Archive for the ‘ The Historical Muse ’ Category

American Wars: A Retrospective

I could have just relaxed today, put up a photo of Memorial Day, and said nothing more. But I thought instead this might be a good opportunity to provide some ponderings on the various wars in which America got involved. Perhaps this is the best way to remember those who sacrificed the most for us all. From the American Revolution to the various manifestations of the War on Terror, here is an abbreviated attempt to offer some thoughts on the goals, meanings, and accomplishments of each major conflict.

  • The American Revolution. My preferred name for this war is the American War for Continued Self-Government. Why? It’s a more accurate descriptor of what took place. This was no revolution in the ordinary usage of that word. The have-nots did not rise up against the haves. Class conflict played a small role. Rather, the colonists were backed into a corner, witnessing their age-old British rights being violated. They wanted to reestablish those rights, but met with stubborn resistance from the Crown and Parliament. Declared by their king to be in rebellion and fired upon by the King’s troops attempting to remove the colonists’ store of weapons for self-defense, they felt they had no choice but to fight back. The result? They founded a nation based on a combination of Biblical principles and British constitutionalism. That successful “revolution” would serve as an inspiration to many, although most who sought to follow in its wake lacked the Biblical basis for similar success.
  • The War of 1812. Another woefully misnamed war, which lasted until 1815. Americans were still being treated as a second-class nation by the British, who hadn’t left their posts in the Northwest as they had promised and who were continuing their policy of stopping American ships and “impressing” sailors into service into the British navy. This war featured a rather disorganized strategy, with too much reliance on militia than the regular army. It showcased some stunning victories at sea against the world’s greatest seapower, a humiliating loss of the nation’s capital, a resounding defense of Baltimore that gave birth to our national anthem, and a final battle at New Orleans that sealed the legitimacy of the Louisiana Purchase in the eyes of the European world. Although there was no declared winner, Americans, by virtue of that final battle, felt very much like they had won indeed.
  • The Mexican War. Next to Vietnam, this is the most controversial war in our history. Mexico was not a good neighbor and manifested constant political instability, but it cannot be denied that President Polk had his eyes on more territory from the very beginning of his term. Technically, it began as a border dispute, yet it was the idea of Manifest Destiny that inspired it. The Whig Party deplored it; Congressman Abraham Lincoln disputed Polk’s rationale for the war; the nation was split on its honorable nature. When the fighting ended, America received a vast new territory. Unfortunately, that acquisition led to an attempt to spread slavery in that new territory, to fiery rhetoric on the issue, and eventually to our next war.
  • The Civil War. Some prefer another name for this one, whether the War of Southern Rebellion, the War of Northern Aggression, or simply the War Between the States. Even the various preferred names reveal the divide that still haunts us today. While some insist slavery was not the cause, I believe there would have been no war without the existence of slavery. The Civil War was the most devastating of all our wars—700,000 [new estimate] died in the conflict. Over time, I have come to consider Lincoln as one of the greatest of presidents. His perspective on the war, as he tried to see it from God’s point of view, is probably accurate: the Lord allowed it due to the sins of both sides. Although devastating, it did bring an end to slavery and the country eventually united in action. And even though scars remain, we eventually became one people again.
  • Spanish-American War. This war began on a false premise—the Spanish blew up our ship in Havana harbor. However, it was the best-informed opinion at the time, and I don’t hold it against McKinley for concluding something had to be done. The Cubans had been calling for us to help them for decades. Next to WWII, this is probably the most altruistic war in American history. The citizenry rallied to free Cuba from Spanish control. It lasted only ten weeks and the goal was achieved. Unforeseen results were the acquisition of Puerto Rico and the Philippines as the Spanish retreated from being an empire. This led to a guerrilla war in the Philippines for a few years, but eventually peace reigned there, the Filipinos received self-government under U.S. supervision, then finally their independence. The American “empire,” if that’s even the proper term, was one of the best in human history.
  • World War I. We were very reluctant to get involved in a European war. But when the Germans unleashed unrestricted submarine warfare, sinking more American ships, and when they tried to get Mexico to attack us in a strategy to keep us distracted, we finally declared war. American participation lasted only one and a half years, but the flood of American soldiers to the front turned the tide. The promises made by President Wilson were unfounded—The War to End All Wars—and disillusion with the results led to a strong sense that we should never do this again. Progressives used the war to put the federal government in control of most American businesses. Once the war ended, we reversed that policy, once again pledging we would never do it again.
  • World War II. No major controversy here—nearly all Americans agreed we had to respond to the attack at Pearl Harbor. Then when Hitler declared war on us, we had a two-front war without seeking it. The goal was to dismantle the regimes that sought world domination. That goal was achieved. The price was high, with over 400,000 dead. America also emerged from this war as the leader of the Free World, with new and heavy responsibilities. Those responsibilities became more onerous as the Soviet Union set up a rival empire with the stated goal of ushering in the age of universal communism. Our defense of freedom became known as the Cold War.
  • The Korean War. This conflict was the first to arise out of the new Cold War. While technically a United Nations action, the U.S. was clearly in command of the strategy, and we provided most of the troops. The Communist North invaded the South; we defended the South and pushed those troops back into the North. It ended with a truce, a stalemate actually, and we still have troops stationed at the border between the two nations. North Korea has become a major threat to stability and has been characterized as one of the Axis of Evil. We were right to defend the South; the decision to return to the status quo rather than win the war remains a source of controversy to this day.
  • The Vietnam War. Easily the most divisive war of the twentieth century, we had a reasonable rationale for getting involved: stop the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. Fine goal, but questionable strategy. There are many ways to critique how this war was prosecuted, but suffice to say it led to the demise of the LBJ presidency. When Nixon took over, he eventually ended the active hostilities with a peace agreement, but the decision by Congress to cut off aid to South Vietnam and the problems of Watergate allowed the North to resume the war, this time with success as it overran the South. I consider this the saddest of all American wars. Our loss of life, over 55,000, ended with communism taking over the entire country. Our soldiers were not treated as heroes, as in other wars, and it took far too long for their sacrifices to be honored.
  • The Persian Gulf War. I have no problem with this war’s aims: get Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and corral him so he wouldn’t be a threat to the entire region. The first President Bush cobbled together a coalition of nations that did just that. Yet we didn’t follow through and took on the immense task of overseeing Saddam’s compliance with U.N. resolutions. Iraq became a festering sore that had to be dealt with eventually.
  • The War on Terror. Iraq and Afghanistan are the centers of this conflict, but in reality it knows no boundaries. Neither can we know at the present time how winnable this war may be; controversy centers on whether we should be out there prosecuting it or hunkering down behind fortress America. Strategies and tactics are an ongoing debate, but one thing is certain: soldiers are still laying down their lives and should be honored for their commitment. This is a war that must be won; let there be no doubt on that score.

On this day, I honor those who have given their all. As a Christian, I don’t seek war with anyone, but there is nothing Biblical about allowing tyrants, terrorists, and ego-inflated dictators to run roughshod over those who want to live in peace. We have an obligation to defend ourselves and work for the greater good. There will be wars and rumors of wars until the end of this age. While they are being fought, let’s remember those on the front lines.

Restoring Humility to the Oval Office

Policies, as essential as they are, aren’t the only consideration when choosing leaders. Character is of equal significance. One of the key traits I seek in a candidate is humility. Pride is the cause of untold miseries. An arrogant leader is prone to mistakes based on his unrealistic evaluation of his own personal importance. What really gets to me are the polls that show a majority of Americans think Obama is likeable. Since when?

This is the man who wrote his autobiography in his early thirties. Who does that? This is the man who served only two years in the Senate, but who spent most of that time running for president. He has no legislative credentials during that tenure. This is also the man who declared that his election would signal the healing of the planet and the lowering of the oceans. Is there any greater indication of arrogance?

Then last week we were treated to the spectacle of the biographies of presidents on the White House website having been altered. Did you miss that one? Most of the twentieth-century presidents had a comment or two added about Obama. Huh? What did Obama have to do with FDR, Truman, JFK, LBJ, or Reagan? It was a bald attempt to insert his “accomplishments” into the stories of earlier administrations. Fortunately, it has met with the ridicule it deserves:

A narcissist is someone who is overly self-involved, and often vain and selfish. For the narcissist, the world revolves around him, his thoughts, and his deeds. I would say the cartoonist captures the essence of our current president.

What a contrast can be provided by looking at Ronald Reagan. He brought the nation out of the depths of economic despair and followed policies that led ultimately to the dismantling of the “evil empire,” the Soviet Union. Yet one seeks in vain for any comment from Reagan boasting about his accomplishments. On the economy, whenever anyone tried to give him credit, he would say he simply got the government out of the way; it was the genius of individual entrepreneurs that created the turnaround. When the USSR collapsed, you didn’t see him taking a victory lap. Most of what he did to help bring about that collapse was behind the scenes.

He also did little things that revealed his humility. Reagan had a pen pal in a Washington, DC, school. He visited the boy’s home a few times, but reporters never knew about it. It was something that came from his heart, not from cynical political advantage.

Then when Reagan realized he had Alzheimer’s, he wrote a letter to the American people—his final public utterance. I can imagine some would use this opportunity to focus on self, but again, Reagan had a different spirit. Here’s how that letter ended:

In closing, let me thank you, the American people, for giving me the great honor of allowing me to serve as your president. When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be, I will face it with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future. I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.

How many of us, facing a future filled with lost memories and steadily decreasing mental capabilities, would concentrate instead on how grateful we are to have been allowed to serve? How many of us would be thinking more about our fellow citizens than ourselves? The humility that Reagan brought to the office of the presidency should be an inspiration to us all. It should also create within us a desire to see that kind of humility restored to that office.

George Washington, the Presidency, & Character

On this day in 1789, George Washington took the very first presidential oath of office. His inauguration on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City was the beginning of a grand experiment. Although the fledgling nation had been in existence since 1776, it had only an ad hoc government throughout most of the American Revolution, then switched to a very weak Articles of Confederation in the 1780s. At Washington’s inauguration, the new Constitution also was inaugurated. The question in everyone’s mind was whether it would or could work.

Ten thousand citizens were present to witness the first inaugural. Washington, at six-foot, three inches, looked every bit the part of a president. Of course, he already had won the confidence of Americans by his leadership during the war. They now looked to him to transfer his leadership from military matters to those of civil government. Everything he did would be seen as a precedent.

After he repeated the oath of office, Washington then kissed the Bible and went inside to deliver his inaugural address in the newly improvised Senate chamber. The address was short, but focused on the need for a strong Constitution, the addition of a Bill of Rights [which came along two years later], and how government was to be for the public good. As was his practice as general of the army in the war, he took no pay other than reimbursement for actual expenses.

At the end of his address, he and a number of the legislators and local politicians then walked to St. Paul’s Chapel to pray. He knew this new nation would need all the prayer it could get. It really was a grand experiment. Many thought it would fail. One of the reasons it did not can be traced directly to the wisdom George Washington brought to the presidency and to the precedents he set, not the least of which was to step down after serving two terms, thus laying to rest the fear that the presidency would evolve into just another kingship.

Excellent character in high office is a requisite for success in government. Washington set the bar high. We can’t say the same for all of his presidential successors, but we can, on this day, honor the good start he gave us. May we work now to preserve that heritage.

Charles (Chuck) Colson (1931-2012)

When Chuck Colson broke free from his earthly body this past Saturday, the evangelical world lost one of its foremost spokesmen. He didn’t start out as a Christian leader; in fact, he was considered a political hatchet man and became embroiled in the Watergate controversy, over which he went to prison. But his life changed dramatically.

I remember the events of Watergate quite clearly. Just out of college, I followed the fallout from the foolish break-in at the Democrat headquarters that occurred during the 1972 presidential campaign. Colson was a White House operative under Nixon. He in no way participated in the break-in plans, but did get involved with the attempted coverup afterwards. As a result, he was found guilty of obstruction of justice and served seven months in a federal prison for his actions.

Yet by the time he went to prison, he already was a different man. The ordeal made him rethink his entire life, and where ultimate meaning really resides. He began to delve into Scripture and into the works of C.S. Lewis. The combination convinced him to turn his life over to the Lord. This was particularly meaningful to me at the time since I was reading Lewis rather heavily myself; he was fast becoming my favorite author. Hearing how Lewis’s works had helped bring Colson to salvation, I naturally wanted to know more about what had transpired.

I didn’t have long to wait, as Colson’s spiritual confessions were in print shortly after his release. The book’s title, Born Again, was not inventive, but it certainly was descriptive. It was the beginning of a witness to the truth of the Gospel that Colson would maintain for the rest of his days. It made an impact on me. As I sit here writing, I see my copy of the book in my bookcase across the room, a book I’ve now had in my library for thirty-six years.

The cynics watched and waited. They fully expected this was a foxhole conversion that wouldn’t hold. Colson surprised them. He started a ministry called Prison Fellowship, which ministered to the incarcerated. It continues unabated today. If you’ve ever participated in the Angel Tree program at Christmas, you’ve been touched by the life of Chuck Colson.

More than that, he sought to educate Christians into a more comprehensive, consistent Biblical worldview—another key component of his ministry, separate from the prison ministry but just as significant. In his later years, he devoted the largest share of his time to speaking out on how to apply Biblical thinking to our culture and politics.

Although his family and friends will surely miss him, everyone who knew him has the deep assurance that he now has a greater reason to rejoice than those who have been left behind. I hope to meet him someday. Death is not the end for those who name the name of Christ. As the apostle Paul explained,

For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”

On Saturday, death lost again.

Lexington, Concord, & Freedom

On this date 237 years ago—April 19, 1775—riders spread throughout the Massachusetts countryside warning citizens that the British Regulars were coming out of Boston. Why the warning? Those troops had two goals. The first was to capture “rebel” ringleaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock at Lexington where they were staying, and send them to Britain to be hanged. The second was to take possession of the area’s militia stores in a town called Concord. They accomplished neither, but they did start a war for independence.

Paul Revere was one of those riders that day, and he successfully warned Adams and Hancock in time before he himself was captured by a British patrol. As the 700 troops entered Lexington, they encountered 70 Minutemen, part of the overall militia, standing on the town’s main square. There was no way this small body of shopkeepers and farmers was planning to engage in an all-out battle with regular troops. It was primarily a statement of principle. Their leader, Capt. John Parker, is reported to have told them, “Don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”

The British commander ordered the Lexington men to disperse. Knowing they had no chance to win this battle, they were in the process of dispersing when shots rang out—from which side depends on the telling—but when the incident ended, eight Lexington men were dead, and the troops continued their march toward Concord.

Concord had been warned in time. The militia stores were removed for safekeeping, and when the troops arrived, they had nothing to confiscate. They did, however, start burning some property in the middle of the town. Minutemen by the bridge outside town saw the smoke and flames and assumed their town was being burned down. This led to a skirmish on the bridge with some of the British troops. When it became obvious the goals were now unachievable, the British beat a hasty retreat to Boston.

Unfortunately for them, the entire countryside was now up in arms—literally. Using rocks, trees, and stone walls for cover, the militia sniped at the troops all their way back to Boston. The British troops committed a number of atrocities in their retreat, which embittered the colonists even more, but the militia successfully harassed the troops the entire way. Once they had them back in Boston, 15,000 militia ringed the city to ensure they couldn’t come out again to do more harm.

The fighting had begun, and it wouldn’t end until October 1781 at the Battle of Yorktown. John Adams, writing to his wife Abigail shortly after news of the events of April 19, gives us a sentiment that is still poignant today when he said:

Posterity! You will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom! I hope you will make a good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven that I ever took half the pains to preserve it.

We are that posterity. Do we really understand what it cost that generation to establish our freedom? Are we making good use of it? Sobering questions, to be sure.

Honoring Karl Marx: Is That Really What We Want to Do?

Since April 15th came on a Sunday this year, today is the filing deadline for federal income taxes. This has become so much a part of life that most Americans probably don’t realize it wasn’t always this way. The federal income tax didn’t exist for the first 137 years of the republic [except for a short time during the Civil War]. Then in 1913, the Sixteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution [the ratification of which is still suspect historically] allowing taxes to be collected for all incomes derived from whatever source.

The amendment itself didn’t establish an income tax; it merely permitted it. Congress, later that year, in a bill that reduced tariffs—which was a good move—decided, in its wisdom, to make up for “lost revenue”—a line used repeatedly over the succeeding decades—by adding to that bill a provision for the first national income tax.

It wasn’t an intrusive tax at the time. The rates ranged from 1% to 7%, the latter being only for what today would be called multi-millionaires. So it didn’t bother too many people. Yet only four years later, in 1917 in the midst of World War I, the highest rate jumped from 7% to 77%, as a means to help pay the costs of the war. That truly is astounding.

Once the camel has its nose in the tent, it wants to come the rest of the way in.

After the war ended, and a Republican administration replaced Woodrow Wilson, the top rate was cut back to 25%. That certainly was better, but we never again got close to the 7% where we started. The value of having this progressive tax became evident to politicians of all stripes: anytime the government needs more money, just open the spigot and take more. At one point, after World War II, the highest marginal rate was over 90%. Can you imagine what that does to incentive to earn money and be productive?

Where did this wonderful idea of taxing citizens progressively—the more you make, the higher percentage of your income you have to pay—come from? Well, one of the originators of this policy in the modern era was Karl Marx. He set forth his plan for the progressive income tax in his Communist Manifesto in 1848. So Marxist ideology is behind the bright idea, and we continue to “honor” Marx today by propagating his class-envy program. Why should the government have first say on what we earn? Why should it demand so much? God requires a tithe; the government requires more than God.

Proposals to alter our taxation always fall short of support. An entire industry has arisen to bolster the current system, and an even higher percentage of citizens no longer pay any income tax at all, thereby putting the onus for financing the government on the middle and upper classes. And what do we receive for all our sacrifice? Obamacare??? Trips to Las Vegas for federal employees??? The list of abuses is virtually endless.

It’s time to rethink the entire tax code, not merely tinker with the edges. The income you earn is your money, not the government’s. That is the first perception that needs to change. Then perhaps we can find a way to appreciate that basic truth while still supporting the essential services of the government.

The Pocahontas Moment

Most of my posts deal with current events, but as a historian, I want to highlight key moments in history. Today, for instance, is the anniversary of a special moment in American colonial history: the Powhatan princess Pocahontas married English settler John Rolfe in 1614.

Why is this so important? Pocahontas’s father, Chief Powhatan, had tried to wipe out the Jamestown settlement by starvation just four years earlier. The two cultures weren’t meshing well at all. But when Rolfe and Pocahontas married, the hostility and tension lessened considerably. Prior to the marriage, Pocahontas had been tutored in the Christian faith and accepted what she heard. She asked to be baptized.

This particular painting of the baptism of Pocahontas can be viewed in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, DC. It’s a little idealized—those columns didn’t exist in colonial Jamestown—but it captures the spirit of the event. She even changed her name to Rebecca, which she considered a more appropriate Christian name.

The Virginia Company knew a good thing when it saw it, so Rebecca and family [she had a young son as well] were all packed and sent to England to show off the good work being accomplished in the New World. While in England, she had her portrait painted in proper English dress.

By all accounts, her conversion was genuine, as was her love of English culture. Unfortunately, before she could return to Virginia, she died of pneumonia. Only a few years later, the peace between the cultures deteriorated. In March of 1622, the natives rose up and tried to exterminate all the English in the Jamestown area. Though they failed in that attempt, any hope for the two cultures to live peaceably side by side disappeared.

But for a few special years, Pocahontas/Lady Rebecca was the cornerstone of good relations. She played a valuable role in early American history.