At dinner, Churchill gave a speech about the values of Western democracy and asked what the president would think of the speech. After a long pause, Hopkins said, “Well, Mr. Prime Minister, I don’t think the President will give a damn for all that,” and to the anxiety of the British, paused again, then added: “You see, we’re only interested in seeing that that G-D, S-O-B, Hitler, gets licked.”
His answer was greeted with laughter, relief and agreement.
From that Ditchley dinner and several Trans-Atlantic voyages there developed a friendship and trust exemplified by the time the president knocked and entered the Lincoln bedroom to find Churchill covered in only his ample pinkness. “You see, Mr. President, I have nothing to hide from you.”
The two men and their families bonded until late in 1943 when Roosevelt could see that only two powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, would dominate the post-war world. FDR’s attempt to develop a personal relationship with Stalin to give context to future encounters made Winston feel rebuffed and hurt.
At the Tehran Conference in November, Stalin put his finger on one element of national power. “The most important thing in this war are machines … without the use of those machines (through Lend Lease), we would lose this war.”
True, as far as it goes. Economics, the vast industrial power of the United States, is needed to defend our nation and to win wars. But Churchill also represented a primary portion of national strength: the values of democracy and freedom that kept Britain fighting alone, keeping the Nazi barbarians from its shores.
National strength isn’t just one thing; it is a hierarchy of democratic values, a strong economy and tight alliances with like-minded nations. When we discard one leg of the platform of national strength, we lose our balance and get into trouble as we did in Vietnam and Iraq.
We lunged virtually alone into the Vietnamese civil war, choosing sides with a dictatorial regime that didn’t have the support of its own people, a regime that was bound to fall.
Again, we invaded Iraq to protect ourselves from doomsday weapons that might, just might, one day be used against us, only to find that weapons of mass destruction did not exist.
We invaded with confidence that we could easily defeat the Iraqi armed forces, which we did, but we gave little thought to what to do once the shooting stopped. The first thing we did was ban all members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.
What that meant was hundreds of thousands of jobless, humiliated and armed soldiers, as well as sending home police and civil administrators who were the people who kept the country running.
Nine years later, we are leaving the Iraqi mess that we made, which brings us around to Chuck Hagel’s nomination, a choice that is viewed as heresy by the good people who brought us the shining examples of Vietnam and Iraq.
Hagel’s enemies represent a dark, thankfully minority view that America is followed, or rather obeyed, because we have the power to compel obedience. That is the psychology of the dictator.
In the years just ahead, America will be at peace for the first time in a long, long time. It is time to refresh and revive our economic power, including job-creating infrastructure such as a rail system up to Asian standards.
Dangers remain, but it is reassuring to know that we have in the Pentagon a man who thinks strategically, keeps all elements of national power in balance and who calculates both necessity and legitimacy before projecting our power.
Friendship is a secondary consideration in the calculus of war and peace.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.