Paul Kengor is professor of Political Science and Executive Director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. These articles are republished from V & V, a website of the Center for Vision & Values. Paul Kengor is author of God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life (2004) and The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (2007). His latest book is The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007).
A Candle for Iran? A Reagan Lesson for Obama -- from Christmas 1981
Twice in this space last summer, I wrote about Iran -- specifically, the dramatic June protests against the theocratic-totalitarian regime of Holocaust-denying despot Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. More than that, I focused on President Obama's reaction to the Iranian cry for freedom.
Obama's initial response was outrageous. It improved only after widespread criticism. Still, even given the improvement in his rhetoric, it was a telling display of our new president's tragic lack of recognition of what presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush termed the "March of Freedom."
I concluded those articles by emphasizing the need for Obama to employ the bully pulpit of the presidency to promote this vital groundswell of freedom in Iran. I noted how Reagan had done precisely that in places like Poland in the 1980s, with grand historical results. For Obama, this means not simply reacting to occasional incidents in Iran -- when they rarely present themselves -- but to be proactive, creative, to regularly call out the tyrants and encourage the dissidents. Obama must do this if he wants to push the freedom tide, if he wants to try to change the status quo in a dungeon like Iran, which for 30 years has been the world's worst terrorist state.
If I may, I'd like to offer a specific example from the Reagan playbook. It happened 28 years ago -- Christmas time -- this week. You will not hear about it in our public schools and liberal universities. That's a loss for liberals, too; they're missing a moving lesson that their guy -- President Obama -- could benefit from considerably.
The moment was December 1981. In the Evil Empire, "church watchers" were on duty, sitting in chapels monitoring the "stupid people" entering to worship. The Communist "war on religion" (Mikhail Gorbachev's apt description) was in full riot, as was the ugliness of Communist repression generally.
The prospects for shining light upon that darkness seemed bleak. The Soviets were on the march, having added 11 proxy states as allies since 1974. The new man in Washington, President Ronald Reagan, was sure he could reverse Moscow's surge. He would jump-start the process in Poland, a repressed Communist Bloc state -- but one where hope survived.
Just then, on December 13, the lights went out again. At midnight, as a soft snow fell on Warsaw, secret police raided Lech Walesa's Solidarity labor union. The Polish Communist government, consenting to orders from Moscow, declared martial law. Solidarity's freedom fighters were shot or imprisoned.
But as Poles prayed for light to pierce the shadows, some remarkable things began to transpire. A week and a half later, the Polish ambassador defected to the United States. Right away, President Reagan welcomed the ambassador and his wife into the Oval Office. They were overwhelmed. The ambassador's wife wept, as Vice President George H. W. Bush put an arm around her shoulders to comfort her.
The ambassador then made an extraordinary request:
May I ask you a favor, Mr. President? Would you light a candle and put it in the window tonight for the people of Poland?
Ronald Reagan rose and walked to the second floor, lit a candle, and put it in the White House window.
But Reagan wanted to do more. He saw a window of opportunity. So, on December 23, with Christmas only two days away, speaking to all of America in a nationwide address, the president connected the spirit of the season with events in Poland: "For a thousand years," he told his fellow Americans:
. . . Christmas has been celebrated in Poland, a land of deep religious faith, but this Christmas brings little joy to the courageous Polish people. They have been betrayed by their own government.
The president then took a remarkable liberty: He asked Americans that Christmas to light a candle for freedom in Poland.
It was a significant gesture, for Poland, for America, for a free world. Poles heard about it, and took it to heart; they talk about it still today.
What does this have to do with President Obama and Iran? Everything. To wit: How about doing something similar for Iranians today? Why not light a candle as a sign of hope for Iran's freedom fighters? If not a candle, then something -- some kind of overt public display.
Would such an action offend the Iranian leadership? Of course -- just as the light of day and light of truth repels a vampire.
The point, again, is for the American president to be proactive, creative, encouraging, to advance positive change. He can make these simple but profound gestures even as he proceeds with his domestic agenda. Reagan did.
Of course, there's an interesting juxtaposition: Both domestically and in foreign policy, Reagan sought to remove power from the state and transfer it to the individual -- whether through tax cuts for Americans or through undermining the Communist totalitarianism shackling Poles. Obama is looking to empower the state domestically, while not undermining the theocratic totalitarianism shackling Iranians. It's an instructive contrast.
And so, President Obama, I go back to my conclusion in my earlier articles: If you want to employ America as that light, as that beacon of freedom, then get going.
Bring a flicker of hope to freedom's dungeon. Shine it into the terror state of Iran.
Of course, proclaiming liberty to the captives means desiring it to be so. A proclaimer must first be a believer. Like Reagan, and, yes, like George W. Bush, you need to believe in the American ideal -- in the heart, the soul, the gut. You need to believe, as Ronald Reagan did, that America is less a place than an idea. Is Obama a believer? I said six months ago that time will tell. So far, the story isn't promising.
Who Was Nels Konnerup?
America honors its deceased presidents, its fallen troops, its late senators, and even its musicians and movie stars. But what about its veterinarians?
Well, there's one veterinarian who deserves pause for recognition. His name was Nels Konnerup. He recently passed away at age 92.
Born in Everett, Washington, on December 4, 1916, Konnerup was shaped by the crucible of the Great Depression. He survived it the old-fashioned, American way: faith and family, himself and his parents, hard work, rugged individualism. For the remainder of his life, he would lament Americans' slow surrender of responsibility from the self to the federal government.
Konnerup put himself through college at Washington State University. His subsequent contributions were numerous, with a resume of rich distinctions, including uniquely valuable service during the Cold War.
While many players fought for freedom during the Cold War -- ambassadors and admirals, soldiers and secretaries of defense -- Konnerup served the way he knew best: veterinary medicine. Circling the globe at a rate of 50,000 miles per year, he developed remarkable methods for pest control that saved the crucial livestock that fed billions from Asia to Africa to Central America.
In China from 1946-47, Konnerup boosted Chiang Kai-Shek's attempts to prevent Mao Tse-Tung from transforming the world's most populous nation into a giant killing field. He arrived with thousands of doses of vaccine for Rinderpest, a cattle disease with very high mortality. He quickly discovered a fatal problem missed by the bureaucrats in Washington: the lack of refrigeration at Chinese villages and farms. On the spot, Konnerup developed a clever method for preservation and delivery of the vaccine, applying a "rabbit-adapted attenuated vaccine," which he had been employing in Australia. It worked. He established a vaccine production laboratory in Nanking.
Unfortunately, other factors eventually triumphed in China, as Mao emerged victorious. The Communists kicked out Konnerup and his colleagues -- but kept his vaccine. Of course, they implemented something far more destructive than Rinderpest: Mao's Sinification of Marxism. Through collectivism and wealth redistribution -- a triumph of ignorance that was the antithesis of Nels Konnerup's creativity -- Red China exterminated tens of millions of human beings. Communism slaughtered what Rinderpest could not -- by leaps and bounds.
Konnerup went elsewhere, serving the U.S. government in several capacities. He was a secret weapon in ensuring that Marshall Plan aid to Europe, once delivered, was not eaten by flies and ticks. Think about it: American aid saved a starving post-World War II Europe. At the political and diplomatic level, it was the product of President Harry Truman, of Secretary of State George Marshall, of an isolationist Republican Congress that stepped to the plate and cut a badly needed check to our allies; all of this not only fed Western Europe but kept it out of the throes of Soviet Communism.
And yet, once that vital aid was underway, it would have died if the livestock it sought to replenish were destroyed by disease. Here, too, Nels Konnerup did what he did best: He had responsibility for the health of over 60,000 head of livestock destined to Europe by steamship. No small task -- but one he pulled off.
After that, Konnerup served Douglas MacArthur and the U.S. military government in Japan. Like MacArthur, he also went to the Philippines; there, he helped resolve the malnutrition wreaked by rodent damage. Both Japan and the Philippines were crucial Cold War allies.
In retirement, Konnerup kept his fertile mind busy. He wrote letters to editors and columnists who raised his ire. Somewhat of a curmudgeon, among his pet peeves was the junk science and "flawed sophism" of un-scrutinizing "self-proclaimed and self-anointed environmentalists." He was a man of real science and real environmentalism, not given to the bandwagon. He had little patience for the latest "crisis/emergency" treaty destined to shut down an industry or economy. He was skeptical of the newest claims of Armageddon by partisan politicians, amateur environmentalists, and assorted "nefarious nabobs."
"Let there be integrity in definitions!" urged a frustrated Nels Konnerup.
Alas, an aging Konnerup continued to battle the eternal, insatiable progressive push for centralization and federal-government dependency that had vexed him since the 1930s. A eulogist at his funeral said:
Nels looked forward to the afterlife . . . because he expected to see FDR after he died, and gleefully anticipated poking him in the backside with his pitch fork.
Nels Konnerup died where he began: in his native Washington state. There was no statue erected, no statement from the White House, no obituary in the New York Times, no CNN headline. There were, however, a lot of people, from Berlin to Beijing, who owed their health to this unheralded veteran of the veterinarian sciences, who showed that there are many ways to fight the good fight and serve your Maker. *
"All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree." --James Madison