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GI Joe: Man of the 20th Century

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 25, 2000, Feb. 25, 2000 – "There are millions of people today who owe their freedom to GI Joe," author-historian Stephen E. Ambrose proclaimed during a tribute to "The Hero of the Century -- the American GI."

The keynote speaker Feb. 21 at the second annual Pentagon Pops concert, Ambrose was among the many celebrities, military chiefs and government officials in attendance at Daughters of the American Revolution's Constitution Hall here. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and his wife, Janet Langhart Cohen, hosted the show, dedicated to America's military heroes, past and present.

"People in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, need to say thanks, every day, to the American service men and women and their allies for the sacrifices they made to ensure the triumph of freedom and democracy," Ambrose said in his address.

"With the end of the century, the question of who to name the most important person of the century is being asked everywhere," he continued. "My own nominee, the one who is the obvious winner the moment you think about it, is GI Joe -- the soldier, the sailor, the airman, the Marine, the Coast Guardsman of the 20th century."

Ambrose's major works include "Band of Brothers," a history of an airborne company; "Duty, Honor, Country: a History of West Point"; "D-Day"; and "The Victors," about Eisenhower and the men of World War II. He's also written "Citizen Soldiers," Undaunted Courage," and multivolumed biographies of Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon.

The Ambrose keynote address reads, in part:

"He was called Doughboy in World War I when he stopped the Kaiser from taking control of the earth. ... He was called GI Joe in World War II [when he] stopped Hitler, Mussolini, Tojo and Hirohito. From 1950 to 1953, GI Joe kept the communists out of South Korea. ... From 1945 onward, he stopped Stalin and his successors, and he won the Cold War with one of the greatest feats of arms ever. GI Joe won that Cold War without having to fight a battle, which was exactly the way we wanted to do it. ...

"In Vietnam [GI Joe] was unable to keep the North Vietnamese from taking control of South Vietnam, but that was not his fault. In Kuwait, he hurled back Saddam Hussein's army. ... In Kosovo, ... along with the NATO allies, he did the same to the Serbian army.

"America had sent her young men halfway around the world in both directions not to conquer, not to pillage, not to loot, not to rape, but to liberate. And they did. Not only the occupied countries, but Germany and Japan as well. It was one of the greatest moments, not only in all of American history, but in all of human history.

"I always ask veterans after completing an interview to tell me what did it all mean. Some shrug and reply, 'How the hell can I answer a question like that?' Others tell a joke, 'Mom and apple pie.' Some give thoughtful answers. One said that he had done his part in turning the 20th century from one of darkness into one of light.

"Another said, 'Listen Steve, I was 18 years old. I had my whole life ahead of me. I knew the difference between right and wrong, and I did not want to live in a world in which wrong prevailed. So I fought. Right there is the hallmark of GI Joe.

"In the first decades of the worst century ever, German boys, Japanese boys, Russian boys were brought up not to know the difference between right and wrong. They grew up knowing they were superior to everyone else. They knew how to rape, molest, maim and murder. That's also true of the teenage soldiers of today's Serbian army in Kosovo, or in the Indonesian army and militia in East Timor.

"American boys and girls, overwhelmingly, are brought up to know the difference between right and wrong. It's impossible for me to imagine American teen-age soldiers doing to defenseless civilians what the Serbian troops did in Kosovo or the Indonesian troops did in Timor.

"Beyond freedom, GI Joe has returned to the world a sense of progress. At the beginning of the 20th century, everyone in the Western world believed that every day in every way things were getting better and better. Then came World War I, and by its end in 1918 it was difficult to believe in progress anymore. Then came the failed peace treaty called "Versailles." Then the Great Depression.

"In 1939 came World War II, Hitler, Tojo, Mussolini, Stalin. It ended only with two mushroom-shaped clouds over Japan and was succeeded by the Cold War. The Soviet Union developed its own atomic weapons and the means to deliver them. Progress was unthinkable.

"By the time I was in junior high and then in high school right after World War II, our common assumption was that someday, somehow, the world would be destroyed in a nuclear holocaust. ...

"Today, thanks to GI Joe and the American people and their allies around the world -- except in China, Vietnam and Cuba -- the communists have joined the Nazis and the Fascists in the ash can of history where they belong. Today it is democracy that is on the march. Today, we can once again, as we did in the beginning of the 20th century, believe in progress."

"Things have changed here at home as well, thanks in large part to GI Joe. It is the American armed forces that have taken the lead in integrating our society. Of course we have terrific gender and racial problems, and too many rich people and too many who are poor. But the armed forces have brought in African Americans and Spanish-speaking Americans, and native Americans, and Americans from all parts of Asia. Brought them in as enlisted personnel, as NCOs, as junior officers or as senior officers.

"In so doing, the armed forces of America are ahead of all other institutions in this country. Ahead of the educational establishment. Ahead of the churches. Ahead of the hospitals. Ahead of the corporations. Ahead of small business. Ahead of the politicians.

"Now GI Joe is building a military force that is not designed to battle the Red army on the European continent, but rather to keep the peace in Africa, the Middle East, the Far East, Eastern Europe, Central and South America and elsewhere. A force that can move fast for peace and democracy.

"Leading the way toward full integration, toward our dream of a meritocracy, GI Joe has made this a better country. Leading the forces of justice, he has made this a better world. These are the reasons why I nominate GI Joe as the man of the 20th century."

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Related Sites:
AFPS News Article: 'Pentagon Pops' Salutes Military Heroes
Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, Feb. 21, 2000, The Pentagon Pops "The Hero of the Century: The American GI And the Military Family"

Click photo for screen-resolution imageService members in historical uniforms from World War II to the present serve as a backdrop as author Stephen Ambrose speaks at Pentagon Pops 2000, a tribute to America's military heroes. In his address, the author nominated GI Joe as "the Man of the 20th Century." The Feb. 21 concert salute was at DAR Constitution Hall, Washington, D.C. Photo by Linda D. Kozaryn.   
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