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January 30, 2011
Thus Spake FDR
January 30th is the birthday of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. With this morning's screaming headlines from Cairo, with the Mideast once again erupting, it's a good time to consider how we got here. Our biggest concern in the Mideast is the dread prospect of Iran "going nuclear." Or, now, we must imagine an Islamist Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood going nuclear. Jihadists with nukes are as dangerous today as the threat of Hitler getting a nuclear weapon was in 1939.
Imagine the scene. Scientist Alexander Sachs, described as a "gadfly," was admitted to the Oval Office on a sultry August day in 1939. He carried a letter to President Roosevelt from Nobel Prize-winning physicist Albert Einstein that described how a bomb might be constructed using nuclear fission. Sachs wasn't sure the president understood his presentation. The White House then was not air conditioned because FDR said it gave him colds. Sachs offered to go through his information again.
The President, doubtless eager to get on to his favorite "Children's Hour" with his closest friends and mix his own martinis, waved away another science lecture from Sachs. "Alex, what you are after is to see the Nazis don't blow us up." Relieved, Sachs answered: "Precisely, Mr. President."
Then, President Roosevelt turned to his military aide, Gen. Edwin "Pa" Watson. He spake just four words: "Pa, this requires action."
Those four words were enough to set in train the greatest secret scientific project in human history. From those four words uttered by a mere mortal man, albeit a very powerful one, came the Manhattan Project.
From that initiative has come the world of nuclear-armed states that was born six years later, in 1945. What Churchill called a balance of terror dominates the thinking of top military and diplomatic officials in all the developed countries -- those that have nuclear weapons as well as those that seek to acquire them. The danger that even one of these devastating weapons-and the means to deliver it -- might fall into the hands of pirates, terrorists, or rogue states concentrates the minds of all.
I have a friend who is an atheist who considers me wildly irrational for believing that God could speak the universe into existence. He regards the account in Genesis to be beautiful poetry but nothing else: "And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years. (Genesis 1:14). Because my atheist friend is a materialist, he cannot conceive of anything occurring because some all-powerful Being spake.
As an historian and not a theologian or philosopher, I don't have sophisticated responses to my friend's materialist arguments. Still, we cannot deny the historical veracity of one man speaking four words and the world as we know it never being the same again.
We might regret that FDR ever said those words to Gen. Watson. Who would not prefer a world without nuclear weapons? But that was not the choice given to President Roosevelt.
The choice he was given was a world in which Hitler had those terrifying weapons and the Allies did not. The essence of leadership is not in choosing the best of all possible worlds. We will not see such a world while we live. The key to great leadership is choosing the wisest course among many dangerous choices.
President Obama speaks eloquently of a world without nuclear weapons. So did President Reagan. The difference was that Reagan offered such a vision only when the United States would be equipped with a Strategic Defense Initiative that protects us from a well-armed nuclear foe or a single terrorist cell with even one nuclear weapon.
President Obama has chosen to place his trust -- and our survival -- in the hands of international organizations like the UN. The fecklessness of the UN is played out daily before the world audience.
Egyptian Mohammed ElBaradei is today maneuvering to replace President Mubarak in Cairo. Most recently, ElBaradei was the Director General of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), tasked with inspecting Iran's nuclear facilities.
ElBaradei told China's Xinhua News Agency in 2009 that Israel, not Iran, was the number one danger to peace in the Middle East. Doubtless it was for such politically correct notions that ElBaradei was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Should we continue to rely on Americans like Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan for our national security? Or should we rely, as President Obama does, on UN bureaucrats like Mohammed ElBaradei?
Given a world of dangerous choices, President Roosevelt and Reagan relied on American arms and American principles. President Obama relies on the UN. God help us.