Theodore Roosevelt was the first to record the proverb, “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” a term that would be used to define his foreign policy. Meaning, roughly, that you smile nicely until you have to use force – and then you make sure you have that force available.
As policies go, this one has proven to be pretty effective, but it is highly reliant on your enemy believing that you have the ability to use force. And sometimes, to prove it, you have to actually use it.
Fifty years ago, the United States believed that we had a president who was young and healthy, when JFK was actually in such terrible physical shape that he wore a back brace that would prevent him from dodging the second and fatal bullet.
And when he had to act on the illusion he had created, he ended up dead on a hospital bed in Dallas.
In 1980, Ruhollah Khomeini, the Ayatollah of Iran, did not believe that President Jimmy Carter was actually carrying a stick. Or at least, he thought it was a popsicle stick. Unfortunately, he was right, and for 444 days, 52 Americans were held hostage by Iranian terrorists. Khomeini also believed that Ronald Reagan had the power that Carter did not, and that this new American president was willing to use it. He believed it enough that he let 52 hostages walk free, rather than risk Reagan visiting his doorstep.
Forty years before that, the country of Japan believed that the United States didn’t have the strength to hold onto dozens of islands in the South Pacific – or, in fact, the strength to avenge a strike on a large naval base.
They were wrong, but it took four years and 16 million soldiers to convince them otherwise.
Famous despots such as Caesar Nero and Joseph Stalin were so terrified of dying that they saw plots against their lives everywhere they looked. They knew that when it came down to it, given an assassin and a weapon, they were just like everyone else: human.
Interestingly enough, both Nero and Stalin suffered violent deaths as a direct result of their tyranny.
When you’re afraid of having your strength tested, you may not have any left.
As a nation, having the ability to back up what we threaten is paramount to our ability to sway the world, to force other countries into some semblance of social freedom and equality.
A military operation into Syria would be an awful thing to have to do. And our ventures into Afghanistan and Iraq haven’t been the rose-strewn avenues we optimistically hoped for.
But the day we refuse to use the strength we hold over our enemies’ heads, is the day we will officially be carrying a popsicle stick.
By: Melissa Kirby