A WINTER OF DISCONTENT
By Jan C. Scruggs
Washington, D.C. winters can mirror what many view to be characteristics of the city itself – cold and awful. The winter of 1981 was a textbook example of wintertime in D.C., in more ways than one. The fate of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was being decided in the halls of Congress and the Reagan Administration. A flurry of activities was orchestrated by well-funded opposition to Maya Lin’s design for The Wall. Her design was criticized as being too modernistic; referred to as the Black Gash of Shame and even compared to the Ovens of Dachau.
The National Security Council even got engaged; a syndicated columnist wrote that the design had been selected by a person with “ties to the American Communist Party.” Dozens of Congressman demanded that the groundbreaking permit be withdrawn and that the design be scrapped. There were editorials on both sides of the debate, and even Sixty Minutes got involved. Even though we had support from powerful groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, plans for the Memorial were about to be declared dead on arrival, the victims of politics and disinformation.
Adding significantly to the cool reception in Washington, a certain Texas billionaire had assembled a powerful opposing team. He had tried and failed in the Carter Administration to fund a Memorial for the Vietnam veterans. This had been a dream of his for a while, and now he had his chance to succeed. This would be his Memorial. Part of his team’s mission was to persuade Reagan Administration officials to stop the design from going forward. They had seemingly open access to the President and First Lady, some powerful friends in Congress, and significant expertise in public relations. One of their tactics was to approach Reagan Administration appointees and pressure them into turning against the design.
Chuck Hagel was a prime target for the opposition. He was the talented second-in-command at the Veterans Administration, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and a highly respected appointee in the Reagan Administration. He was told that he should join the team opposing Lin’s design. If he did not join the opposition, he would be out of work. Friends at the White House would see to it that he would be fired. Most people would have caved. Hagel did not.
There are a few examples of stunning courage in Washington. Most are unheralded, this was one. Hagel said, “I serve at the pleasure of the President. If he fires me for supporting a design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, so be it.”
Hagel never got fired. The opponents left, probably dazed at the outcome. Hagel went on to serve President Reagan in other capacities throughout the Presidency, and eventually, Nancy Reagan joined the National Sponsoring Committee for The Wall. A compromise was reached with the opposition, and in March 1982 we hosted an emotional groundbreaking. Hagel was a speaker.
I have kept in touch with Hagel over the years. In 1992, I asked him to be Chairman of the 10th Anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and to raise some funds. As a very successful businessman, he created his fortune as a pioneer in an industry we all now find indispensible…cell phones. He took on the task as Chair, and the event was a success.
Afterwards, we met in his office and he told me, “I have decided to be a U.S. Senator. So I am going back to Nebraska.” Just like that. He was confident he would win. He beat his primary opponents and went on to serve two terms as a Senator. In politics, he is big fan of presidents Eisenhower and Teddy Roosevelt, and he earned a reputation as a traditional Republican – in favor of smaller government and strong on defense.
My working association with Hagel continued. In 2000, he spearheaded legislation to establish the Education Center at The Wall. The bill had more than its fair share of difficulties. In 2003, the bill finally became law. Hagel never wavered.
In the Senate, Hagel became unhappy with the war in Iraq. In a conversation with me, he expressed his dismay that many people advancing the idea of fighting these wars had never been a participant in one. There is great danger, for the participants and the nation, that had not been weighed. The unintended result of the Gulf War was that Iran was transformed into the powerhouse of the Middle East. Iraq was no longer a balance to Iranian power, and many allies we needed to fight terrorists were now on the sidelines. If you look hard enough you might find some of the Iraq War advocates fighting Hagel. Hagel, however, does fight back.
After two terms, he decided that enough of his time had been spent as a Senator. He started teaching at Georgetown University. He has also served as chairman of the Atlantic Council , bringing together America’s allies to discuss trade and defense, and co-chairman of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board. He was asked to join boards of several large corporations. He also became the chair of the 50th Anniversary Commemoration of The Vietnam War. Everybody wants Hagel, it seems. He is smart, a problem solver and amiable.
So it was rumored that he would be the next Secretary of Defense, which seemed a logical enough place for him to land. Yesterday, I opened up the newspaper and saw that opponents had declared war on Hagel. They had persuaded the Washington Post to write an article accusing Hagel of being weak on defense and a friend of America’s enemies in the Middle East. The charges went on and on. He was even accused of being anti-Semitic. (This was news to my wife, who is Jewish.) Take a look at what some former U.S. Ambassadors to Israel are saying in support of Hagel’s nomination.
Hagel has been portrayed as some sort of a 1960s peacenik who will destroy America’s nuclear arsenal and won’t find a way to start a war with Iran quickly enough. In my experience, Hagel is just the opposite. He is a meat-eating, former football player and combat infantryman who enjoys outdoors sports. And in many ways, he is one of the most successful Americans. If we need to go to war yet again, we can feel comfortable with Hagel at the helm. War is a big deal and a last resort, but sometimes necessary. Sometimes not.
I wrote a response to the Washington Post. I hope you enjoy it. Hagel deserves to be the Secretary of Defense.