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A Good Enemy

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by Matthew Arnold Stern

This speech was my entry for the Spring 2000 International Speech contest. Eighteen months later, our country would find its new enemy. How can Al Qaeda challenge and change us?

You know, I miss the Soviet Union. Of course, I don’t miss the gulags and the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. You must admit, though, that the Soviets offered America some benefits. They offered us something that we need.

What America needs is a good enemy.

An enemy can be something good to have. An enemy forces you to be your best. An enemy can stimulate your creativity and push you to accomplish things you might have never thought possible. An enemy also forces you to face your weaknesses and do something to change them. If you don’t, your enemy will exploit those weaknesses and destroy you. 

If you take a look at American history over the past 60 years, you’ll see that this is true. In fact, all of us who work in high-tech Orange County (California) are direct beneficiaries of having enemies:

  • We work with electronic computers, which were originally developed for the military during World War II to plot the trajectory of munitions.
  • We communicate on the Internet, a Cold War creation developed as ARPANET in 1969 to enable the military, academics, and government to communicate on a secure electronic network.
  • These freeways we drive on every day are the result of the 1956 Federal Interstate Transportation and Defense Highway Act. Part of their purpose is to enable the military to move troops and supplies quickly during a national emergency. So, if someone wanted to invade the United States, the best time to do it is during 5:00 p.m. rush hour.

Enemies also force you to grow by forcing you to face your weaknesses. In America, our greatest weakness has been our treatment of minorities and women. It has been a blemish on our nation’s history. 

This began to change because of World War II. In that war, the United States faced a serious threat of invasion and annihilation. If we were going to survive, we needed the help of everybody. This meant that women went to work in the factories. People of color fought in our nation’s armed forces — African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asian-Americans, Japanese-Americans who were unjustly imprisoned in internment camps — they all served our country with distinction and valor. 

Oh, and one more thing: Do you think this “gays in the military” business was something President Clinton conjured up one idle afternoon? “Don’t ask, don’t tell” has been going on for a long time!

Take a look at what happened after World War II:

  • In 1947, Jackie Robinson, who served in World War II, became the first African-American to break baseball’s color barrier.
  • In 1948, President Truman ordered the integration of America’s armed forces.
  • In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in the Brown v. Board of Education case ending segregation in public schools.

The Civil Rights movement and other movements of the fifties, sixties, and seventies are the result of what we had to learn in World War II and the Cold War. We learned that you cannot fight totalitarianism and repression abroad while tolerating racism and injustice at home.

This is what a good enemy can do for you — and there are plenty of enemies in the world today. There is the enemy of cancer. There is the enemy of AIDS. There is the enemy of environment destruction, including the very real threat of global warming.

We need to face these enemies, and the others we will face in this new century, the same way we did in the past: 

  • With creativity and the desire for achievement
  • With a unity of purpose
  • With an unflinching confrontation of our flaws

When we do, not only will we eliminate threats to humanity, we will become a much better people because of it. This is the benefit of having a good enemy.