Trump’s Mission: Make America Great Again, Thinking Big and Winning — Lessons from U.S. History

World War II aircraft attack on Japan AP

Second in a Series:

In his 2008 book, Think Big: Make It Happen in Business and Life, Donald Trump wrote, “Think BIG!  You are going to be thinking anyway, so think BIG!”

Trump’s maxim has profound implications for today’s America.  As individuals, and as a nation, we should all think big, because that’s the key to personal and national success.

And the greatest success—or failure—that we could encounter is in the military arena; there’s nothing much worse than losing a war.  So in our national defense, we indeed need to think big, because we always want to win.

As we look back at US history, we can see that the greatest test for a US president has always been war.   Every few decades, we have faced a mortal threat to our existence as a nation, and strong presidents have led us to victory—even as weak, or weakened, presidents failed.  But if we hadn’t won a lot more than we’ve lost, well, we wouldn’t be here, at least not as freedom-loving English-speakers.

World War Two, the greatest conflict in history, fully illustrates this important point: Either Hitler and Tojo were going to win, or we were going to win—there was no middle ground.

Yet it’s noteworthy that the US won that epic conflict with “only” 418,000 deaths.  To be sure, the loss of nearly a half-million lives is a staggering tragedy, but at least we won.  It could have been a lot worse.

In fact, 418,000 deaths is tiny in comparison to the losses suffered by other countries.  Nazi Germany, for example, lost some five million soldiers in the fighting, as well as another three million civilians.  Even other victorious Allied countries, such as  China and the Soviet Union, suffered enormous losses—each, more than 20 million fatalities.  Total deaths in the war: 72 million.

So yes, the US suffered in World War Two, but other countries suffered more.  We operated according to Gen. George S. Patton’s maxim, “The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his.”

So how did we do this?  One thing is for sure: It was not luck.

It should come as no surprise that a key to our triumph in “The Good War” was, as Trump writes, “thinking big.” Or, to put it another way, visionary leadership.  In particular, it was the big-thinking vision of our 32nd president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, that made a huge difference.

As a young assistant secretary of the Navy in the Wilson Administration—that was an important job back then, back when the Navy was a stand-alone Cabinet department, and when there was only one assistant secretary—FDR had visited the battlefront of World War One, where the Navy’s Marines, as well as the Army, were in heavy fighting.  Surveying the mud and muddle of trench warfare, he resolved to avoid that sort of blood-bogged combat in any future war.

Later in life, Roosevelt, always an enthusiast for new ideas and new technologies, embraced air power as an alternative to mud-soldiering.   So he was paying close attention in 1920 and 1921, when Col. Billy Mitchell, the early apostle of aerial bombardment, proved repeatedly that even rickety biplanes could, with ease, sink a battleship.

As a presidential candidate in 1932, FDR took the unprecedented step of flying from his home in New York to accept the Democratic presidential nomination in Chicago, stopping to refuel in Buffalo and Cleveland.  It was symbolism, sure, but it was important symbolism.  Indeed, that November, running as the candidate of change and progress, FDR won 42 of 48 states.

Yet even in the White House, the haunting memories of trench warfare never left him.  As Roosevelt said in a speech in Chautauqua, New York, on August 14, 1936:

I have seen war.  I have seen war on land and sea. I have seen blood running from the wounded.  I have seen men coughing out their gassed lungs. I have seen the dead in the mud.  I have seen cities destroyed.  I have seen two hundred limping, exhausted men come out of line—the survivors of a regiment of one thousand that went forward forty-eight hours before.  I have seen children starving.  I have seen the agony of mothers and wives.  I hate war.

Yes, FDR hated war, but he hated even more the thought of America being conquered by Hitler or Tojo.  And so he prepared.

As recorded by historian Kenneth S. Davis in FDR: Into the Storm, 1937-40, Roosevelt, in his second term in the White House, engaged in a high-level power struggle with Congress and his own generals and admirals over future military strategy.

In 1938, FDR invited Congressional leaders to the White House for a briefing on the war to come.  Startlingly, his vision began with the defense of the Western Hemisphere entirely through air power—Fortress Americas, one might call it.  Most of those around him, including his own top staff, simply couldn’t believe what they were hearing.  Army General Hugh Drum, for example, insisted that aircraft would never be anything more than a mere adjunct to the infantry.  FDR listened politely—and resolved that Drum would never command troops in combat.

The following year, 1939, Roosevelt needed a new chief of staff for the Army, and he was most assuredly not going to let the seniority system provide him with a rote replacement.  Acting on the strong recommendation of Gen. John Pershing, commander of US forces in World War One, Roosevelt chose Gen. George C. Marshall, promoting him over 34 more senior officers—including Drum.

Marshall was a brilliant commander, but Roosevelt was a more brilliant Commander-in-Chief.  In September, 1939, even as the Nazis were blitzkrieg-ing into Poland, Marshall outlined a plan for a possible war with Germany.  It would require, Marshall said, 200 infantry divisions—but at that point, FDR stopped his subordinate.   Recalling his grim memories of the previous war, Roosevelt demurred; he didn’t want to invest that much in cannon fodder.  It was better, he thought, to keep relatively more men on the homefront, building war machines with their hands, as opposed to going into battle, feeding the war machine with their bodies.  In lieu of all that infantry, the President suggested, why don’t we settle for just 60 infantry divisions—and then build 50,000 airplanes?  Why don’t we win the war with airpower?

Marshall was himself a firm believer in air war; he was a personal friend of Gen. Hap Arnold, the future commander of the US Army Air Force (the predecessor, of course, to the USAF), and yet even so, Roosevelt’s ambition took his breath away.  After all, in 1939, we were building only about 3,000 military aircraft a year.  Could we really expect to get to 50,000?

Roosevelt just smiled.  That was his job.  That is, it was his job to mobilize “the arsenal of democracy,” as he called it in a famous 1940 Fireside Chat.

Then came, of course, Pearl Harbor, followed by Hitler’s declaration of war against the US—a crazy decision that sealed the doom of a crazy man.  Yet in the short run,  FDR’s worst fears about Imperial Japan and Hitlerite Germany were realized.   It was time to get to work—and on the double.

On September 5, 1942, in his Labor Day address (that was when Labor Day was a big deal), FDR paid special tribute to America’s working families—which meant, of course, virtually the entire country, back in the days of few rich people and no welfare:

They have given their sons to the military services.  They have stoked the furnaces and hurried the factory wheels. They have made the planes and welded the tanks, riveted the ships and rolled the shells.

Yes, American workers were producing plenty of war materiel, but there was yet more to do:

Production of war materials here is now the greatest in our history, but it is not yet enough.  It will be greater still.

As FDR said in 1943, “Dr. New Deal” had been replaced by “Dr. Win-the-War.”

During World War Two, we were, as a nation, All In.  And Big Business, which had gotten such a black eye during the Depression, now had a chance to redeem itself—by showing the country, and the world, what American ingenuity and industry could produce.

In fact, during World War Two, we produced an astonishing 314,000 military aircraft—more than six times FDR’s blue-sky hope, and more than 100 times the annual production that Marshall cited in 1939.  At its peak, Ford’s Willow Run plant, for example, was assembly-lining 600 B-24 Liberators a month.  Nationwide, we built more than 19,000 of them—that’s a lot of bombers!

And that’s how you win a war.  Courageous men have always been at the tip of the spear, but the spear itself needs constantly to be reinvented.

Indeed, we all know how important air power was in World War Two, from the Battle of Midway—the first important naval engagement in history fought entirely airplane vs. airplane—to the aerial battles over Berlin, Regensburg, Ploesti, and all the other European citadel-targets.  The culmination of our air campaign, of course, was the atomic bombing of Japan in 1945, which President Truman estimated saved a million American lives—and a many more lives than that on the Japanese side.   Yes, FDR had a better plan for victory.

Yet lest we forget: More men of the Army Air Force died in the skies over Europe than US Marines were killed in combat in the Pacific.  Still, as we have seen, the butcher’s bill was a bargain compared to what it could have been.  And oh, by the way, we ended up creating just 81 infantry divisions—a fraction of what the Army brass originally intended.

Perhaps we should let Winston Churchill, his great wartime comrade, have the last word on FDR. Speaking to the House of Commons on April 17, 1945, the Lion of Britain declared,

In war he had raised the strength, might and glory of the great Republic to a height never attained by any nation in history. With her left hand she was leading the advance of the conquering Allied Armies into the heart of Germany and with her right, on the other side of the globe, she was irresistibly and swiftly breaking up the power of Japan.  And all the time ships, munitions, supplies, and food of every kind were aiding on a gigantic scale her Allies, great and small, in the course of the long struggle.

So yes, “V” for Victory, always.  But if we can, let’s win our wars on the cheap—because of better technology.

And yet today, as we look around the world at the threats we face, we are reminded: We can lose our wars because of better technology—better enemy technology. 

Let’s consider some recent portents, which show just how far we’ve tumbled since the 1940s.

In 2012, ZDNet reported that China has “pervasive access”—that is, a cyber-backdoor—to 80 percent of all the communications equipment in the world.  The Chinese have that access, of course, because they built it in when they built that equipment.  As we know, it’s been a long time since the US made all its own electronic equipment—and that has vast, and ominous, implications for our national security.  And what was the reaction from the Obama administration to that revelation?  Nothing.  Oh wait, there was one thing—the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Moreover, in the last year, we’ve learned that Hillary Clinton’s e-mail server, for the four years during which she was handling our most sensitive secrets as Secretary of State, was wide open, not only to China, but also to Russia, Iran, even Romania.

And more recently, in the wake of the 2015 San Bernardino terrorist massacre, we have discovered that Apple, which makes all its iPhones in China, is not willing to cooperate with Uncle Sam on homeland security matters.  (Incidentally, one doubts that FDR’s FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, would have tolerated such non-cooperation for more than, oh, fifteen seconds.)  Yet perversely, even after the Pentagon started purchasing iPhones and iPads, Apple has refused to help the government on a matter of life and death—San Bernardino or any other.   And yet, to compound the perversity, the FBI has apparently found a way to hack into iPhone, without Apple’s help—although, of course, the Chinese are already in.   In other words, all our enemies can get into an iPhone, but we can’t, not without a fight.

Meanwhile, of course, the Obama administration is ready only for one threat: “climate change.”  So if we are suddenly and perfidiously attacked by carbon dioxide molecules, the Obama-Clinton forces are ready to fight to total victory—unless, maybe, the CO2 molecules can prove they were the victims of discrimination.   

But if any other kind of attack is in the offing, well, we’d better hope that we have a new president, as well as a new strategic defense-industrial mindset.

Indeed, it would be nice if we had a president who thought space war, for example, the way that FDR thought about air war—as something that can happen, ergo, that will happen.  It’s a dangerous world; it always has been, always will be.

Is Trump that sort of strong leader?  That sort of future visionary president?  We don’t know for sure yet, but we can find some illumination in his past words.  As he has written, “I try to learn from the past, but I plan for the future by focusing exclusively on the present.”  So Trump, who has said that his favorite era in American history is the 1940s and 1950s, when the US was at its war-winning best, might be expected to appreciate the power of presidential leadership in that era.  It was, after all, a night-and-day difference from our own era today.

Or, as Trump has also written, “I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing and pushing to get what I’m after.”

Until recently, to be sure, Trump has aimed for wealth—and gotten it.   Now, today, in running for president, he is aiming for something far different—national greatness.  We’ll have to wait and see he how does, but we do know this: There’s nowhere to go but up.


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