Passing Years, Passing History
July 1, 2016
I was driving my grandson home from middle school recently when I suddenly realized how much more of U.S. history I’ve lived through than he has.
In my mind, I counted off the presidents of the Eric Freedman Era — Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II and Obama — 12 of 44, or more than 25 percent of the presidential panoply and divided equally between Democrats and Republicans.
Calculating it another way, I’ve been alive for 28 percent of the 240 years of U.S. independence.
Curious, I browsed the library shelves to look at U.S. history books because I wanted a better sense of how much more current middle-schoolers like my grandson must learn than we did at their age. I settled on American Experience: The History and Culture of the United States through Speeches, Letters, Essays, Articles, Poems, Songs and Stories (Black Dog & Leventhal, 2012) by Erik Bruun and Jay Crosby.
If this book had been published when I was born, it would have run 681 pages, excluding the index. Instead, it runs 859 pages plus an index. Readings from my post-natal years begin with President Harry Truman ordering the U.S. into the Korean War, Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine’s “Declaration of Conscience” denouncing fellow GOP Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s demagogy and Carl Sandburg’s Pulitzer Prize for poetry. They end with Gov. Scott Walker signing legislation to repeal the collective bargaining rights of public employees in Wisconsin in 2011.
A brand-new edition would be even thicker with another four years’ worth of history. Perhaps it would culminate with the latest proliferation of mass shootings, the rebounding U.S. economy, the rise of ISIS and the history-making nominations of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
But these ruminations also carried a troubling realization:
The United States has been at war for most of my 67 years, from Truman and Eisenhower’s Korea to the Kennedy-Johnson-Nixon conflict in Southeast Asia to the Bush I Persian Gulf War to the Bush II-Obama wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. There were other military actions as well, as when Reagan sent U.S. troops to invade Grenada invasion, when Bush I sent U.S. troops to invade Panama and when Clinton sent U.S. forces to multiple missions in the former Yugoslavia.
Even so, that list still left periods of peace — or at least not active combat.
My grandson, however, has spent his entire life in the longest-running era of American wars abroad. All three of his presidents have been commander-in-chief of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops engaged in active military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nor is there evidence that either major party nominee for president would bring a swift end to U.S. military engagement, let alone help guide either of those nations to peace and democracy.
I’m not sure what triggered these thoughts. Perhaps it was the campaign season’s misleadingly inflammatory rhetoric about “making America great again.”
True, sometimes America — or at least its leaders — has wandered off the track of greatness — the wars in Southeast Asia, Afghanistan and Iraq come to mind, as do continuing racial, economic and gender disparities, the proliferation of firearms violence, continued erosion of voting rights and political participation, anti-immigration hysteria, America’s mega-contributions to climate change and the tragic underfunding of public education from preschool through college.
And like the Great Recession that began in the Bush II administration, the decades-long deindustrialization that Michigan and most of the rest of the country have experienced is not a failure of American greatness but the result of global economic factors and technological changes beyond any single nation’s control.
Even so, our country’s overall record on a comparative global scale is clear:
If greatness is measured in a nation’s military power, America remains great. If greatness is measured in a nation’s economic power, America remains great. If greatness is measured in a nation’s economic opportunity, America remains great. If greatness is measured in a nation’s political rights and freedom of expression, America remains great. If a nation’s greatness is measured in wondrous, publicly owned natural resources, America remains great. If a nation’s greatness is measured in the music, theater, dance, literature and other culture produced, America remains great.
If a nation’s greatness is measured in its attractiveness to the poor, to the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, if that nation still lifts its lamp beside the golden door in a heart-felt promise to the world, then America remains great. And that’s the kind of greatness and conscience and responsibility and leadership I want for my grandchildren.
, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is professor of Journalism and director of Capital News Service and the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University.