Marine’s Hymn

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(HOST) Today is the 200th anniversary of an event that, according to commentator Peter Gilbert, connects Reverend William Sloane Coffin to George Herbert Walker Bush, and the lyrics of the Marine’s Hymn.

(GILBERT) Protestant minister and author William Sloane Coffin, who lives in Strafford, once told me about his experience as a high school senior at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. He graduated from Andover, as did his classmate, George Herbert Walker Bush, in 1942 – just six months after Pearl Harbor.

Reverend Coffin recalls how his American History teacher, Arthur Burr Darling, made the boys stand up and sing the Marine’s Hymn. Coffin was ordered to lead them because he was head of the glee club:

“From the Halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli,
We fight our country’s battles in the air, on land and sea.”

Darling walked to the window, and after a long pause he said, without turning around, “Gentlemen, what were we doing in the halls of Montezuma and in Tripoli?”

Obviously, it made a big impression on young Bill Coffin. The former President Bush has said that Darling was “tough, demanding,” and the best teacher he ever had, a teacher who made American “history
come alive.”

I might add that, later in his career, Darling was chosen to write the CIA’s official history of its early years. The history was declassified in 1989, coincidently during the administration of the first President Bush, a former CIA director.

Well, it was exactly 200 years ago today – on April 25, 1805 – that Marines attacked and captured the key harbor fort at Derna, on “the shores of Tripoli,” now Libya. President Thomas Jefferson had ordered them to North Africa without Congressional authorization and despite opposition, even in his own cabinet, to put down the Barbary Coast “pirates” involved in attacking American and other ships, kidnapping and ransom. It was the first time that the American flag had been raised on foreign soil. Alas, it was only America’s first war against Libya and might be seen as a harbinger of things to come.

And what about “the halls of Montezuma”? Those words refer to the climactic battle of the Mexican-American War, 1846-1848. The war ended after General Winfield Scott defeated the Mexicans at the fortified hilltop castle of Chapultepec – “the halls of Montezuma” – and then occupied Mexico City.

Some historians argue that the American president, James K. Polk, intentionally provoked war with Mexico to gain territory. Congressman Abraham Lincoln called the war unconstitutional and unnecessary. Whether the war was an intentional land grab or not, it did result in Mexico recognizing the Rio Grande as the boundary of Texas and the United States, acquiring what is now California, Utah, Nevada, most of Arizona and part of New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming.

Two phrases in a song, two American presidents, Jefferson and Polk, who intervened to advance American interests as they saw them, and a third American president and his history teacher who sought to learn from history so as not to be doomed to repeat it.

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.

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