Neighbors in Arms by Larry Pressler

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“The formulation of foreign policy is a complex and byzantine process in the United States.”  That’s how former U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) explains foreign poicy in general, and U.S./India/Pakistan relations in particular, in his new book, Neighbours in Arms An American Senator’s Quest for Disarmament in a Nuclear Subcontinent (Penguin Viking 288 pp. $29, hardcover; $25, Kindle).

In this book Pressler unravels the story of how the U.S. wound up weaponizing a new and unstable government in Pakistan while forcing the world’s second largest democracy, India, to seek weapons from the communist block. Pressler, a Vietnam War veteran and Rhodes Scholar from rural South Dakota, reminds the reader of the contrast between the technology of atomic warfare and agricultural simplicity.

He examines what once was known as the Military/Industrial Complex in this country and its spreading influence in foreign policy and the India/Pakistan nuclear situation with reasoned logic. He succinctly shows how the enterprise has grown since the Eisenhower years into what he calls the Octopus.

Pressler explains how its ever-growing tentacles reach into virtually every aspect of foreign policy, as well as the American economy. He sheds light on the growth of think tanks and intellectual-sounding non-profits staffed by former military and political figures financed by veiled contributions from special interests and advanced by highly paid lobbyists as they seek to change congressional and presidential checks on foreign policy that impede profits flowing to the Octopus.

Pressler, along with Sen. John Glenn, sought to add restrictions on the nuclear arms race. The Pressler Amendment, as it became known, was designed to prohibit sales to governments that seem to have other interests or are unstable. It was an attempt to curtail arms sales to governments that might support terrorism or were exploring becoming members of the nuclear club.

As terrorist groups using religion as justification began spreading in South Asia, some senators became concerned that an unchecked U.S. increase of arms sales would encourage governments to seek their own nuclear capabilities. The Pressler Amendment was Congress’s attempt to stifle such endeavors by requiring presidential certification that sales to foreign governments not be used to develop nuclear arms.

Pressler divulges the machinations of the Octopus as it worked to thwart efforts to curtail arms sales to Pakistan. He foresaw Pakistan becoming a nuclear nation that supported terrorism. Believing correctly that the Pakistan government was unreliable, Pressler feared that nation’s ability to protect its nuclear weapons would be suspect.

He points out that Osama Bin Laden was secreted in Pakistan for years, along with other terrorists. Pressler’s big fear is that Pakistani nuclear arms would get into the hands of well-financed terrorists, causing unimaginable consequences.

Pressler makes a lucid, carefully documented argument. He shows that the current Military/Industrial Complex is a powerful shadow overhanging our democracy. After serving in the Vietnam War, Pressler has dedicated his life to honorable service to our nation, only to be thwarted by the dark side of politics. That is, after serving twenty years in the Senate, he was defeated because of his opposition to the Octopus.

111111111111111111111111In the book, Pressler describes what he saw as a last opportunity to change the balance of the U.S. Senate by running as an independent. He believes that the current dysfunction in both parties has given an opening for a small number of independents to exercise control.

He admits he was angry and disappointed that there seems to be no room for a moderate, so he ran once for the Senate after being out of office for over a decade. Pressler ran the race he wanted: clean, no name calling, no hi-jinks, only to be overwhelmed by the Octopus at the last minute. Citibank, one of the state’s largest employers, insinuated that jobs in South Dakota would be lost if Pressler won.

This is an important book, a true story that sheds light on the bare knuckles and ugly sides of politics in America. It is a trumpet in the night.

My fear is that its story might be ignored or discounted.

—Bud Alley

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Senator Pressler by Larry Pressler

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If it’s true that timing is everything, Senator Pressler: An Independent Mission to Save Our Democracy, by former South Dakota U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler (Fortis, 166 pp., $8.95, paper) is an example of perfect timing. This refreshing book has hit the market during a presidential election campaign in which the American public rates both major candidates low in trustworthiness.

Larry Pressler grew up on a farm in South Dakota. His family experienced poverty. His interest and love of politics grew out of his successful 4-H work. In 1964, after getting his degree from the University of South Dakota—where he was student body president and Phi Beta Kappa—he was awarded a two-year Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University in England.

In England, Pressler remembered words his father had told him: “If you decide not to go to Vietnam, it will mean that someone poorer and less able than you will have to go in your place. And knowing you, that will trouble your conscience for the rest of your life. So you might as well just go and do it.”

Larry Pressler decided to forfeit his deferment and joined the Army. He served two tours of duty in the Vietnam War from 1966-68. That included providing security along Highway 44 on the outskirts of Can Tho in the Mekong Delta. With enemy snipers all around, Pressler says that he and his men often felt like sitting ducks.

 

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Lt. Pressler in Vietnam 

In 1967 Pressler contracted hepatitis and was sent to a convalescent center in South Vietnam where he experienced frightening nightmares based on what he had seen earlier in his tour. Although he received the Bronze Star and other medals during his two tours in Vietnam, Pressler turned down a Purple Heart. Eventually, he was turned off by the entire war.

Larry Pressler’s political life took off when he ran for Congress in 1974 as a Republican and won by 15,000 votes, unseating an incumbent Democrat. After two terms in the House, he was elected to the Senate in 1978, becoming the first Vietnam War veteran to serve in that august body where her served three six-year terms.

In 1979, Pressler ran for President in the Republican primaries on a platform emphasizing improving conditions for Vietnam veterans. He needed funds, and an opportunity to acquire money soon appeared. True to his character, he turned down what he believed was an illegal campaign contribution. It was—and it also was an FBI sting that became known as the Abscam scandal. The senator was very surprised when he was praised as a hero for doing the right thing.

Sen. Pressler was a favorite of Ronald Reagan. I found it interesting that they often discussed how Pressler’s father was doing with his Alzheimer’s disease. Perhaps the strongest of Pressler’s attributes was his sincerity in dealing with the problems of people regardless of their political affiliations. That included working to improve the lives of Native Americans in his home state.

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Sen. Pressler

Pressler lost his Senate seat in the 1996 election, but decided to try a comeback by running as an independent in the 2014 South Dakota Senate race. The challenges he faced in that endeavor bring the reader a much clearer understanding of what has been going on in the highly partisan atmosphere of congressional politics today. Pressler makes a convincing case for the need for more independent candidates.

I recommend this book to those who want to make sense out this election year. A special recommendation goes to those whose favorite line is, “It’s just politics.”  With more involvement by people with the integrity of Sen. Pressler we might learn we don’t have to just muddle through.

The Senator says that taking the high road of politics has set him free. He closes with a quote from Isaiah 25 made famous by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Free at last, Free at last! Great God Almighty, Free at last.”

Sen. Larry Pressler shows us how to change a nightmare into a dream.

The author’s website is senatorlarrypressler.com

–Joseph Reitz