Friday, June 29, 2018

What is America's role in the world?

       In his Farewell Address written in 1796, President George Washington warned the nation about the dangers of alliances with foreign governments, knowing those relationships could be double-edged swords used to both help- and harm- the young republic. Some historians have considered his words a bit ironic, as the thirteen colonies would almost certainly have lost the Revolutionary War without the assistance of France. In the 222 years since he shared those feelings, America has grown into the leading world power, even though we struggled through numerous foreign wars and a cataclysmic domestic conflict, a Great Depression and several periods when it appeared we had lost our way. By the middle of the 20th century, it was abundantly clear that our nation was not only a beacon of freedom in a chaotic world, but also a great and dependable friend helping dozens of countries in need. It is only by remaining true to long held principles that America has maintained its standing (economic, military, technological) and will continue to garner respect from nations around the globe.

       At what price do we gain respect? When the Marshall Plan was proposed following World War II, many critics complained that America was using taxpayer dollars to rebuild and strengthen other countries, in their view a misguided effort and a waste of precious resources. Yet without the Marshall Plan, many war-ravaged countries might have become even more unstable and vulnerable to aggressive actions from ruthless dictators. The creation of NATO in 1949 further reiterated America's dedication to maintaining peace in a volatile and dangerous world. Many political observers have asked "Should America be the policeman of the world?" The answer is complicated; on one level, simple and another, quite complex.

       It is undeniable that without America's assistance, the two world wars would have ended quite differently. France, Poland, Austria and many other countries would have remained in the grips of brutal dictators. The course of history would have been altered- from one of liberty and rule of law to despotism and widespread human suffering. Quite simply, without America's help, the world would be a much darker place, with hundreds of millions of people living in tyranny. We 'did the right thing.' Do we always do the right thing? It is often not easy- many geopolitical situations complex and fraught with peril. American politicians have made, shall we say, questionable choices in using resources and military might, the Vietnam War being the best relatively recent example. Although our men and women in uniform during that conflict fought hard and served proudly, the justification for war was not clear to many and to the average American, the long term objective was even more elusive. 

       In 1989, President Reagan ignored the recommendations of his advisers and stood at the Brandenburg Gate, saying "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" He knew that it was wrong to keep people locked up in a system which took away their most basic freedoms, to live, to work, to travel. America does not have unlimited resources. We cannot send soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines to fight in every "hot spot" around the world. We can remain true to our 'moral compass'- something hard to find in many leaders of this era. When our leaders stay true to the "core" principles for which the Founding Fathers dedicated their "lives, liberty and sacred honor", America stands tall, engaging productively with allies, opposing enemies and reaffirming its dedication to freedom for all people. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

What Would the Founding Fathers Think of America Today?

       This question has been asked numerous times over many decades, with the disclaimer that, by definition, all of them (George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison and the others) would be stunned by the advances in technology which have transformed society. More fundamentally, the question should focus on three key areas: 1) how the government functions, 2) the rights and personal freedoms of citizens and 3) the overall well being of people in general, along with the safety and security of the nation. On these topics, many historians would expect a wide variance of opinion from this group.

       On the issue of how well the government functions in America today, all of the Founding Fathers would be disappointed seeing how one political party faces off against another, often causing near paralysis in Washington. George Washington never officially belonged to a political party, even though many historians have labeled him a Federalist. In his Farewell Address written in September 1796, Washington warned the nation of the dangers that could arise when political groups fought against each other and geographic or sectional factions tried to gain advantage over people in other regions. 

       Political parties as we know them today didn't exist until Thomas Jefferson ran for President in the year 1800- and we've had them ever since. Jefferson and every President after him has belonged to a political party- and they are here to stay, whether we like them or not. Parties are not the problem; bickering among politicians which avoids resolving serious issues IS the real problem. As the Father of the Constitution, James Madison would likely be surprised at the myriad of laws, regulations and procedures now on the books, at least some of which appear counterproductive and even self-defeating. Seeing the ongoing paralysis of government, Madison, along with Hamilton and the others might strongly support revamping the U.S. House and Senate rules and procedures, as well as nullifying many laws in existence which they would question regarding efficiency and operations of government so as to allow real, practical solutions to problems.

       Regarding the rights and personal freedoms of citizens, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton might actually agree- that today's government has far too strong an influence on the daily activities of all Americans. From personal choices regarding their own health- the most important issue for all people- to laws and regulations on business, the environment and other areas, most of the Founders would likely be appalled at how much the government today does to influence the lives of every American. Personal liberty to them was paramount; they founded a new nation on the concept. In today's world, they would all act aggressively to change the way government interacts with and guides the actions of people. 

       With respect to the overall well being of the average citizen, the Founders would all be impressed that today, in the year 2018, the majority of Americans are reasonably healthy, enjoy decent housing, education available to all and a variety of conveniences which make their lives much easier than the conditions which existed 240 years ago. Regarding the safety and security of the nation, Washington would perhaps be the most dismayed to learn that the country he presided over is now facing numerous threats- from terrorism, to rampant crime in certain regions and the tidal wave of illegal immigration. Hamilton would be thrilled that the economic, banking and securities systems he put in place have made America the most successful and powerful nation in the world, while Jefferson and Madison would question the influence of wealthy businessmen and corporations in general. Adams, Franklin and the others would question just how strong and safe a nation can be if it cannot protect against nuclear weapons or maintain the integrity of its borders.

       Perhaps all the Founding Fathers would agree on one point: the framework they put in place more than two centuries ago is still working, despite its many flaws. For that, they would all be ecstatic- and quite proud...

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

What is the meaning- and value- of history?

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."  
                                                     --George Santayana

George Santayana

       The above quote by Harvard-trained philosopher George Santayana has been mentioned numerous times over the last fifty years by statesmen, writers, scholars and yes- historians- in an attempt to stress the importance of knowing something about the heritage of one's own country and how it fits into the long flow of history. Yet is is much more than that. Understanding the history of our nation is but a starting point for a long and potentially fascinating journey around the world, a trip that can provide us a connection with other cultures and a glimpse of their importance in the story of us all.

       The first question all historians are faced with is a daunting one: what does history actually mean? The old saying that "History is written by the victors" is only partially true. Each new generation of historians- whether they hail from a large, powerful nation or a smaller player in the world- gets a chance to evaluate the ebb and flow of human history, actions by politicians, kings, tyrants and warlords, along with those of unsung heroes- to determine the importance each played in bringing us all to where we are today. It is a certainty that every President, Prime Minister, scientist, philosopher, artist and inventor will be viewed differently 20... 50... 100 or more years after their own passing from the world stage than they were during their lifetime. Proof of this lies in the fact that Presidents including Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower are now ranked far more favorably than they were when they left office. It is this necessary period of reflection that allows historians- and all people- to gain a greater understanding of the importance and long term ramifications of actions and events. With a longer period for comparison, we get insights we never had before. Those insights themselves will change over time- and that is precisely the meaning of history.

       The second question is much less challenging: what is the value of history? By fully assessing a long series of events, how each one caused certain repercussions while others had minimal impact- we can all make more accurate projections about what is likely to occur in the future. Great historians like James McPherson, author of the classic Civil War narrative Battle Cry of Freedom tell us this story in a unique and effective way so as to bring new insights and new perspectives to us all. Clearly having the benefit of decades, even centuries of human activities to review rather than just a few over a short period of time provides a platform for predictions for the years ahead. Santayana appreciated that, saying: "We must welcome the future, remembering that soon it will be the past and... respect the past, remembering that it was once all that was humanly possible." 

       So let's celebrate our heritage- along with that of other nations- as we gain a richer understanding of the global narrative of emperors and kings, wars, natural disasters, great inventions and the minds which created we appreciate our past... and look forward to our future...

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Remembering the Day That Saved the Free World

       On June 6, 1944, Allied forces under the overall command of General Dwight Eisenhower stormed the beaches of Normandy to take on the German troops entrenched all along the coastline of France. Called "Operation Overlord", the liberation of France with the Allied coastal invasion was the largest armada assembled in modern history, originally planned during the darkest days of World War II when the Nazis were in control of large portions of Europe with a stranglehold that appeared unbreakable. Eisenhower spoke personally with the troops beforehand, telling them all that they were embarked "on a great crusade" to save the world. His speech must have inspired thousands of them.

       The invasion was almost called off due to inclement weather. Eisenhower actually took a big chance with the operation, as he'd been given a brief window of time to launch the attack. Luckily the weather held out and the naval forces were able to land thousands of men on Omaha, Juno, Gold, Utah and Sword Beach. Repelled at first with blistering machine gun and mortar fire, the Allies finally overcame the German positions, albeit with very heavy casualties.

       Today, 74 years later, it is worth pondering what was accomplished that fateful day. The old adage: "If the Allies hadn't won, we'd all be speaking German" is not too far off the mark. The Nazi war machine was overwhelming, brutal and successful in taking control of France, Austria, Poland and several other countries. Although Hitler and his commanders made glaring overcommitments of men and assets that were unsustainable, it is quite possible that, if he had limited his troops to just one or two areas, he could have succeeded. Instead he badly miscalculated in trying to create a vast new German empire which was doomed to fail due to limited resources- and the world benefited from his error.

       The ranks of World War II veterans are thinning rapidly; the youngest person to serve, starting as late as 1945, would today be at least 90 years old. We're losing about 400 WWII veterans every day. One young man wants to make sure their stories are heard. Rishi Sharma- a 20 year old from Redondo Beach, California has made it his mission to interview every living WWII vet. He's traveled to 45 states and Canada and spoken with 870 of them over the last few years. Rishi talks with many of them on the phone, some in person, videotaping their comments to be stored in a "living history" WWII database. Although he realizes it is a nearly impossible task, Rishi persists and is determined to reach as many as he can. He documents his experiences and those of the veterans on his website 

       Tom Brokaw called them "The Greatest Generation." While all our veterans should be thanked and honored for their service, those who fought in World War II- on the beaches of Normandy, in the horrific Battle of the Bulge, in the Pacific Theater at the bloody battles of Midway, Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima, all across Africa and Asia- somehow deserve a very special "Thank you." Without their efforts, hundreds of millions of people around the world might have been forced into lives of desperation and tyranny. Because of them, today... we live in freedom.