Gore, Bush Ignore Ike’s ‘Cross of Iron’

We’ve reached that stage of the national campaign when smarty-pants columnists start asking trick questions-of potential voters.

In keeping with the genial spirit of things, here’s a test: What political figure do you suppose said the following:

“Every gun that is fired, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies … a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.… This is not a way of life at all.… Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

That’s too easy, you say (except that you know it’s a trick question, so you’re thinking- Pat Buchanan ?) If you didn’t know that you were the subject of some smarty-pants columnist’s trick, you’d be tempted to attribute such fuzzy-headed rhetoric to Ralph Nader, for who else would dare suggest that the Pentagon steals money from the naked and the hungry? Who else would even mention the naked and the hungry?

Well, as you’ve no doubt gathered, those seditious words did not fall from the lips of Mr. Nader, though he no doubt would second them. In fact, the “cross of iron” speech was delivered in 1953 by that noted bleeding heart, Dwight Eisenhower, five-star General of the Army, commander of the greatest invasion fleet ever assembled, and therefore one of the most informed skeptics of military budgets that our political system has ever produced. (The quote is taken from Michael R. Beschloss’ book, The Crisis Years. )

Al Gore, soldier-journalist in Vietnam, and George W. Bush, protector of the skies over Texas in the 1960s, both are incapable of uttering anything like what Ike said in the first year of his Presidency, a mere eight years after America’s triumph of arms in World War II. Neither man was a military hero or a battlefield officer; both missed the combat experience of their generation, although Mr. Gore got at least a glimpse of what Vietnam was like. Yet they are seeking an office whose duties include the supervision of the world’s greatest collection of soldiers and arms in a world where no nation-state is a threat to our security. Confronted with demands for bigger and better guns, warships and rockets, they do not raise the question of theft. Instead, they feel compelled to sign off on promises of more and still more, lest anybody accuse them of letting down our men and women in uniform.

In his last months as President, Dwight Eisenhower famously warned us about the power of the military-industrial complex. Just as his Vice President, and only his Vice President, could later travel to China, only the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force could talk in such dire terms of the alliance between the Pentagon and the armaments industry.

With Mr. Gore’s campaign propaganda crowing that Washington “is now able to invest in renewed growth in defense budgets,” with Mr. Bush vowing to increase funding for defense research and development by $20 billion by 2006, with voices on the right complaining of the lack of aircraft carriers (12 are listed as active, from the Kitty Hawk , launched in 1961, to the Harry S Truman , launched in 1998; another, the Ronald Reagan , is under construction), where is today’s Ike to warn us of theft posing as strength?

The two most famous soldiers of the post-Vietnam era, Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf, have not aspired to Eisenhower-like credibility. During the Republican National Convention, both retired generals served as partisans in Bush warfare (with the requisite civilian clothes). They echoed Republican complaints that the military has drifted into that dangerous body of water known as Dire Straits. In a subtle gesture, Mr. Schwarzkopf delivered his alarums about combat readiness from the deck of the battleship U.S.S. New Jersey . The symbolism was supposed to be pretty damn obvious: War hero delivering plea for more defense spending from deck of battleship. Patriots would weep on command.

General Schwarzkopf didn’t dare point out that the city from which he was speaking-the terrible, defeated city of Camden, N.J., where the New Jersey is berthed-has more than its share of cold, ill-clothed and hungry citizens, the very people from which, Ike warned, resources are stolen so that guns and warships and missiles may be purchased in bulk. I don’t know the means by which the retired general was deployed to the deck of the New Jersey , but if he received even a short tour of Camden on his way to and from his performance, he surely would have seen humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

Questioning the demands of Pentagon bureaucrats and their friends in the private sector shouldn’t require a chest full of combat ribbons. Yet neither Mr. Gore nor Mr. Bush seems to believe he has the brass to make the Eisenhower argument, even though our Cold War enemies are vanquished. Instead, both will be silent while the great theft continues.