Las Vegas Sun

January 16, 2019

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Where I Stand:

Ike had it right: Be an informed citizen

This is the time of year for reflection. Whether we have been good or bad, kind or not, understanding or callous to the plaint of others, and Americans in spirit and deed or just in the desire to pursue our own dreams at the expense of others.

This is a joyous time of the year. Hallmark’s Christmas movies abound, hot chocolate tastes better, and little kids from all walks of life walk with a bounce in their step and, mostly, a smile on their little faces.

How can you not like Christmastime?

And then, of course, there is Christmastime, 2018, in America. What should be the best place on Earth to be — even in the worst of times it is still better than all the others — seems a bit off.

Whether it is the politics of divisiveness that has defined our country for the past couple of years or, worse, the rise of racial hatred, anti-Semitism and the irrational fear of the other that has overtaken our daily lives and waking moments, the United States is today a place where anxiety rules the day and outright fear grips our nights. Citizens turn against each other for no good reasons, and ignorance trumps enlightenment every day — as preached to us over what we call the “news channels” on cable television and other means of media fakery on Facebook, Twitter and the like.

And, oh, what is a lowly citizen to do in the face of such bad tidings? How do we rescue our democracy — the greatest on Earth and what must remain the beacon to the world — from what seems daily to be a spiraling toward, well, something awful?

One place to look for guidance is from a time not long after World War II and during the heyday of the Greatest Generation as it built America into the greatest place on earth.

We all know the attention paid to the words of our 34th president of the United States, Dwight David Eisenhower. As he ended his two terms as leader of the free world, he famously warned his fellow citizens to be wary of the military-industrial complex that was poised to consume our country in the 1950s and has succeeded in the short few decades that have followed to do just that.

Ike was right!

What most of us haven’t heard, though, is President Eisenhower’s words to a World War II veteran in 1959, which may hold even greater meaning for us today. The story of Ike’s warning is starting to make the rounds, so I thought I should share it.

In those days, people actually wrote letters to one another, so their words were more thoughtful and their penmanship was fully legible. The president answered Robert J. Biggs, a man concerned about something big — the missile gap between the United States and the Soviet Union. The idea that the Russians were more powerful than America was causing sleepless nights from sea to shining sea. Sound familiar?

Concerned about the feelings of insecurity in the country leading to a “recession, etc.” Biggs asked the president to “assure (the people) that government does not operate without them and in consideration of them.” Biggs said he “felt from your recent speeches the feeling of hedging and a little uncertainty. We wait for someone to speak for us and back him completely if the statement is made with truth.”

President Eisenhower explained to Biggs his views of the divide in the country over security issues and explained about the “high degree of confusion and uncertainty on major national problems that seem to exist today.” Eisenhower explained that complex problems could only be understood if everyone had the same understanding of the issues and were, basically, on the same page.

Eisenhower then referred the veteran to Eric Hoffer’s book, “ The True Believer.”

In it, Ike said, the “author points out that dictatorial systems make one contribution to their people which leads them to tend to support such systems — FREEDOM FROM THE NECESSITY OF INFORMING THEMSELVES AND MAKING UP THEIR OWN MINDS CONCERNING THESE TREMENDOUS COMPLEX AND DIFFICULT QUESTIONS (caps added)."

Eisenhower goes on to tell his pen pal that as president he always endeavors to assist in “every way open to me in giving our people a better understanding” because being better informed “is vital to self-government and to our way of life as free men.”

So, as we head into the Christmas season with high hopes for more joy, not less, more freedom, not less, and a better understanding of our responsibility to keep our democracy strong and vibrant and not one given to autocratic tendencies by some of our leaders, try to remember the concerns of President Eisenhower almost 60 years ago.

Not the concern about the power of the military-industrial complex — we know he was right about that. I am talking about Ike’s fear that our democracy would and could only work if the people — that’s you and me — took the time and made the effort to inform ourselves about the issues of the day.

Democracy requires a lot of effort from every citizen. And every citizen requires the truth and truth telling, something in short supply today at the highest reaches of our government.

This Christmas we should do what Ike said. We should consider how to be better, more well-informed citizens. That is an effort which could bring more joy into our lives.

As for the truth, it is currently difficult to find it from our leaders who are supposed to tell it to us straight. We will have to leave it to Santa to put it under our collective Christmas tree!

Please, America, open your gift.

Brian Greenspun is editor, publisher and owner of the Sun