I was talking with a soon-to-be 92-years-old veteran the other day, and our conversation ventured away from the memoir I am publishing for him to a discussion of the tough decisions of Presidents.
I told him that, in my lifetime, I thought the most courageous act of a President had been Ford’s pardoning of Richard Nixon. He’d done what he believed the responsibility of a President was—to make decisions for the good of the country as a whole regardless of their personal impacts. The decision to pardon Nixon, whose albeit illegal violation of the boundaries of common decency pales in comparison to the barrage of garbage we are subjected to daily, did, I think, render him unelectable by a bloodthirsty public.
My older friend has a different perspective. “For me,” he said, “it was Truman. I think Truman may have saved my life.”
Of course, Mr. Harris referred to Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb. Mr. Harris had flown over “The Hump,” the range of mountains over which US flyboys had flown supplies from India to China after the fall of the “Burma Road.” He felt sure he would have been reassigned to fly fighters over Japan had the war in the Pacific Theatre continued into the fall of 1945.
I had to agree that his choice of impactful decisions trumped mine, at least overtly. Whether or not the impact was, in net result, good or bad, will have to be determined by somebody better than I.
We talked on about other military decisions our feet-of-clay Presidents have had to make in isolation, final calls based on a mix of opinions and opposing views from advisors—Obama’s decision to pull the trigger, sending the Navy Seals to get Osama bin Laden; Carter’s attempt to rescue the Iranian hostages; Eisenhower’s pre-Presidential decision to proceed with the D-Day invasion.
The weight of responsibility is unfathomable. In light of that, it is easy to understand why dark-haired men (so far) have “won” the office only to leave four or eight years later gray and haggard. A million little details out of one’s control, some monitored, some unknown, serve, in a NY minute, to render you forever the focus of disdain or admiration, the visible monument to courage or debauchery.
As I sat there with Mr. Harris, though, I realized that in truth, these sorts of decisions were and are made every day by every man or woman who has served in a military conflict. Do I turn right or left? Do I fire or not? Do I kill another whom I will never see, much less know? Will the end justify the means? Will I die instead, the object of someone else’s scope? Mr. Harris was sent out in a fighter to see if he’d draw ground fire, but fortunately, he hadn’t.
Whether they talk about it or not, whether they returned in body or body bag from Valley Forge or Yorktown, Gettysburg or Manassas, Okinawa or France, Seoul or Saigon or Da Nang, Kuwait or Iraq or Afghanistan, every one has made the decision, right or wrong in the judgment of arm-chair heroes, to do what they thought best for the others in their units, best for a nation of other men and women, instead of themselves.
For that “full measure of devotion,” to borrow a phrase from another President who would also be called on to make a decision in isolation, I salute you all today and every day.