From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli.
We fight our country's battles in the air, on land and sea.
First to fight for right and freedom, and to keep our honor clean;
We are proud to claim the title of United States Marine.
That’s from the Marine Corp Hymn, of course, and you can thank me for not singing it. When I was a boy, a lot of America kids knew that verse -- and probably a few more. I hope they still do, but I get the impression that might not be the case.
That's one reason I'd like to spend some time talking about the heritage this song represents. Another reason is that the lyrics hold a history lesson critical to America’s future. I realize a lot of you already know this material, but indulge me for the sake of those who might not.
The very first line written for the Marine Corps Hymn, about the shores of Tripoli, refers to America's first foreign war. After the Revolution, U.S. ships were sailing the world in search of trade without British protection. With no real navy to protect our merchants and travelers, American vessels and citizens were being targeted for looting, enslavement and ransom. The enemy was the so-called Barbary pirates -- agents of the North African provinces of the Ottoman Caliphate.
Ransom and protection money were demanded and paid. Stories of terrible treatment of American men and women in the dungeons of North Africa were well known. Behind it all, the country was having a pro- and anti-war debate.
On the one hand were those who took the "no blood for trade" approach. They had legitimate concerns about the cost and political impact of maintaining a standing military. They favored negotiations and payments rather than fighting. For a long time, their side was winning the argument. In 1786, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams even went to London to negotiate directly with the envoy from Tripoli.
Several historians and writers have reminded us recently of the ambassador’s nearly forgotten answer. Fortunately, Jefferson prepared a written report for the government and left other records of the incident. Here’s a description from The Atlantic Monthly in 1872:
“Disguising their feelings as best they could, they ‘took the liberty to make some inquiries concerning the ground of the pretensions to make war upon nations who had done them no injury.’ The ambassador replied that it was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave.” He claimed every one of their guys who was “slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise."
Fred Thompson has been a lawyer, actor and United States Senator. He writes exclusive analysis and commentary for Townhall Magazine.