07/21/2014 02:22 pm ET Updated Sep 19, 2014

Suffer the Little Children

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy proposed a 10-year plan for Latin America "to complete the revolution of the Americas, to build a hemisphere where all men can hope for a suitable standard of living and all can live out their lives in dignity and freedom." As a young officer, I was posted to El Salvador in part of Kennedy's Alliance for Progress. We promoted a wide range of reforms aimed to help the local people adopt modern technology, improve their standard of living and develop a viable political system.

The Alliance for Progress did much good but it got pushed aside by the demands of our commitment in Vietnam and somehow withered away. In the intervening years, we have treated Latin America as a sideshow, seldom paying attention until some dictator gets out of hand, as happened in Nicaragua and Panama. Even then we focus on military and political security, not economic, social and political progress.

We are now paying the price for that indifference to our southern neighbors. For a small investment of time, money and attention we could have helped forge working democracies and viable economies in Latin America, but we turned our backs on them. Today, much of the area is ruled by criminal gangs which elected governments cannot control. The lack of economic opportunity and endemic poverty throughout the region contribute to a general atmosphere of lawlessness and despair. Thus, thousands of desperate parents send their children on dangerous journeys to our country in quest of a better life.

It's possible that the Latin American governments are colluding with the government of Mexico to expedite the movement of these kids to the U.S. border. We would have every right to be indignant about this and to challenge the government of Mexico to stop the flood of humanity, but I doubt if our indignation will get us very far. The Obama administration does not know how to project power and in any case seems rudderless in this crisis.

Mexico of course has its own problems. Mexico has a working democracy and a viable economy, but large swaths of the country are free-fire zones where brutal drug cartels are virtually beyond the government's authority. We do not have to look far to find the blame for this situation. We are the ones who buy the drugs and sell advanced weapons to the drug dealers. As Pogo said, we have met the enemy and he is us.

Our choices regarding the children are limited, but I will propose one that insofar as I know no one else is promoting. I suggest we take these kids in, find them good homes, provide for their education and then, when they are grown, educated and acclimated to our culture, we send them back to their country as missionaries of democracy.

Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications", published by The History Publishing Company.