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Petraeus, Eisenhower, and the Cold War Pledge

by Jeremy D. Lucas, published

Last August, the Drudge Report pushed a story about CIA Director and four star general, David Petraeus, who was said to be on the short list of Governor Romney’s potential vice presidential nominees.1

Although he firmly denied any such aspirations, Petraeus had long been viewed as a strong option for president among both liberals and conservatives, with pundits surmising of the day when we all might refer to him as the leader of the free world.2

Despite every objection to the War in Iraq and the arguably prolonged War in Afghanistan, General Petraeus emerged from these conflicts with his honor fully intact. He had proven his allegiance to the office of the president, demonstrated remarkable aptitude for political communication, and mastered the highest levels of education with a Princeton PhD in the field of international relations.

With so many patriotic accolades, every other conservative candidate, including Romney himself, simply paled in comparison. Petraeus was to be, for the Republicans, a newly minted Eisenhower, ushering in the modern age of economic prosperity and moral restoration.

At a military retirement in 2011, Admiral Michael Mullen had this to say about Petraeus:3

“David, you've run the race well, swifter and surer than the rest, and you now stand among the giants not just in our time but of all time, joining the likes of Grant and Pershing and Marshall and Eisenhower as one of the great battle captains of American history. You've expanded our view of the possible, inspiring our military on to historic achievements during some of the most trying times America has ever known.”

While recent events have toppled the once iconic pedestal upon which he stood, General Petraeus remains a military giant who will, in the end, be etched upon the ledger of history as a man of extraordinary courage and distinguished service. But his name will also sustain the dreaded asterisk: that his poor judgment was an embarrassment to our national security.

The state of his personal infidelities, which have yet to be fully unraveled, are now a matter of public scrutiny. Had the Republicans coaxed their white knight into running for the GOP ticket in 2012, November 6 may well have been a very different election (Obama v Petraeus). Moreover, the shocking revelations on the morning of November 7, if he had been elected, would have been a devastating blow to the morally conservative psyche of American politics.

Petraeus certainly achieved the status of an Eisenhower general, but it’s clear that he would not have been able to maintain the religious purity of an Eisenhower presidency.

The conditions of this year’s election were not all that different from those that Eisenhower faced in the Election of 1952, when the pendulum of American politics had swung so far left under Roosevelt and Truman—twenty years—that the nation was finally willing to cede the White House to a Republican for the first time since Herbert Hoover and the crash on Wall Street.

Near the end of Roosevelt’s first term in 1936, much like the campaign against Obama in 2012, Republicans were quick to accuse the president of egregious violations against the rights and liberties of every American:5

“For three long years the New Deal Administration has dishonored American traditions and flagrantly betrayed the pledges upon which the Democratic Party sought and received public support. The powers of Congress have been usurped by the President. The integrity and authority of the Supreme Court have been flouted. The rights and liberties of American citizens have been violated. Regulated monopoly has displaced free enterprise. The New Deal Administration constantly seeks to usurp the rights reserved to the States and to the people. It has insisted on the passage of laws contrary to the Constitution.”

By the time Eisenhower came on board in 1952 as the standard bearer of the Republican cause, his party’s platform was very clear about its belief that democratic socialism was undoing the fabric of the republic:6

“We maintain that man was not born to be ruled, but that he consented to be governed; and that the reasons that moved him thereto are few and simple. He has voluntarily submitted to government because, only by the establishment of just laws, and the power to enforce those laws, can an orderly life be maintained, full and equal opportunity for all be established, and the blessings of liberty be perpetuated. We assert that during the last twenty years, leaders of the Government of the United States under successive Democrat Administrations, and especially under this present Administration, have failed to perform these several basic duties; but, on the contrary, that they have evaded them, flouted them, and by a long succession of vicious acts, so undermined the foundations of our Republic as to threaten its existence. We charge that they have arrogantly deprived our citizens of precious liberties by seizing powers never granted. We charge that they work unceasingly to achieve their goal of national socialism.”

To their credit, conservatives had rightly understood the dangers of communism--a more pervasive and flourishing type of socialism—and worried that this once great nation might be quietly moving in the direction of the Soviet Union, a new Cold War enemy across the sea. However, common sense gave way to propaganda.

If Americans could be lulled into complete and utter dependence on the government—through social programs and excessive welfare--then all authority would soon rest in the hands of a presidential tyrant. Images of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin were still fresh in the minds of every American, which made it very easy to label anyone and everyone as a Nazi-sympathizer, a Fascist, a Socialist, or a Communist, should they appear to question or disagree with the views of traditional conservatism; a political practice that came to be known as McCarthyism.

Conservatives, acknowledging that they could not in good conscience roll back the social programs of Roosevelt and Truman, chose instead to embrace an elementary idea: that the world is full of good guys and bad guys. Moreover, that America and its allies were fundamentally good, while Russia and its cohorts were inherently bad.

The line was so abruptly drawn that conservatives gradually shifted their attention from grade school platitudes (good vs evil) to religious and theological assertions (God vs Devil). In essence, they came to believe that America was a Christian nation under God while Russia was exactly the opposite.

Dwight Eisenhower entered the Election of 1952 as a five star general with so much popularity that he overwhelmingly defeated his opponent, Adlai Stevenson, with 442 electoral college votes to 89.4

The Republican Party was eager to undo twenty years of what they perceived as socialistic immorality, but the president they elected was not exactly the most religious of men, nor did he share all of their quips. Eisenhower served faithfully under both Roosevelt and Truman and his view of the protestant church was that it had become far too political. In order to change the direction of the country, Republicans would first have to solidify the Christian faith of their elected leader.

At the head of this conservative charge was the recently minted Billy Graham, who urged the new president to begin attending services at the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, a denomination that Eisenhower’s wife, Mamie, had long been associated. The pastor of the church had served as a military chaplain during World War II, which endeared the two men to one another with mutual admiration. Within a year of his administration, Eisenhower would become the first and only president to be baptized while in office.7

On one particular Sunday morning in 1954, the Eisenhowers were enraptured by a particular sermon that addressed the generalities of our national pledge.8

“Apart from the mention of the phrase ‘the United States of America,’ it could be the pledge of any republic. In fact, I could hear little Moscovites repeat a similar pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag in Moscow with equal solemnity. Russia is also a republic that claims to have overthrown the tyranny of kingship. Russia also claims to be indivisible.”

The sermon went on to suggest, in earshot of a sitting US President, that the pledge ought to be modified with a closing theme of the Gettysburg Address, in which Lincoln declared that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” Eisenhower was immediately on board and by June 14 of that year, Flag Day, Congress passed and Eisenhower signed Public Law 396, which modified the Pledge of Allegiance so as to include the phrase “under God.”9

American citizens are not entirely averse to change and certainly, for the vast majority, a shared belief that we, as a people, were under the supervision of a higher power was not altogether blasphemous or even unconstitutional. Yet, the pledge itself had never been a politically motivated lyric. In fact, the pledge was originally written for the same generic purposes that the sermon now condemned: to simply and clearly teach school children how to show reverence for their country.

This story of our pledge is well documented:

In August 1892, an American family magazine, known as The Youth’s Companion, was looking for ways they could commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery. They contacted Francis Bellamy, a Christian Socialist, who proceeded to recommend a nationwide pledge that would be nothing more than a 22-word exercise in recitation: I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.10

A little more than thirty years later, the pledge received an American makeover: I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. And at the recommendation of a Presbyterian minister, the most recent installment emerged from the signature of Eisenhower in 1954: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.11

More than fifty years later, a Republican congressman from Georgia, believing his cause righteous, went so far as to lecture the House floor on the proper semantics of the pledge, insisting that there was no comma between “one nation” and “under God” as so many had grown accustomed.12

What the congressman failed to understand, however, was the art of musical phrasing; an art for which any familiar recitation of lyrics must always allow pauses and breaths.13 As the pledge is known today, there are four commas and ten pauses that keep us from rushing our reverence. The commas make up the grammatical composition while the pauses address our practice of lyrical recitation, as follows:

I pledge allegiance (pause) to the flag (pause) of the United States of America (pause), and to the republic (pause) for which it stands (pause), one nation (pause) under God (pause), indivisible (pause), with liberty (pause) and justice (pause) for all.

Those objecting to the lyrical pause are certainly welcome to recite the pledge with any rhythm they wish, but their concern has more to do with a pseudo-religious endorsement of Eisenhower Nationalism.

In 1956, soon after the president signed “under God” into the national pledge, he also made “In God We Trust” our official motto, ordering that it be written into our paper currency.14  Similar to the pledge, a solid majority of Americans had no problem admitting that they themselves have placed a strong degree of trust in an Almighty God. The risk and concern of these Americans was not in the wording or the punctuation, but in the nationalization and politicization of faith itself.

Under the Eisenhower Administration, our pledge and our currency was permanently transformed in order to combat a temporary, but persistent Cold War enemy that no longer exists in the modern world.

In the 1950s, if communism and socialism could be denounced as the great evils of the world, then America, under God, should be viewed as the sacred light upon which all those in darkness might see. But twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the great political dilemma of the modern era is that we still speak to one another with Cold War patriotism, as though our pledges and our flag pins will somehow make us look better and prouder than the people and nations we now call our neighbors.

With the recent fall of David Petraeus, Americans were harshly reminded of just how careless it is to call ourselves and our nation the foremost representatives of God’s will and goodness on earth. When we recite the pledge, with utmost respect for the stars of our union and the stripes of our revolution, Under God should not lead us to the praise of our own kingdom above all others. If anything, Under God should confirm what we already know: that we are a fragile and imperfect people.


1 The Drudge Report. Tuesday, August 7, 2012.

2 Killen, J. April 14, 2010. “General David Petraeus for President?” U.S. News & World Report.

3 JCS Speech, August 31, 2011. “Armed forces farewell tribute and retirement ceremony in honor of General David Petraeus.”

4 “The Campaign and Election of 1952.” Miller Center, University of Virginia.

5 The American Presidency Project. “Republican Party Platform of 1936.”

6 The American Presidency Project. “Republican Party Platform of 1952.”

7 Tooley, M. February 14, 2011. “Eisenhower’s Religion.” The American Spectator.

8 Whitfield, S. 1996. The Culture of the Cold War. JHU Press, p.89.

9 United States Statutes at Large. Public Law 396.

10 Baer, J. 1992. “The Pledge of Allegiance: A Short History.”

11 Historic Documents: The Pledge of Allegiance.

12 Edwards, D. and Juliano, N. April 15, 2008. “Georgia Republican Instructs House on Proper Pledge of Allegiance Technique.” The Raw Story. 0415.html

13 Vial, S. 2008. The Art of Musical Phrasing in the Eighteenth Century: Punctuating the Classical Period. University of Rochester Press, p.2.

14 “President Eisenhower Signs ‘In God We Trust’ Into Law.” July 30, 1956.

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