The United States had a secret weapon in the war against Nazi Germany. Many of the best minds from Germany and occupied Europe fled fascist hatred and came to our shores.
Despite immigration restrictions, the United States took these refugees in, and they helped us to win the war. People such as Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi and Edward Teller built the first atomic bomb and prepared American society to understand and defeat the enemy.
A similar process is at work today, especially in Texas.
Our state is filled with hardworking men and women who came to the United States for opportunity after fleeing repression in their countries of birth. These are many of the best students at our universities who make our society the most innovative in the world. These are the men and women we meet in our neighborhoods who understand the value of democracy and free enterprise better than many American-born citizens, because they experienced the pain of its absence before coming here.
One of us writing this piece, a veteran of the Iraq War, recently met his former interpreter, a Kurd, while shopping in a Texas supermarket. What could be more American?
Assim, the Kurdish interpreter, immigrated to the United States to escape the violence and hatred in Iraq. He brought valuable language and cultural skills to the United States, a strong work ethic, and a love for the promise of the American dream. Assim is one of thousands of Middle Eastern refugees who attest to the power of freedom and provide crucial assistance to our efforts to protect that freedom. We are all stronger, as Americans, for his presence and his patriotism.
We have always valued security and taken measures to screen and monitor recent arrivals, but we have also frequently voiced attitudes of racial, religious and ethnic intolerance, which we are hearing again today. Nonetheless, in every generation, from the Einsteins to the Kissingers and now to the Assims, these immigrants have been the engine for our innovation, growth and improvement.
Simply put, the United States will continue to prosper and defeat its enemies because it attracts freedom-loving people from around the world. That has been our source of success since Sam Houston came to Texas more than 180 years ago. The good guys have come to America to defeat the bad guys back in their old homes. And the good guys have won.
Balanced approach needed
Of course surveillance of potential terrorists and restrictions on immigration are necessary to protect against violent attacks on our society. But these legitimate actions must be balanced against the need to continue attracting talent to our communities. Much of that talent will come from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and other countries. Middle Eastern immigrants provide vital knowledge of the cultures and societies with which America interacts in our struggle to defeat violent extremism.
A plan that excludes all refugees from these areas diminishes our ability to defeat the people who most imperil our safety. If we do that, we will become a closed and fearful island rather than an open and innovative society.
As was true when fighting Nazi Germany, the refugees are our secret weapon for defeating the advocates of hate.
Imagine if the United States had not admitted Einstein or Fermi or Kissinger because they came from enemy countries and were not “good Christians.” American society would have been poorer and weaker because of such restrictions. We also would have had a harder time winning the Second World War, containing communism and generating the prosperity that has made America a world leader.
Openness, innovation and diversity are the historical recipe for freedom and success in the United States. They are the most potent weapons against all forms of hatred, violence and intolerance. We must emphasize our values in all of our policies, and we must stand against cowardly efforts to depart from who we are as Americans.
We are the society of Einstein, Fermi, Kissinger, Albright, Assim and so many other mixed recent arrivals. We are the frontier of change. We must bring the hungry, suffering and hard-working to our frontier, and we will always win.
Co-Authored with Liam Kozma (Master’s Student, LBJ School and Officer in the U.S. Army)
Originally published in the Houston Chronicle (19 November 2015).
Many of our nation’s greatest presidents have been veterans of war: George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. Military service is not necessary for a successful tenure in the White House, but it brings a deep understanding of war, in all its difficult dimensions, that every president must possess.
The next commander in chief, like every one since 1941, will have to make difficult decisions about deploying American forces into deadly circumstances abroad and managing the consequences for communities at home.
The great presidents who did not serve in the military – John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson – had close advisers who brought that experience to their deliberations. They relied on former soldiers for guidance on how to judge adversaries, how to prepare forces, where to deploy them and, most important, when to show restraint. Military experience has always tempered the most aggressive urges of ambitious political commanders.
The domestic side of military experience has proved even more important for presidents. Our nation’s social welfare programs have their origin in helping veterans adjust when they return to their families. In every generation, veterans have driven major government reforms to improve the life chances of hard-working citizens. Former Civil War soldiers pushed Progressive reformers to clean up urban corruption, improve factory conditions and assist struggling farmers. During the Great Depression, veterans marched in “Bonus Armies” at home, demanding government assistance for suffering families.
Most transformative, at the end of World War II returning service members demanded education and home-buying opportunities. Through the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, known as “the G.I. Bill,” tens of thousands of low-income and uneducated veterans attended universities and purchased houses with direct federal aid. These veterans carried American society to unprecedented prosperity during the second half of the 20th century.
But something has changed. During the past 10 years, veterans from the Second World War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War have largely retired, and they have not been replaced. Our society loves the slogan “supporting our troops,” but the voices from those who served have largely faded away. Today, our nation’s most prominent CEOs, intellectuals and politicians have never served in the military.
The current collection of presidential candidates – Republican and Democrat – is very revealing. Only one, Lindsey Graham, served in the military, and he is not even among the top 10 Republican contenders. None of the Democratic candidates has been in the military. Candidates from both parties are making extensive claims about how the United States should deploy its military power against ISIS, Russia, China and other foes and potential foes, but they have little firsthand experience with war. They represent the leading sources of money and influence in our society, and that largely excludes the armed forces, despite the importance of military decision-making to the presidency.
We do not need to have a veteran in the White House, and there is no reason to believe that someone with military experience is a better leader. There are plenty of contrary examples. But our public discussion of national security, as well as domestic policy, would be greatly enhanced if the real experiences of veterans in Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflicts were given detailed attention.
This requires much more than slogans. What does modern war mean for the men and women who serve when we deploy them to distant conflict zones? What happens to our warriors in combat and what are the true costs for our society? On the domestic side, what are the barriers to educational and professional opportunity for young men and women, many of whom have served their country? How can our government fulfill its duty to give loyal and patriotic citizens a chance at success?
We have avoided these questions in recent years and neglected the experiences veterans have always lent to American political debates. Focusing on ideologies about war and welfare rather than real experiences, we have increased our partisanship and decreased our policy effectiveness.
On this Veterans Day it is time to do more than thank our warriors. We should ask them to share their stories – bad and good – and we must be ready to listen and learn.
This article originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle (11 November 2015).