Easy Chair — From the September 2011 issue

A Letter to Barack Obama

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When I entered the U.S. Senate in 1963, the defense budget was $51 billion. This was at a time when our military experts felt it necessary to have the means to win a war against the combined powers of Russia and China. Today we have a military budget of over $700 billion, and yet neither Russia nor China threatens us, if indeed they ever did. Nor does any other nation. Furthermore, the terrorist threat we face is not a military matter. The World Trade Center was brought down not by artillery or bombers or battleships but by nineteen young Arabs equipped only with box cutters. The Department of Homeland Security created by the Bush Administration after this attack is a better instrument against terrorism than our military, even though our armed forces are the best in the world.

In my career both in the House and in the Senate, inspired by the words of Eisenhower, my supreme commander in Europe during World War II, I tried hard to curb the powers of what Eisenhower, in his farewell address as president, referred to as the “military-industrial complex.” Needless to say, all my efforts to reduce military spending were defeated. With the renaming of the War Department as the Defense Department in 1947, the military part of the government became sacred, virtually untouchable. How could anyone vote to cut defense unless he or she is willing to face political defeat?

We need a new definition of “defense” that takes into account the quality of our education, the health of our people, the preservation of the environment, the strength of our transportation, the development of alternative fuels, the vigor of our democracy. These were the concerns expressed by the people who stood in Cairo’s Tahrir Square holding up their signs for more than two weeks this winter. Without guns, knives, or the use of their fists, they brought down the dictator who had exploited them for nearly thirty years.

All Americans want their country to have an adequate military defense. But under pressure from corporate lobbyists and legislators seeking military contracts or bases for their states, we are spending to excess while other sources of national defense, such as health care and education, are shortchanged and the national debt grows ever larger.

Many patriotic Americans have opposed the two wars our gallant young troops have been asked to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has estimated that the direct and indirect costs of the Iraq war will amount to $3 trillion. This represents nearly a quarter of our national debt. I suspect that the war in Afghanistan will eventually cost another $3 trillion and we still will not have achieved our aim. General David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, advises that we cannot think of withdrawing our troops before 2014. If we stay on that schedule, our soldiers will have been fighting, bleeding, and dying there for thirteen years—more than three times the length of U.S. involvement in World War II.

I recently conferred with President Obama in his White House office, urging him to withdraw from Afghanistan. I’m pleased that he has since announced the withdrawal of 10,000 troops in 2011 and 23,000 in 2012. I would have been even more pleased if all our 100,000 troops now in Afghanistan, as well as those in Iraq, were on the way home.

The president may be reluctant to follow the advice of a presidential candidate who in 1972 lost forty-nine states to Richard Nixon. I can appreciate that concern. On the other hand, shortly after the 1972 election, two bipartisan investigations—one by the House and one by the Senate—forced the incumbent who beat me to resign his office in disgrace. A question from the New Testament comes to mind: What doth it profit a man if he gains the whole world or wins a big election and loses his own soul? The late Sargent Shriver, my running mate in 1972, came to me the day after the election and said, “George, we may have lost fortyine states but we never lost our souls.”

co-wrote "The Way Out of War" in the October 2006 issue of Harper's. A former U.S. congressman, senator, Democratic presidential candidate, and Harper's Magazine Foundation board member, McGovern passed away on October 21, 2012.

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