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War On (Insert Here)

On Aug. 20, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the "War on Poverty" bill into law.
/ Arnold Sachs / Getty Images
Arnold Sachs / Getty Images
On Aug. 20, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the "War on Poverty" bill into law.

The War of 1812 began in 1812. The war on drugs, on the other hand, is more difficult to place on a timeline. Did it start in 1880, when the United States banned opium shipments from China? Or in 1971, when President Nixon declared a modern war on drugs?

Real wars have a beginning, middle and end. But war is often used as a metaphorical term as well, describing a campaign against social ills. The war metaphor is particularly useful because it sets up two distinct sides: good and bad.

Here, a list of just some of the "enemies" declared on U.S. soil:

Poverty -- President Johnson declared an "unconditional war on poverty" in 1964. The goal wasn't to reduce poverty but to end it entirely. His speech initiated a set of social reforms that later evolved into Johnson's Great Society program. His Office of Economic Opportunity launched Head Start, Job Corps and work-study grants.

Drugs – In 1971, President Nixon announced "a new, all-out offensive" against "America's public enemy number one... drug abuse." Two years later, he created the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to combat drug addiction in America. In 1981, President Reagan reinvigorated the drug war when Nancy Reagan declared "Just Say No" to drugs; Reagan then created the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The director is often called the nation's drug czar. (Czar is another term that pervades political and pop cultural rhetoric.)

Cancer – The National Cancer Act, signed into law by President Nixon in 1971, is commonly known as the "war on cancer." The act was not just a war. It was Nixon's personal "crusade" seeking the "conquest of cancer." His act expanded research facilities across the country, established an international cancer research bank, and allowed researchers to bypass the National Institute of Health's budget constrictions.

Illiteracy - The government's "war" against illiteracy began in the late 1970s, when the state of Alabama began a statewide campaign to raise adult reading comprehension levels. In 1985, Secretary of Education Bill Bennett joined the fray, unveiling a national illiteracy program created in response to journalist's Jonathan Kozol's book Illiterate America,which revealed that a third of all American adults were functionally illiterate and couldn't read the front page of a newspaper

Barbara Bush then took up the cause because her son Neil was dyslexic; her husband, son, and daughter-in-law also championed anti-illiteracy efforts. In fact, on Sept. 10, 2001, President Bush declared a new "war on illiteracy for the young" at a Florida elementary school.

Less Serious Wars

Christmas – FOX News declared that department stores were waging a war on Christmas during the 2004 and 2005 holiday seasons by replacing the phrase "Merry Christmas" with the nondenominational "Happy Holidays." The Catholic League boycotted Wal-Mart for using the words "holiday" instead of "Christmas" in its store promotions and FOX urged its viewers to say "Christmas break" instead of "winter break."

Terra – The latest "war on" was created by The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The ice caps, Stewart said, have declared a war on terra. Stewart says, "The ice caps have not melted. The water has been liberated."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Melody Joy Kramer
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