If we are to make America great again, shouldn’t there be a point in time we can look to as the standard for this greatness? When did we hit the peak of American greatness? What started the decline?
Don’t we need to know what we seek before we go looking for it?
Here’s a look at post-World War II, when America emerged as the most powerful nation on earth.
In the 1950’s institutional racism was an accepted aspect of life in most of America. Court decisions such as Brown vs. Board of Education moved the country, kicking and screaming, closer to our professed, but inconsistently applied, philosophy of equality.
The first routes of our involvement in Vietnam began with advisers.
America developed policies of equipping South and Central American police agencies with tactics to counteract communist insurgencies. These amounted to classes in sophisticated methods of torture.
Lessons learned from MKUltra Project (https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/document/cia-rdp91-00901r000500150005-5)
were turned into HOW TO classes for interrogation. We created the Office of Public Safety (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Office_of_Public_Safety) as a cover for this training.
We put a kinder and gentler face on a monster. Unleashing it on others while decrying such tactics as barbaric.
Our fear of a communist takeover in Central and South America drove us from our ideals. Our proclamations of the shining example of American rule of law fell on deaf ears, punctured in the torture chambers of police agencies we trained.
In the 1960’s the US intervened militarily in Vietnam. Our involvement cost millions of lives, supported a totalitarian government, and damaged the military in the eyes of many Americans.
We trained South Vietnamese Intelligence services with new and improved methods of interrogation. Guidelines spelled out in the CIA’s own manual on counterintelligence interrogation called Kubark. (https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB122/CIA%20Kubark%201-60.pdf)
The programs were further documented in the fascinating (and horrifying) book, A Decent Interval, by Frank Snepp. A CIA interrogator who took part in the interrogation of Viet Cong suspects.
We created the Phoenix Program. A controversial program of capturing, interrogating, and killing Viet Cong and NLF suspects.
Meanwhile, at home, the still smoldering embers of racial inequality grew hotter. The war in Vietnam tore America in two. Poverty and racial inequality reignited the fire. American cities burned.
It forced President Johnson from office and led to the election of Richard Nixon with his “secret” plan (sound familiar?) to end the war. A war he also covertly worked against any resolution before his 1968 election. Read Haldeman’s book Inside the Nixon Whitehouse if you don’t believe me on that one. (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01NCYX17R)
In the 1970’s, anger fueled the raging race issues. “Activist” Judges had to order Boston schools desegregated. Over 100 years had passed since the end of the Civil War and institutional segregation still existed.
And continues to this day (https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/03/a-mississippi-school-district-is-finally-getting-desegregated/519573/)
In the 1980’s Reagan (the hero of “small” government) launched the biggest government spending program in history, Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars), reigniting the potential for nuclear confrontation. We also went on the violate our own policies by negotiating with terrorists (Iran-Contra)
In the 1990’s Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, defining Marriage as a union between one man and one woman (and one intern), bowing to the politics of placating those trapped in a whitewashed false past of a more moral America.
We fired a few cruise missiles at some targets in a desert and ignored the Rwandan Genocide.
Nothing occurs in a vacuum. The people who suffered by the duplicitous nature of our foreign intervention in their governments came to despise us. We compounded the very problems we were seeking to prevent.
There were more positives than negatives in these time periods. But we gain nothing from celebrating all the good we’ve done without an honest appraisal of our mistakes.
America wasn’t “great” then and worse now, it was flawed. The lack of a 7-day 24-hour news cycle, controlled by a profit-driven media, made it seem a better time.
Here’s one example, in 1978, the year I joined the Police Department, more than 210 cops were killed that year. The death toll among law enforcement began a slow and steady increase in the 1960s and 1970s, peaking in 1974 with 280 cops killed. One might argue they were casualties of war. The war on drugs.
Here’s an interesting fact, the most dangerous year on record for Police Officers was 1930 when 307 officers were killed. The safest years in the 20th and 21st century, 1943 and 1944, when 87 and 93 officers were killed.
It gives one pause.
Now one officer being killed is unacceptable, but the perception is there is a war on cops. It is a media-driven brainwashing of America which compounds the problem. Are there people out there who hate cops? Of course. Given the chance, they may act on that, but to think things were better “back in the day” is naive.
We look to Europe and see their policies of open immigration as disasters, threatening the stability of those nations. What we forget, while countries like Germany and France well remember, is the irrational fear of a group because of cultural differences leads to a Holocaust.
We fought a long and difficult war to end such horrors, we shouldn’t let those lives go to waste because we’ve papered over the ugliness that still plagues the world.
America can never be defeated by an external enemy. We can only be defeated from within if we forget the principles upon which we are based. It will not be an infiltration of 14th-century flawed fundamentalist philosophies that destroys us. It will happen only if we abandon those principles that guide us.
If we have ignored our principles in the past, we must strive to make sure they guide our future decisions.
America’s greatness is in our future. We must admit to our mistakes, take pride in our accomplishments, and seek ways that preserve our security without sacrificing our freedom.
There is a slogan often used by those who wrap themselves in the flag, Freedom is not Free. There is a truth here, one I suspect they do not see. Freedom requires us to defend it at any cost to protect not just those with whom we agree, but more so with those with whom we differ.
It is by embracing differences America shows true greatness.
2 thoughts on “A Rumor of Greatness: Lessons in America’s Past”
Thank you for a great perspective. It’s easy for me to idealized my childhood in the sixties when there was no 24/7 news cycles. Wednesdays at my lunch hour I March in front of my Rep’s office for affordable healthcare. Last week a gentleman challenged me, using every stereotype from Reagan through today. I listened. He was not a wingnut, was my age and clearly had a good job. I said I didn’t have the answers, but I did expect a greater degree of intelligence, thoughtfulness and consideration for something that affected 1/6 of our economy. No, I didn’t convince him foster care kids or seniors should be allowed medicaid, he had answers for everything. “The other” was wrecking the economy. I hope I make a difference, but in the end, there is a big divide in my community on values.
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. Margaret Mead