Posts Tagged ‘World War II’

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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.

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The United States had a secret weapon in the war against Nazi Germany. Many of the best minds from Germany and occupied Europe fled fascist hatred and came to our shores.

Despite immigration restrictions, the United States took these refugees in, and they helped us to win the war. People such as Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi and Edward Teller built the first atomic bomb and prepared American society to understand and defeat the enemy.

A similar process is at work today, especially in Texas.

Our state is filled with hardworking men and women who came to the United States for opportunity after fleeing repression in their countries of birth. These are many of the best students at our universities who make our society the most innovative in the world. These are the men and women we meet in our neighborhoods who understand the value of democracy and free enterprise better than many American-born citizens, because they experienced the pain of its absence before coming here.

Meeting the interpreter

One of us writing this piece, a veteran of the Iraq War, recently met his former interpreter, a Kurd, while shopping in a Texas supermarket. What could be more American?

Assim, the Kurdish interpreter, immigrated to the United States to escape the violence and hatred in Iraq. He brought valuable language and cultural skills to the United States, a strong work ethic, and a love for the promise of the American dream. Assim is one of thousands of Middle Eastern refugees who attest to the power of freedom and provide crucial assistance to our efforts to protect that freedom. We are all stronger, as Americans, for his presence and his patriotism.

We have always valued security and taken measures to screen and monitor recent arrivals, but we have also frequently voiced attitudes of racial, religious and ethnic intolerance, which we are hearing again today. Nonetheless, in every generation, from the Einsteins to the Kissingers and now to the Assims, these immigrants have been the engine for our innovation, growth and improvement.

Simply put, the United States will continue to prosper and defeat its enemies because it attracts freedom-loving people from around the world. That has been our source of success since Sam Houston came to Texas more than 180 years ago. The good guys have come to America to defeat the bad guys back in their old homes. And the good guys have won.

Balanced approach needed

Of course surveillance of potential terrorists and restrictions on immigration are necessary to protect against violent attacks on our society. But these legitimate actions must be balanced against the need to continue attracting talent to our communities. Much of that talent will come from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and other countries. Middle Eastern immigrants provide vital knowledge of the cultures and societies with which America interacts in our struggle to defeat violent extremism.

A plan that excludes all refugees from these areas diminishes our ability to defeat the people who most imperil our safety. If we do that, we will become a closed and fearful island rather than an open and innovative society.

As was true when fighting Nazi Germany, the refugees are our secret weapon for defeating the advocates of hate.

Imagine if the United States had not admitted Einstein or Fermi or Kissinger because they came from enemy countries and were not “good Christians.” American society would have been poorer and weaker because of such restrictions. We also would have had a harder time winning the Second World War, containing communism and generating the prosperity that has made America a world leader.

Openness, innovation and diversity are the historical recipe for freedom and success in the United States. They are the most potent weapons against all forms of hatred, violence and intolerance. We must emphasize our values in all of our policies, and we must stand against cowardly efforts to depart from who we are as Americans.

We are the society of Einstein, Fermi, Kissinger, Albright, Assim and so many other mixed recent arrivals. We are the frontier of change. We must bring the hungry, suffering and hard-working to our frontier, and we will always win.

Co-Authored with Liam Kozma (Master’s Student, LBJ School and Officer in the U.S. Army)

Originally published in the Houston Chronicle (19 November 2015).

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About Jeremi Suri
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Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the University's Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Professor Suri is the author and editor of eight books on contemporary politics and foreign policy. Professor Suri's research and teaching have received numerous prizes. In 2007 Smithsonian Magazine named him one of America's "Top Young Innovators" in the Arts and Sciences. His writings appear widely in blogs and print media. Professor Suri is also a frequent public lecturer and guest on radio and television programs.

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