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Merit-based immigration? Not if you consider the career of Gen. John Shalikashvili

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When John Shalikashvili’s family applied to come to America from Europe in 1952, his unemployed parents — a former military officer and a housewife — were living off the charity of relatives. If at the time the United States had a merit-based immigration system, which the Trump administration is now proposing, the family’s lack of resources and desirable labor-market attributes would have disqualified them from entry.

But the Shalikashvilis were allowed in — and to the great benefit of America’s national security.

Drafted into the Army in 1958, Shalikashvili rose to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs (CJCS), America’s top general, in 1993. He played a key role in guiding the United States, Europe, and beyond through the chaos of the immediate post-Cold War era.

He successfully led 13 nations and over 50 NGOs in an unprecedented international mission to rescue 500,000 Kurdish refugees trapped in the mountainous Turkish-Iraqi border in the first Gulf War’s aftermath. As CJCS Gen. Colin Powell’s assistant, he helped secure “loose nukes” in the newly independent former Soviet republics. As NATO’s top military officer and then as chairman himself, Shalikashvili helped unite European and U.S. stakeholders behind the Clinton administration’s Partnership for Peace and NATO enlargement initiatives of the 1990s.

There were many reasons for his success. But none was because he or his family brought skills, career success, or financial resources to this country. Instead, what the 16-year old Shalikashvili did bring was a mindset that stemmed directly from his Old World experiences.

For one, the Warsaw-born Shalikashvili had a strong desire to repay America, the only nation to make him a citizen. Poland refused, because his parents weren’t Polish. So did Germany, where his family fled after barely escaping the Warsaw Uprising.

And he showed his gratitude through a dedication to spreading American ideals, which held extra meaning for him as a WWII refugee. As Powell’s assistant, Shalikashvili took trips to the former Soviet Union with I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the under secretary of defense for policy. Libby later recalled how Shalikashvili talked about “understanding the perils of people who live outside the glow of democracy and” —most critically — “what it means to be dedicating your life to bringing freedom to those areas.”

Little wonder that historian David Halberstam praised Shalikashvili for having “an immigrant’s special appreciation for America and a belief that this country, not just in the eyes of its own citizens, but in the eyes of much of the world, was the place the least fortunate turned to as the court of last resort.”

Key to Shalikashvili’s success in securing America and its way of life was conflict prevention: “His genius was that he could always find something — an idea, a strategy, a wrinkle — to prevent destructive conflict and to bring people together and advance the mission.” That’s Gen. Wesley Clark, who worked under Shalikashvili, echoing common sentiment.

Where did that dogged dedication to preventing conflict come from? Again, look to his World War II childhood in Europe.

Seeing people killed had been part of my growing up,” he once reflected. Having lived in Warsaw, the most-bombed city of the war, and then in end-of-war Germany, Shalikashvili knew firsthand the devastation that conflict could unleash and how even an entire race could be targeted for annihilation. Forced to live underground after their Warsaw apartment was dive-bombed, his family had to pay others to carry grandmother’s stretcher through sewers and cellars, one of many first-hand lessons in the selfishness of people during trying times. “You deal with it,” he continued, “by trying not to let it demolish you.”

Seeing the extremes of human behavior as a child taught Shalikashvili the value of what I call “constructive open-mindedness” — neither downplaying the risks of bad things occurring nor prematurely dismissing possibilities for a better world. It’s part of what made him so skilled at reducing conflict. 

In 1995, Shalikashvili and National Security Advisor Anthony Lake toured Gettysburg, where three days of fighting in 1863 had produced some 45,000 casualties. Reflecting on how the recent Somali mission had been judged a disaster because eighteen soldiers died in the Black Hawk Down incident, Shalikashvili critiqued: “Something has broken down in the debate about the use of force. Eighteen people died so thousands and thousands could live. To me, that’s glory.”

Indeed, during his career Shalikashvili was known for attacking problems by plunging into the details and convincing with facts rather than emotion. Gen. Robert W. Riscassi recalled: “Shalikashvili just brought logic to the table. He’s relaxed, non-intrusive. His forte is knowledge.”

So, should the United States adopt a merit-based immigration system? The career of America’s only foreign-born chairman of the Joint Chiefs gives us strong cause to say no.

NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to correct the number of countries Shalikashvili led in the mission to rescue 500,000 Kurdish refugees.

Andrew Marble is author of the new book Boy on the Bridge: The Story of John Shalikashvili’s American Success (University Press of Kentucky), the first-ever biography of Gen. John Shalikashvili. Marble has a PhD in political science from Brown University, an MA in Law and Diplomacy from Tufts University’s Fletcher School, and a BA in East Asian Studies from Middlebury College. Marble currently serves as Outreach Editor for the Taiwan Journal of Democracy and is a reviewer for the “Washington Independent Review of Books.”

Tags Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell John Shalikashvili Joint Chiefs of Staff merit-based immigration

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