(Adapted from a speech delivered earlier this year at a Center for Security Policy event.)
Thucydides noted that “…happiness is obtained through freedom and freedom through a brave heart…” But at a time when world affairs is shifting before our very eyes, a “brave heart” seems to be in retreat. Much of what we’ve known and assumed is being shattered by tumultuous events. We are, as I see it, in the throes of loss — the loss of national sovereignty, the loss of our history and the loss of national exceptionalism.
However, what is not lost is the resilience of the American people. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
1. Loss of National Sovereignty:
First, I want to point out the ways in which sovereignty is being lost from the prepared Treaty of The Sea, a new version of the Kyoto Accord, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the misguided acceptance of membership to the U.N. Human Rights Council. But there is one area that has received almost no public attention: the Financial Stability Board.
President Obama signed a new contract with G20 leaders for a banking system, the Financial Stability Board which establishes an economic union with uniform trade regulations and bylaws. It includes the extension of “oversight to all important financial institutions, instruments and markets.” The head of FSB, Mario Draghi of Italy said, “every financial institution capable of creating financial risk will be the subject of supervision.” This means the U.S. has been inserted into an entangling alliance with Europeans and Asians that compromises national economic independence.
2. Loss of the Past
On June 6, 1944, the United States and its allies launched the largest air and sea armada in world history. The purpose of this mission was clear: liberate Europe from the grip of Nazi despotism.
The landings on the Normandy beaches led to unprecedented death and destruction. American soldiers leaving their amphibious landing crafts measured their life expectancy in minutes. In the first hour of battle hundreds lost their lives and in succeeding waves thousands were killed as the beaches at Omaha and Utah were soaked with the blood of young men in their teens and early twenties.
At Pointe du Hoc Rangers scaled the sheer cliffs on rope hangers. When one was killed by German bullets another stepped on the precarious rungs. Of the 224 Rangers who scaled those cliffs only 90 survived, but as historians observed rarely in history has there been such a display of courage, fortitude and sacrifice.
This was the beginning of a great epoch in history that led ultimately to the defeat of Hitler’s Germany. But history has a way of describing the big picture and leaving out the tales of individual bravery by young men who a year or two earlier were playing high school basketball, working on a farm or applying to college. History called their number and they responded. Tom Brokaw called them “America’s greatest generation.”
It is hard to know if they made history or history demanded heroic deeds from them. Perhaps it was a little of both. But standing in the cemetery at the Normandy Beach and observing row after row of those who gave their lives for a cause greater than themselves, I am humbled by those who died so future generations could live freely.
There is another thought that crossed my mind in this crowded necropolis. I don’t understand how anyone, much less the president of the United States, could apologize for American actions abroad in the last century or this one. With all the mistakes and miscalculations even with Abu Ghraib and My Lai, there has never been a force for good more notable than the United States’ military.
Ask the citizens of Caen, Bayeux, St. Lo, Archante what they thought about GI’s in their midst. Residents of these towns were saved from enslavement by Americans who fought Panzer divisions in their backyards. Generals Eisenhower, Patton, and Bradley left devastation in their advancing wake, but they brought with them armies that yielded freedom and set the stage for a level of prosperity Europe has enjoyed ever since.
It is difficult for most Europeans to remember the past. After all, who wants to remember an uncle that bailed you out of a jam? Here in Normandy, however, conditions are different. Citizens of this region were there on the front line. Omaha Beach is Bloody Omaha to them and the American flag still stands as a reminder.
This June, the 65th anniversary of D-Day was celebrated. For most Americans and most Europeans it is simply another day in late spring. Some octogenarians may remember that fateful day when the liberation of Europe began. Many, however, knowing nothing about history will be disinclined to pay any special attention to the day.
I recall seeing Steven Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan, in which, with extraordinary verisimilitude, the director recaptured the events at Omaha Beach. As the film began and the bloodshed was evident, a young lady seated behind me asked her friend “what war do you think this is?”
For the fallen heroes lying in their graves this ignorance is lamentable. Perhaps it explains why President Obama can apologize and apologize again for the sins in American foreign policy and many Americans can applaud, or at the very least, accept his gesture for foreign consumption. I cannot. I am appalled that we can ignore, forget or rationalize away American heroism.
I don’t think we should ever apologize for what the United States has done to extricate millions from the yoke of totalitarian control. It is not arrogance to recall the limbs that were shattered and the bodies broken to set history on the course of democracy, imperfect as it is.
3. Loss of Exceptionalism
Godfrey Hodgson, a British journalist and associate fellow at the University at Oxford, has a new book, The Myth of American Exceptionalism, that is an attempt to undermine the deeply held belief that the United States is a morally and politically superior nation.
In his treatise he accuses Daniel Boorstin, Frederick Jackson Turner, Perry Miller among others as perpetuators of a self congratulatory myth, a myth that has shaped the popular imagination of Americans throughout history. From Hodgson’s perspective the apostles of exceptionalism see the United States as a nation of “unrivaled virtue, a chosen hand with a special destiny and a duty to spread liberty, democracy and the rule of law, ‘a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom’ in the words of President George Bush.”
Hodgson sees himself as a debunker. He notes, “Not all ideas about America exceptionalism are untrue, but important pieces are untrue, and it is very unhealthy for a society to believe things about itself that are not true.”
As I see it, Hodgson has created a red herring and then beats it till it is disfigured. The United States is an imperfect nation. Its government has made mistakes, overplayed its hand at times, even corrupted its principles at various moments in the past, yet a case — a valid case — can still be made for American exceptionalism.
After all, only one nation on the globe has assimilated millions of immigrants who sought refuge on American shores. The Europeans are generally incapable of integrating new immigrants into their nations as enclaves across the continent suggest.
The United States is the only true racial laboratory on the globe, notwithstanding its history of Jim Crow. Could a Barack Obama be elected anywhere in Europe? Could a Jamaican be the next prime minister of Great Britain or an Algerian president of France?
When the demonstrators at Tiananmen Square built a monument to their aspirations was it the Eiffel Tower they tried to duplicate or perhaps a tribute to the Prophet Mohammed? No, they constructed a statue of liberty because the American symbol embodies the spirit and vision they hoped to achieve.
No major nation on the globe has distributed wealth across the board as effectively as the United States. Even the poorest elements of the American population enjoy privileges and material things that are the envy of most Africans and many Asians.
While Hodgson glibly asserts “the thuggishness” of American foreign policy, he consciously overlooks the sacrifices the United States made in two world wars to save Europe from dictatorship and, despite his criticism of the Bush foreign policy he calls imperialistic, an argument can be made that the United States today is attempting to create a stable democracy in the midst of backward tyrannies.
Notwithstanding the obvious fact that Europeans have at long last come to love freedom, they still seem to be incapable of defending it. They depend on the United States to provide the backbone for NATO and whenever there are wars or battles somewhere on the globe, Europeans ask what will the Americans do.
If the Hodgson thesis has any meaning, it is as an exemplar of a new genre of historiography called “American Declinism.” Rather than admire American accomplishments, the revisionists like Hodgson emphasize the flaws. Rather than see national greatness, Hodgson sees only arrogance. Rather than fulfill The Promise of American Life, to borrow a title from Herbert Croly, the declinists see delusions.
Should the Hodgson thesis gain traction it will be yet another nail in the national coffin by those convinced that history must pass into an era of transnational loyalties. Somehow I don’t see how that vision can inspire Americans. I may be wrong, but either we come to appreciate American exceptionalism or we end up with American mediocrity.
In thinking about this Spenglerian impulse now so evident in the U.S., I recently came across a speech by Lavrenti Beria.
4. Why Is This the Case?
Here are excerpts from a speech by Lavrenti Beria, the head of the NKVD, who made the following argument to a group of U.S. communist students at Lenin University in 1953:
Degradation and conquest are companions. To be conquered, a nation must be degraded… degradation can be accomplished insidiously… and effectively by consistent and continual defamation… continued and constant degradation of national leaders, national institutions, national practices and national heroes must be systematically carried out.
By attacking the character and morals… by bringing about, through contamination of youth, a general degraded feeling, command of the populace is facilitated to a very marked degree. The attack on the mind of a nation involves changing loyalties, we must have a command of their values. In the animal, the first loyalty is to himself. This is destroyed by demonstrating to him… showing that he does not remember, cannot act or does not trust himself.
The second loyalty is to his family unit… this is destroyed by lessening the value of marriage, by making easiness of divorce. The next loyalty is to his friends and local environment… this is destroyed by lowering his trust. The next is to the state…and this is the only loyalty (once the State is founded as a Communist State…)
In re-arranging loyalties we must have a command of their values… supporting the propaganda to destroy (all trust in established institutions) will in the end create the chaos necessary to communism. By making readily available drugs of various kinds, by praising (a teenager’s) wildness…by stimulating him with sex literature and advertising… the psychological operator can create the necessary attitude of chaos, idleness and worthlessness into which can then be cast the solution… if we can effectively kill the national pride and patriotism of just one generation we will have won that country… therefore there must be continual propaganda abroad to undermine the loyalty of the citizens.
By perverting the institutions of a nation and bringing about a general degradation… a population can be brought psychologically to heel…
4. What Do We Do to Restore Our Precious Liberty
Culture counts. Toynbee noted that civilizations die by suicide not murder. Cite Howard Zinn’s A People‘s History of the United States, the most popular textbook in the nation, teaches the smearing and degrading picture of the U.S. despite the unprecedented sacrifice, courage and achievement of this nation. Zinn ignores the obvious condition that civilization is the answer to barbarism even if the barbarians are flourishing at the moment.
We must reclaim the culture in our schools and universities. We must teach the romance and achievement of our civilization. We must deliver the wisdom and consolation of the Western tradition despite the widespread arrogance and cynicism. And we must do so recognizing that this is an uphill struggle that requires dedication and patience.
Despite all it blemishes and imperfections, this is the greatest nation on the globe, the one that has contributed more to liberty and prosperity than any other. This is nothing to apologize for. We should honor our national tradition of self criticism, but never, ever engage in anti-American sentiment that degrades our heritage.
We must reinstitute patriotic fervor, not out of contemporary jingoism, but because we have an obligation to tell the truth about our nation and our past. America is not only a nation “becoming,” it is a nation that “has been.” It has been to the future; it has been on a quest for liberty and it has been a model for freedom loving people everywhere.
Why, despite many concerns about the present, do I remain an optimist? In large part it is because I believe that the United States is a land of miracles. “If it doesn’t happen here, it doesn’t happen.” In thinking about the resilience of Americans, I’m reminded of verses from Lee Greenwood’s “Proud To Be An American.”
…I’m proud to be an American where at least I know I’m free and I won’t forget the men who died who gave that right to me.
And I gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today for there ain’t no doubt I love this land, God bless the USA.”