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The Breathless Trumpeter

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

On Dec. 1, 2008, President-elect Barack Obama offered World AIDS Day remarks at Rick Warren's Forum on Global Health. Obama concluded, "In the Apostle Paul's letter to the Corinthians, he asked, 'If the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?' We as leaders must continue to sound that call?...?and defeat this disease."

American trumpets through two long wars, one against disease (with AIDS the latest front) and the other against totalitarianism, have almost always sounded clear calls. We'll celebrate in 2014 the centennial of the opening of the Panama Canal, its construction possible only because we fought a ruthless war against yellow fever and malaria by draining swamps, spraying insect breeding areas, and fumigating buildings.

The war against disease has continued throughout the succeeding 98 years, with penicillin and other antibiotics making a huge difference, and vaccines vanquishing polio and other nightmares. No one has said that if we don't defeat cancer by 2014 we'll give up.

The other century-long war has been against attempts to extinguish freedom. Americans starting in 1917 opposed international socialism, fought and won a terrible war against Hitler and his National Socialists in the early 1940s, then endured 45 years of Cold War—from 1946 to 1991—to defeat the Soviet Union.

That war sometimes became hot, with more than 100,000 Americans dying in Korea and Vietnam. Nuclear missiles could have made it torrid during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and many less heralded face-offs. The president in 1962 was John F. Kennedy, who said, "Now the trumpet summons us again [with] a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle."

Kennedy could have taken his trumpet to Berlin in 1963 and said that 17 years of Cold War were enough. He could have announced that our troops would leave in 1965 regardless of conditions on the ground. Instead, he visited Berlin and sounded a clear call: "Ich bin ein Berliner," I am a Berliner. The United States never abandoned that city to communism.

Compare that era's bipartisan stand against totalitarianism with today's partisan pusillanimity. Then, roughly half of the federal budget went for defense, with Democratic and Republican leaders understanding that it would be irresponsible to overspend in other areas when dictators were on the march. The American trumpet throughout the Cold War, except for one brief period of wavering, sounded a clear call.

In 2001 a new front in our long war against totalitarianism became evident, as Islamists who hate freedom of thought and speech used American liberty to kill Americans. Our trumpeting initially showed determination, but even the liberal Washington Post is now astounded by President Obama's muffled murmuring about Afghanistan, which Democrats once considered "the good war." The Post in March opined, "If it's evident that the president won't defend the war, and is focused on 'winding down' rather than winning, why should anyone else support it?"

I'm not defending the conduct of our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead of seeing voting as a magic wand, we should have emphasized religious liberty. Maybe we should have had a narrow search only for the 9/11 perpetrators. Maybe?...?but we'll never know what terrorists would have done in the United States had we decided to play defense instead of going on offense. In 2003 I noted in WORLD that we live in evil times and were reluctantly choosing the lesser of evils, going to war rather than waiting for more war to come to us. But I am mostly struck now by how Americans once stood firm against both disease and totalitarianism—and now we fight disease but appease dictators.

By the way, our one major wavering during the Cold War came from 1973 to 1975, when a Watergate-occupied Richard Nixon and his politically weak successor, Gerald Ford, did not keep a pledge to supply South Vietnam's army with weapons and ammo. George J. Veith documents the result in a just-published, thoroughly researched book, Black April: The Fall of South Vietnam (Encounter). Americans escaped by helicopter from the roof of our Saigon embassy. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who had depended on us ended up dead, imprisoned, or fleeing by boat. Except for the fleeing by boat, will hysteria repeat itself in Kabul? If the trumpet does not sound a clear call, the tragic answer is yes.

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