JFK and PT-109

On Aug. 2, 1943, PT-109, commanded by Lt. John F. Kennedy was rammed by Japanese destroyer Amigiri. Kennedy was able to save all but 2 of his crew. They were shipwrecked for a week before being rescued. The event changed his reputation from simply being a member of one of Boston’s privileged families, which undoubtedly gave him a political boost after the war.




Given the current deadlock over raising the debt ceiling, we tend to think Washington is more partisan than any other time in the country’s history. However, you don’t have to go too far past our nation’s founding to see bitter debates about the direction our country should go. Jefferson and Adams were bitter rivals before their rapprochement later in life.

But intense partisan divisions can also be found in the mid-20th century. Truman’s firing of Gen. Douglas MacArthur (then 70) during the Korean War triggered a howl of protests across the nation. MacArthur had openly called for pulling Chiang Kaishek’s forces from Formosa to help take on the 250,000 Chinese Communist soldiers who had poured into North Korea once MacArthur went north of the 38th parallel.

The domestic response was intense, although Truman did have his supporters.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur, circa WWII. MacArthur was one of America's few five-star generals, and the commander of American forces in the Pacific when he was fired by Truman during the Korean War. Photo courtesy of U.S. Army.

“A freshman Democrat from Oklahoma, Senator Robert Kerr, rose to defend the president. If the Republicans believed the nation’s security depended on following the policy of General MacArthur, Kerr said, then they should call for a declaration of war against Red China…

“But such voices were lost in a tempest of Republican outrage. The general’s dismissal was ‘another Pearl Harbor,’ a ‘great day for the Russian Communists.’

“In New York, two thousand longshoremen walked off their jobs in protest over the firing of MacArthur. A Baltimore women’s group announced plans for a march on Washington in support of the general. Elsewhere, enraged patriots flew flags at half-staff, or upside down. People signed petitions, fired off furious letters and telegrams to Washington. In Worcester, Massachusetts, and San Gabriel, California, Truman was burned in effigy. In Houston, a Protestant minister became so angry dictating a telegram to the White House that he died of a heart attack.” – from David McCullough’s Truman

Certainly, the 24-hour news cycle stokes the partisan fires. Personally, I choose to stay away from the cable news. However, if they have commentators that call Obama a dick, I don’t have a problem with that. I’d like to hear why they think Obama’s a dick, because they may have valid reasons for thinking so. Don’t fire a commentator for providing commentary.

As far as the politicians go, I’d like to see both parties compromise to move this country forward. Scoring political points is no good if we can’t fix the problems facing this great nation.

Independence Day

While looking for a Garfield quote on America for our nation’s 234th anniversary of independence, I came across a handful that resonated.

“Fellow-citizens: Clouds and darkness are around him; his pavilion is dark waters and thick clouds; justice and judgment are the establishment of his throne; mercy and truth shall go before his face! Fellow-citizens: God reigns, and the Government at Washington Lives!” – James A. Garfield #20, April 15, 1865.

Garfield, a general during the war, was delivering the news of Lincoln’s death. Lincoln was killed 13 days after the fall of Richmond, the Confederacy’s capital, and 5 days after Robert E. Lee’s surrender. Garfield himself was assassinated 16 years later by Charles Giteau, a madman with partisan aspirations.

“America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” – Abraham Lincoln, #16

“Americanism means the virtues of courage, honor, justice, truth, sincerity, and hardihood—the virtues that made America. The things that will destroy America are prosperity-at-any-price, peace-at-any-price, safety-first instead of duty-first, the love of soft living and the get-rich-quick theory of life.” – Teddy Roosevelt, #26

“America was not built on fear. America was built on courage, on imagination and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand.” – Harry S. Truman, #33, and the only president to hail from the great state of Missouri


Woke up from an extended dream about being laid off to read that the Minnesota government has shut down for lack of a deal. Going into a 3-day weekend, during Minnesota’s prime tourist season, there are no fishing permits being issued, and no one can go to the Minnesota Zoo. Rest stops on the highway are closed, as are state parks.

This comes on the heels of Connecticut employees’ unions rejecting a concession deal, which was far more generous that what was given to Wisconsin’s public employees this spring. The Minnesota shutdown is a prelude to the possible shutdown of the federal government if Republicans can’t get a deal without raising taxes.

Is it any wonder consumer sentiment is in the crapper? Americans who have jobs see an uncertain future, which is causing them to reign in spending.

In today’s fiscal environment, pension plans negotiated years ago are no longer sustainable. I do believe that public employee unions would be up for renegotiating retirement benefits, so long as the sacrifice is shared. (In Connecticut’s situation, 60% of the union employees voted for the wage freeze….that it failed was a quirk of union voting rules.)

Funding state and federal operations is a core competency of state legislatures and Congress, respectively. Unfortunately, both parties seem more content to score political points than coming to an honest, frank agreement on spending and revenues.

So I propose this…a constitutional amendment requiring budget duty whenever a state or federal government shutdown occurs. The legislators would be fired for not meeting expectations, while a budget panel would be proportionately drawn from private sector employees, firefighters, police, teachers, and business owners. Think of it as extended jury duty. The budget panelists could still lean on lobbyists for expertise, as well as those financial wonks over at Planet Money. And, because it would interrupt their daily lives, the budget panelists would have incentive to come to a swift resolution.

Fallible Founding Fathers

While alliterative, that’s not necessarily news to anyone somewhat familiar with American history. However, Simon Schama, in his debut column at Newsweek, aims his history lessons at today’s political demagogues and those who swallow their talking points without further consideration.

“With adult history buffs so deluded about the reality of the American past, it’s even more alarming that the National Assessment of Educational Progress recently rated history as the subject at which students are least proficient. This wouldn’t matter if history were just some recreational stroll down memory lane. But it isn’t. In the fiery debates of Americans long dead can be discerned the lineaments of the same core issues that divide us today. Right now, the education that might inform such a debate has turned into a schoolyard shouting match.”

Unfortunately, the 24-hour news cycle lends itself to shouting matches that don’t really inform. Surely there must be some sort of rational political dialogue going on somewhere online.

Hoover’s take on Wilson

Herbert Hoover is by and large considered a failed president because the Great Depression occurred on his watch. A little digging reveals an accomplished man, but that’s a story for a different post.

One of Hoover’s accomplishments was The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson, his personal account of Wilson’s peace efforts in Paris following The Great War. One president writing a book on another is intriguing in itself, although it’s even more remarkable that a president from one party wrote a balanced evaluation of a president from the opposing party.

Before America got into the war, Hoover, already an accomplished mining executive, took on the challenge of feeding Belgium, then under German rule. The results were remarkable, considering the logistical challenge of raising funds, shipping the food, and convincing both the western powers and Germany to allow the food to be delivered behind German lines.

Once the US got into the war, Wilson appointed Hoover to head the U.S. food administration, responsible for ensuring American soldiers had the sustenance needed to end the war. Hoover took a voluntary approach, encouraging Americans to cut back on food consumption so more was available.

After the war, Wilson named Hoover to take part in the Supreme Economic Council, as well as head the American Relief Administration. The former was tasked with advising the peace negotiators on economics of any peace deal. the latter was charged with feeding starving Europeans, whatever their role during the war.

A criticism that Hoover levels against Wilson is that he personally attended the peace conference. A number of Wilson supports advised him not to go. By staying home, they contended, Wilson could remain above the fray, advocating for his 14 points, including the promotion of democracy as a way for countries to avoid the entanglements that led to the war.

“From the start the President was met with settings unfamiliar to him and obstacles he had never imagined. Fundamentally he was confronted with the irreconcilable conflicts between Old and New World concepts of government and of social and economic life. the two worlds were indeed many ways strangers to each other. Our ancestors had fled from Europe because they were already in conflict with its ideas of class stratification, religion, and freedom, and we had drifted farther and farther apart over the course of three centuries.”

Hoover’s account of the peace negotiations is fascinating for its behind-the-scenes look at diplomacy and the logistics of rebuilding a war-ravaged continent. The process was made even more difficult by the Soviet Union’s exporting of Communist revolutions, financed by czarist gold.

Despite Wilson’s failure to obtain Senate ratification of the treaty and the League of Nations, which he considered inextricably intertwined, Hoover contends Wilson’s success was as a moral force in the world.

“Woodrow Wilson’s expression of his ideals and his eloquent statements on the “basis” of peace brought a renewed thrust for freedom to mankind… After America entered the war in April 1917, under Mr. Wilson’s banner of freedom, twenty-one races of men threw off their oppression by revolution. “

Hoover does, however, criticize Wilson for too willingly accept the mandates favored by the Allied powers. Wilson’s initial proposal was that the “backward peoples” that were part of the old German, Russian, and Turkish empires be administered in a transition to self-determination. His notion was that small, neutral countries would administer the mandates.

General Jan Smuts, the Prime Minister of the South African Union, lobbied and won the compromise that the mandates would be administered by the larger Allied Powers on the notion that they had more experience. It was under the mandates that Great Britain controlled Palestine, Trans-Jordan, and Iraq, while France controlled Syria and Lebanon. It’s easy to wonder, nearly 100 years later, whether allowing those countries to determine their own destiny would have averted some of the troubles we see today.

Hoover wrote the book in the 50’s, so he had the historical context of World War II, as well as the Marshall Plan, the founding of the U.N. and the creation of NATO. He attributes those institutions to the spirit of Wilson. I believe that those institutions, combined with the spread of democracy throughout Europe, have averted the widespread devastation wrought by both world wars.