“With history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.” -John F. Kennedy, January 20, 1961
My father accepted Christ in the early 1950s when we lived in Chattanooga. The kind of religion he first encountered was filled with the rise of Gog and Magog, the Anti-Christ, and an inevitable Armageddon. As a youngster who had discovered pirate movies, TV, and rascally fun, I abhorred his descent into legalistic Christianity. Dad recovered in seminary and then served 25 years in Presbyterian pulpits. During that time I went to college, became an Air Force intelligence officer, and later taught history at Grove City College. With an academic specialty in military history, and after serving as a nuclear targeting officer at Headquarters, Strategic Air Command, I came to appreciate the potential for Armageddon.
My childhood abounded with candidates for the Anti-Christ. In the early 1950s, local preachers pointed to Stalin and Gamal Abdel Nasser as possible candidates. My Dad, who had yet to enter the ministry, pointed to Israel’s seemingly miraculous survival over six Arab armies in 1948 as something Biblically prophetic.
In the summer of 1967, with Dad ordained and preaching at a Presbyterian Church in Miami, I was a history major about to receive an ROTC commission as a second lieutenant. When I visited my dying grandmother in Chattanooga, the requisite Sunday church service focused on Israel’s victories in the Six Day War. As a budding historian, I scoffed at references to Gog and Magog. I trusted the Israeli Air Force to provide its own legions of angels. A few years later, Israel experienced a more difficult encounter with Egypt and Syria in the October 1973 Yom Kippur War. I followed the conflict carefully as an intelligence officer, even before President Richard M. Nixon put US nuclear forces on high alert. Armageddon seemed possible.
Over the next decade, while an intelligence officer, I earned a doctorate in military history and Soviet and East European affairs. I also taught history at the Air Force Academy and Air War College.
After God’s grace found me, I discovered combining faith with history is better than blindly stumbling through life. One can put faith in false gods, or a form of spiritualism wrapped around the “God of one’s own understanding,” or more inanely, one’s “innate goodness.” History is also subject to misinterpretation with current popular approaches skewed by race, gender, sexual orientation, class, and political ideology.
Over the last half century, the Judeo-Christian world abandoned a worldview focused on God as the author or arbiter of human events. Along the way since 1961, God’s work stopped being “truly our own.”
To unbelievers, Israel’s restoration to nationhood may seem incompatible with historically cataclysmic events. Russia’s alliance with neo-Persian radical Islamist Shi’ite Iran and Moscow’s move into Syria places Russian SU-24 fighter-bombers a four-minute bomb run away from Jerusalem. Couple that to the rise of Islamist fundamentalism vowing the destruction of the Judeo-Christian West with Israel’s obliteration a given, then the confluence of faith and history seems worth considering.
Washington’s focus on climate change as an apocalyptic threat abdicates leadership in molding events with global implications to Vladimir Putin, a Russian patriot who accomplished what no czar or commissar could: establish Moscow as the major Middle East power broker with access to the Mediterranean. President Obama’s foreign policy facilitated Putin’s rise.
Consequently, Russia installed an advanced air defense system at Syria’s Latakia Air Base to protect its SU-24 fighter-bombers and SU-25 ground-attack aircraft currently bombing Syrian rebels opposed to Syrian President Bashar al Assad, and occasionally ISIS. That air defense system, with the world’s most advanced S-300 and S-400 surface-to-air missiles, establishes a defacto no-fly zone over a 400 mile radius encompassing American planes at Incirlik, Turkey, all Israeli air bases, as well as airspace used by US Navy F-18s on carriers in the eastern Mediterranean. Iran can funnel weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon without fear of Israeli aerial interdiction.
Additionally, the Russians can prevent Israeli planes from striking Iran by blasting them from the sky shortly after takeoff. This leaves Israel with few options to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons with which Ayatollah Ali Khamenei promises to annihilate Israel. If Israel uses its nuclear rockets or cruise missiles on Iranian facilities and Russia retaliates, Armageddon is at hand.
Where has American foreign policy gone in the 55 years since President John F. Kennedy ended his Inaugural Address by looking to faith and history? Turning to gods “of our own understanding” rather than the sovereign God of history opens the way to our own destruction, ultimately our Armageddon.
Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, he earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left Government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, international and domestic terrorism, and counter-terrorism.
Photo Credit: Russian S-400 Missiles in Syria in November 2015, via Wikimedia Commons and Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation (mil.ru)