Like JFK, Biden Has Good Reason to Be Wary of the MilitaryBreaking News
tags: Cold War, military history, anticommunism
While some hopeful progressives continue to fantasize about Joe Biden as the second coming of Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson, another, more disturbing historical analogy might be relevant. Biden is the first president since John F. Kennedy to face an active threat from right-wing extremism in the military, defined broadly to include veterans as well as current soldiers.
The Department of Justice arrested approximately 500 people for participating in the January 6 insurrection, at least 45 of whom were veterans or active-duty soldiers. Of those 45, a quarter belonged to extremist groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers. Responding to the military involvement in January 6, Lloyd Austin, Biden’s secretary of defense, has made cracking down on right-wing extremism in the ranks a priority, pushing for an updating of the definition of extremism.
The extent of insurrectionist sentiment was further underlined in June when Michael Flynn, a retired general and onetime national security adviser under Donald Trump, explicitly called for a Myanmar-style military coup. After complaints, Flynn walked back his remarks. In May, a letter signed by more than 120 retired generals and admirals cast doubt on the 2020 election and accused the Biden administration of pushing the United States toward a “Marxist form of tyrannical government.”
Since March, right-wing agitators like Tucker Carlson of Fox News have been deriding what they call the “woke military.” This new propaganda line is best understood as an attempt to blunt Biden’s efforts to weed out right-wing extremists in the military.
The spectacle of a liberal Catholic president butting heads with reactionary military men and veterans echoes the Kennedy presidency. The bipartisan Cold War consensus had created an opening for the far right to use extremist anti-communism as an entry point to the military rank and file. In 1960 a scandal erupted when an Air Force manual accused the National Council of Churches—a mainstream Protestant organization—of being riddled with Reds. The next year, a similar story emerged about Maj. Gen. Edwin Walker teaching troops that Harry Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt were “definitely pink” and journalists Edward R. Murrow and Walter Lippmann (both centrist liberals) were “confirmed communists.”
Walker wasn’t the only right-wing general in the military at the time. The historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who served as Kennedy’s aide, records that military leaders “hunted and fished with right-wing politicians, supplied them aircraft for trips home and showed up at their receptions. The alliance between the military and the right disturbed the Kennedys.”
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