Factual · Powerful · Original · Iconoclastic
Stuka dive-bombers pounded Poland from the air as tanks and gray-uniformed infantry swarmed across the border. Europe was falling under the shadow of the Swastika. It was Sept. 1, 1939 — the first day of World War II. On that day, a son named Constantine was born to Karl Heinrich and Valeska Menges, who had fled to Turkey after being arrested for publicly opposing Hitler.
Afraid that Turkey would join the Axis, the family was on the run again. Always in fear of arrest, but unable themselves to leave, the parents sent Constantine on to America in 1943. Even then, at age four, the child somehow understood the meaning of the giant statue that rose before him as his ship entered New York Harbor. That meaning would guide him for the rest of his life.
Fast-forward now to 1961. While a college student in Prague, Constantine Menges heard that East German authorities were quickly throwing up a wall littered with machine-gun posts to enclose East Berlin and permanently trap the occupants. He hopped into his tiny VW, drove to the city, and began making shuttle runs through Checkpoint Charlie. Each time he returned with a Bug stuffed with refugees. This was the second defining moment of his life. From now on, he was a freedom fighter, regardless of whom the enemy was.
Thus, the man whom many would come to know only for his anti-communist activities became a volunteer worker in Mississippi for equal voting rights during the "long, hot summer" of 1963, a job far more dangerous than confronting East German border guards. He marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the time before King abandoned his principles. By 1968, communism was again the foe, as Menges stood side-by-side with brave Czech citizens facing down Soviet tanks.
Menges’ direct action changed to policymaking when he received his doctorate from Columbia University and joined the Rand Corporation. (He later worked for numerous think tanks, including three stints at the Hudson Institute.) At Rand, he wrote the papers that gave an intellectual basis to what would become known as the Reagan Doctrine. These included "Democratic Revolutionary Insurgency as an Alternative Strategy," which argued that "communist regimes are very vulnerable to a democratic national revolution that is conducted with skill and the determination to succeed." Thence, he went into public service under both the Nixon and Ford administrations as deputy assistant for civil rights in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
To those familiar with all his accomplishments, it may be surprising to hear that Menges was, for the most part, condemned to play the role of Cassandra to the very end of his life. Officially or otherwise, he advised every presidential administration from Nixon on. For the most part, each president had a policy of intently hearing him out — and then ignoring him. Similarly, the press would write about him, but he was repeatedly frustrated in getting them to run his writings. He last appeared in the Washington Post in 1991, the New York Times in 1979, and the Wall Street Journal never.
The Carter administration was well aware of his genius, insofar as the president’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, had been one of Menges’ professors at Columbia. Menges had warned Carter in 1977 that the friendly government in Iran might be overthrown, with the revolution co-opted by Islamic radicals. Two years later, this came to pass, leading to a regime that would begin the jihadist movement in which today we find ourselves in a death-grip and that directly supports the insurrection and terror in Iraq.
In 1978, he warned that Sandinista communist guerillas could seize power in Nicaragua within a year, becoming a base for subversion throughout Latin America. When the Sandinistas did so a year later, Brzezinski called him to say "You were right about Iran, and now you are correct about Nicaragua. We want your ideas on what to do now that the communists have taken over." Again, Menges provided an intellectual treasure trove; again, Carter showed no interest in treasure. Menges also told Carter about the threat slowly taking shape on a Caribbean island called Grenada — again, no action.
It was only with the ascendancy of President Ronald Reagan that Menges finally found a kindred spirit. He began as a CIA national intelligence officer under Director William Casey. To Reagan and Casey, it was as clear as it had been to Menges that President Truman’s "containment" strategy was a failure insofar as communism was expanding across the globe.
"Wars of liberation" were converting autocracies in Asia and Africa into outposts of communist dictatorship that in turn fomented "wars of liberation. Latin America was becoming Castro’s playground. As Menges had predicted, the Sandinistas began fomenting rebellion even before their rifles had cooled from their own victory. El Salvador seemed ripe for plucking.
Reagan, Casey and Menges all believed that an across-the-board communist threat could only be defeated if fought across the board. Morally and strategically, it was wrong to keep propping up tinhorn dictators — where the communists would pretend to support the people, America must actually do so. Those struggling to throw off the communist yoke — be it the Contras in Nicaragua or Mujahideen in Afghanistan — needed CIA advisers and material support. Finally, when necessary, U.S. forces would be directly deployed. Fears of "another Vietnam" would not dictate.
In his biography of President Reagan, author Lou Cannon described Menges as one of the president’s few aides who believed "that the West should be mobilized to fight communists with their own methods." Cannon called him "one of the most forceful of these polemicists" and "a principled conservative." William F. Buckley Jr. would write that, "Constantine Menges is among the wisest and ablest of those who have sought to realize Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy goals."
Yet many with whom Menges worked cared little for those goals. Revved up to fight the forces of evil and repression, Menges found his immediate adversaries were denial, compromise and appeasement. White House and State Department adversaries dubbed him "Constant Menace" and "Menges Khan." Menges couldn’t outflank them by pulling rank, so he did the only thing he could do: he outthought them. There were also those who were more interested in promoting themselves than quixotic ideas of freedom, and indeed today they’re household names who live royally. But self-promotion, unless it led directly to the promotion of his ideas, wasn’t even in Menges’ lexicon.
The biggest test came in October 1983. A hard-line communist faction murdered Grenadian dictator Maurice Bishop, slaughtered other members of his regime, and issued a curfew directly threatening the lives of 900 American medical students studying on the island. In one of those seemingly small events that go on to shape history, Reagan had just weeks earlier appointed Menges a special assistant to the president for national security affairs.
Though the new kid on the block, Menges’ knowledge of the geopolitical situation and his clear conviction that he knew exactly what must be done allowed him to outflank military and civilian leaders who wanted an "in and out" operation. He argued that for the world’s most powerful military to merely overthrow a dictator supported by a tiny ragtag army and those "Cuban construction workers" would prove little; that only the establishment of a lasting democracy would provide a beacon of hope to peoples everywhere suffering under the yoke of communism.
With no time to waste, Reagan immediately launched Operation Urgent Fury — the Menges version. The first overthrow of a communist country with a free election soon thereafter thoroughly embarrassed Castro, strengthened Reagan’s hand with the allies in Europe, and shook the Kremlin. "Containment" was dead — the rollback had begun. Though few knew it at the time, it was then that the Berlin Wall started to crack.
Menges’ other accomplishments are far too numerous to list here, and many no doubt continue to bear a "top secret" stamp. We can only judge by the tip of the iceberg what lies beneath.
Alas, in the ensuing years Menges again became a Cassandra. To no avail, he provided then-Vice President George Bush with a detailed global anti-terrorism program that Bush found exciting and potentially effective. But ultimately, his recommendations ended up on the ash heap of history — and New York’s World Trade Center. The nation spent its "peace dividend" and then elected a president with outright animosity to the military and no interest in foreign policy.
From his perch at George Washington University and then back where he would end his career, Hudson Institute, Menges tried desperately to call President Clinton’s attention to the growing Islamist threat and to a specific militant named Osama bin Laden. Menges knew well Gen. George S. Patton’s admonition that "Perpetual peace is a futile dream."
But Clinton was otherwise occupied. And so, almost exactly 10 years after the wall came down, America was again at war. Or, to be more precise, she finally realized she was at war. The terrorists, as Menges had constantly admonished, had already known it for years.
Now in his 60s, but still not yet at the prime of his life — a prime that indeed he would never reach — Menges fought for America on three fronts.
First, he warned of the dangers of fomenting and exploiting the guerrilla war in Iraq in order either to form a second Shiite state or at the very least turn the southern end of the country into a vassal state and keep the rest destabilized. He was mocked by his own colleagues. After all, few hatreds go back as far as that between Arab and Persian, and many Shiite Iraqis died in the war against Iran — how could Iraqi Shiia work with Iranians? Try counting the weapons and munitions boxes found in Najaf and elsewhere packed with Iranian weapons.
He warned that Hugo Chavez would subvert Venezuela’s democracy with Castro’s help and work with Cuba to begin anew the destabilization of Latin America. Right again. Indeed, without desperate behind-the-scenes work from Menges and others, El Salvador recently might have elected a communist government. Instead, it remains a pro-American democracy.
Finally, he had just completed the manuscript for a book titled, "China, the Gathering Threat: The Strategic Challenge of China and Russia," detailing the threat to global security that China, together with its growing relationship to Russia, poses. It will be published in the spring.
Sadly, if Constantine had a motto it might be: "Why can’t they see!" They couldn’t see because they were straight-jacketed by their biases and short-term considerations. To what extent he considered this ability to break through such psychological walls a personal blessing or curse we’ll never know, but he found solace somewhere because he would remain one of the cheeriest people I’ve ever met.
He was also never too concerned with saving the world to not be concerned with his friends and family. He was devoutly religious, though he didn’t wear his beliefs on his shoulder. And to the end, he was madly in love with his wife of 29 years, Nancy, and she with him. He and I were often both the last ones in the office and sometime late in the evening the doorbell would ring. If he didn’t get it right away, I assumed he was on the phone with the ambassador to Iraq or some such, so I went to unlock the door knowing I would find her absolutely giddy in anticipation of seeing her man. He in turn always gazed upon her as if he’d just been introduced to Miss America.
It was late in the evening, two years ago, when he came into my office and politely asked, as he did even when we talked on the last night of his life and he struggled with each word, "Do you have a couple of minutes?" A friend of his, he said, had just been told he has bladder cancer. He could not conceal his nervousness, and perhaps a tinge of fear, and it was obvious that "his" friend was actually mine. He sought my help as a medical researcher and writer in what he knew could well be the final struggle in a life of combat.
This will not become an Oncology 101 course. Suffice that Constantine’s tumor was caught late and one way or another, serious action was required. He wanted to find a less invasive form of surgery than the normal full bladder removal, in order to put fewer burdens on his beloved wife and take less time away from his work.
I regret that I found one, for — as I told him at the time — full removal was the established route while mere removal of the tumor should still be considered experimental. Who is to say but that the outcome might not have been the same, but I now wish I had not found that alternative. Alas, I did and this time Constantine’s ability to see the future failed him.
He went into remission, but the tumor came back and spread. For the last time now, he would be the Quiet Warrior. He swore me to secrecy, as he wanted nobody’s pity and he feared the completion of his work would be compromised. Then, together, we fought that tumor ... and together we lost.
Several months before the end, I told my wife he was terminal, but it seems I had forgotten to tell myself. For when that end came, I was almost as shocked as those I had promised to keep in the dark. I think he was shocked, too. When he called me that last night, he wanted me to research a couple of new doctors he was considering consulting and assembling into a team. There he was, on his deathbed, planning strategy. I was still working through the medical databases on June 11 when the Quiet Warrior, age 64, passed from this world.
Now Constantine is at peace. Yet the nation is not. We are again fighting a world war, though few dare call it such and often it seems only the enemy knows that we are truly in a death struggle.
In saluting the fallen at Gettysburg, President Lincoln declared: "It is for us the living ... to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced." People must die; ideas may or may not. There will never be another Constantine Menges, but perhaps it’s enough that there was one. It is for us the living to be dedicated to the unfinished work and the ideas he so nobly advanced — or to allow them to forever rest in the soil of the adopted land he so loved.