We are living in a trying time for our democracy. Many of us are questioning the survival of our deeply divided society. Seventy-five years ago, Americans faced an even graver danger when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, destroying much of our navy and killing 2,403 Americans. The enemy then was a foreign power, but the challenges at home were not very different from what we see around us today.
At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, the United States was deeply divided. Most Americans had not recovered the wealth they lost during the Great Depression, and they remained insecure about their futures in a weak economy. Insecurity fed bigotry and intolerance.
The vast majority of Americans opposed war against the fascist powers. They remembered the costs of the First World War and the unsatisfying results. They hated many elements of fascism but did not believe it was worse than Soviet communism, British imperialism, or the continued growth of “Oriental,” “African” and “Jewish” groups in the lands conquered by the fascists. “America First” was a rallying cry for ordinary white Americans who felt mistreated by elites, scarred by economic difficulties and dislocated by international policies.
The Japanese intended their attack to inflame the divisions in the United States, much as Russian, Chinese, the Islamic State group and North Korean leaders seek to exploit our divisions today. But contrary to these expectations, the United States emerged more united in 1941 because it had leaders, especially President Franklin Roosevelt, who tied the war effort to public service, not partisan positions or special interests.
Defending American territory and defeating those who threatened it, Roosevelt spoke directly to citizens: “Every single man, woman and child is a partner in the most tremendous undertaking of our American history. We must share together the bad news and the good news, the defeats and the victories – the changing fortunes of war.”
The American people heard the call and responded. They would collectively serve their country in different forms – some on the battlefield, many more in factories – to improve the world, despite their lingering reservations and differences of viewpoint. Roosevelt articulated a big goal for all groups, and he made everyone a participant, a stakeholder, and, yes, a public servant. He called the war effort a “covenant with each other before all the world.”
After the war, the public service ethic inspired by Pearl Harbor continued. Americans from all backgrounds served their country in the military, politics, philanthropy and many other fields. Through the G.I. Bill, public service provided access to education and homeownership, both designed to bring citizens together in improving themselves and sharing neighborhoods. For the pre-baby boomer generation that lived through Pearl Harbor as young men and women, working for your country, paying taxes for the common good and defining your success by your public service were essential parts of citizenship. They built the schools, roads, power plants and businesses that continue to undergird our prosperity.
But by the late 1960s, amid controversies over civil rights and an unpopular war in Vietnam, many Americans rejected public service. Bipartisan agreement in 1973 to eliminate conscription and make the military an all-volunteer profession contributed to an abandonment of public service as a marker of citizenship. By the end of the century, the majority of our nation’s business, academic and media elites had never served their country in any serious way – a complete reversal from a generation earlier, when public service was a necessary step to leadership and respectability.
Today, we will never overcome our current divisions by continuing to argue over the issues that divide us. Nor will we rally together magically behind a charismatic outsider who promises to blow it all up. The lesson of Pearl Harbor is that a divided nation needs a common mission and a shared commitment to public service to build new bonds for cooperation, as occurred 75 years ago.
Programs like Teach for America, AmeriCorps, and the Peace Corps are a start, but they remain very small. Our citizens can do so much more.
We should begin with our crumbling infrastructure and fighting terrorism, two topics that received extensive attention in the recent presidential campaign. Our national and state leaders should create new avenues for young Americans to get involved in addressing these needs, perhaps volunteering their skills for a year or two, followed by assistance with education. Young men and women can apply their talents as engineers, translators, social workers and even soldiers. They will learn to work with people very different from themselves and take pride in contributing to the public good. They will define their success not just in what they earn, but how they serve their fellow citizens.
Our divided country needs a new generation to get out of its segregated neighborhoods and away from its electronic devices to work together in public service. That is what the Pearl Harbor generation did when attacked by a foreign foe. Young men and women are fed up with politics as usual, and they are eager to become another “greatest generation,” if only we will give them a chance.
This article originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle on 3 December 2016.
Fifteen years ago, American self-confidence shattered amid the death and debris of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, a field in Pennsylvania and four hijacked aircraft.
The ripple effect has been felt ever since.
Before these terrible terrorist attacks, we believed history was on our side. Perhaps rightly so — the forces of democracy and capitalism had torn down the walls of communist tyranny, and the world was poised for an era of “perpetual peace” enforced by unchallenged U.S. power. In fact, foreign policy was barely discussed during the 2000 presidential election. The world was going our way.
Then Sept.11, 2001, happened. It was a shock because it was not supposed to happen.
Nineteen young men from the Middle East, carrying only box cutters, killed almost 3,000 people by flying airplanes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the field in Pennsylvania, injuring more than 6,000 others. They caused more than $3 trillion in damage, shutting down the financial and political capitals of the United States. The mightiest and wealthiest nation was exposed as a vulnerable collection of soft targets. Overnight, the symbols of American freedom and prosperity — office buildings, tourist destinations, airports, parks and even sports arenas — became sites of potential danger.
We have lived in fear ever since that terrible day. The irony is that the fear, much more than the terrorists, has done enormous damage to our country.
Our efforts to protect ourselves have increased our suffering and left us less safe. Our policies designed to boost our economy have increased inequality and diminished investments in critical public needs. Most ironic, our fight against hateful terrorists has made us a more hate-filled society.
We see evidence of it today. Donald Trump’s rhetoric against Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants and women is an extension of similar words and attitudes expressed with ever more frequency since the United States began its “War on Terror.” In the years that followed 9/11, President George W. Bush spoke of a “crusade.” Sarah Palin and other tea party activists encouraged Americans to arm themselves and stand their ground against suspected intruders in their communities, most of whom had darker skin. Some followers of this rhetoric still believe that the first African-American president is really a secret Muslim, which is their way of saying he is not a true American. Trump has only added more gasoline to this brewing hatred.
Making the hate deeper and more difficult to control are our military failures in the Middle East. Since March 2003, we have spent more than $2 trillion in Iraq on war and reconstruction. More than 4,000 Americans have died in that country, and at least 150,000 Iraqi civilians have lost their lives. Yet, more than a decade later, the situation in Iraq and the wider region is worse and more threatening. The Islamic State group, which emerged as a reaction to the war and American occupation, now controls large parts of Iraq and Syria. It uses this territory to plan attacks on American and European targets with greater zeal and effectiveness than ever exhibited by the regime the U.S. overthrew in Iraq.
Out of fear, we fought a long and costly war in Iraq that has made us less safe, less influential and less wealthy. Many Americans are angry about this, and for good reason, but they are directing much of their anger at Muslims rather than trying to bring positive change.
A similar story applies to the management of our economy. Fearing a loss in consumer confidence after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush famously told Americans to “go shopping.” In a matter of months, an inherited budget surplus turned into a deficit, with much of the money going to warfare, homeland security projects, tax cuts and other efforts to stimulate the economy. This was followed by reductions in government regulations on lending and business practices, many justified by the fear that restrictive laws would limit the country’s ability to respond to new threats and competition. The 2008 recession triggered yet another set of larger spending projects to bail out bankers and businessmen who were allegedly “too big to fail.”
Fearful spending always makes for bad investment choices. Look at what the record budget deficits after Sept. 11, 2001, bought us: rising inequality, stagnant wages and crumbling public institutions. New spending went to consumers and investors, not the builders of schools, bridges, parks or even sidewalks. Only a few decades ago, American infrastructure was the envy of the world. Now our telecommunications, electric grid and public transportation are just above Third World standards.
Where did all the money go? It followed the fear, not the country’s needs. Spending on prisons, police and surveillance increased rapidly, just as budgets for education and infrastructure have fallen. Both Republicans and Democrats support transfer payments that protect these things, but neither has taken a strong stand to protect investments in our future crop of talented citizens — many of whom are, incidentally, dark-skinned and female.
The generation of Americans who lived through the Great Depression and the Second World War followed Franklin Roosevelt’s prescient warning that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” They built a society of hope and opportunity that we still benefit from today.
But since Sept. 11, 2001, our society has gone in the opposite direction. We have allowed fear to dominate our policymaking, our public rhetoric and even our local behavior. In this sense, the terrorists have won. The reactions of American leaders have done more to harm our society and diminish our future prospects than the crimes conducted abroad. Our wounds are almost entirely self-inflicted.
But here is the good news: We still have time to reverse course. The history of the past 15 years can awaken us to the perils of politics based on fear and hate. What we need is more of a willingness to see beyond immediate and exaggerated threats, with a renewed focus on hopes and possibilities. In the aftermath of a flawed, yet successful Summer Olympics, our leaders have a chance to re-introduce our country to the world and articulate a vision for increased cooperation so we can better manage climate change, nuclear proliferation and international trade. We also need a national economic policy that promises more opportunities for disadvantaged citizens through targeted investments, regulations and assistance.
Our leaders must talk more ambitiously about what we are for and less about what we are against. And most important, we must, as Americans, work toward rebuilding a civic culture that values conversation and compromise, discouraging hate, fear and violence. That is where the real courage resides – in the willingness to dream again, despite the scary shadows on the wall.
This article originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News on 7 September 2016.