Questioning American greatness

The voice of unreason (Photo Credit: CBS)

There are many good reasons to cringe when a clown like Donald Trump vows to “Make America great again.”

First, because the messenger is so obviously unqualified to be president. He came into the campaign with no relevant experience, and his performance to date has consistently affirmed that he lacks the basic knowledge and emotional maturity required for successful political leadership. Trump spouts whopping promises: slash taxes, deport 11 million people, make Mexico pay for a border wall, stick it to China, etc. Pressed for details, he evades, insults others, or blusters by incoherently repeating his own vague sound bites.

Second, because his message is both dangerous and ridiculous. Far from making us great, Trump’s program would make a moral mockery of this country. For example:

  1. Rounding up and expelling 11 million people would represent one of the largest forced migrations in world history. Executing the policy would require — at least temporarily — the imposition of a police state never before seen in this country, including house-by-house sweeps and innumerable checkpoints.

Unfortunately, some of Trump’s most passionate detractors — in their zeal to burn the billionaire — wind up torching U.S. history, too. Consider this increasingly popular meme:

If you nodded along to all of that, then you need a refresher course on our country’s past. The passage factually misrepresents most of the historical events it mentions. (Details below.)

More seriously, the passage implies that the U.S. is not and never has been great. That implication is demonstrably false, obviously unpatriotic and strategically unwise for anyone who wishes to defeat Trump’s ideas. The protofascist plutocrat will profit politically if his critics choose to identify themselves with attacks on our national heritage.

Thus, we need to kill this flawed meme. Let us start by cataloging the passage’s factual and interpretive errors.

“When we were a British colony with unfair taxes?”

This is a pitiful opening salvo. First of all, no viable American politician has ever advocated a return to British rule or colonial policy.

However, if your top priority is low taxes, then you perhaps you should be nostalgic for the days before the shot heard ‘round the world. Residents of the 13 colonies were the most prosperous and least taxed people in the world. That would have remained true even if the Americans had paid all of the taxes Britain had tried to impose on them in the years before the Revolution, but of course the colonists chose secession over submission. In the end, independence required higher taxes than Parliament had ever asked us to pay. President Washington had a war debt to service and a new national government, army and navy to support. Taxes rose and fell after that, but never returned to the all-time lows of the colonial era.

“When we burnt women at the stake because we thought they were witches?”

No person in American history was ever burnt at the stake for being a witch.

A couple dozen women were executed, mostly by hanging, for supposed sorcery. The Salem Witch Trials accounted for most of the deaths. At the same time, Europe executed literally thousands of accused witches. By the late 18th century, the practice had become mercifully rare on both continents, though Philadelphia lynched a witch during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, in stunning counterpoint to the Enlightenment principles of the Framers.

“When we practiced slavery? When women and minorities couldn’t vote.”

No argument here. These are the only clean hits in the whole list. While we were among the first countries in the world to enfranchise women, we continue to lag when it comes to ensuring full voting rights for ethnic minorities.

“When we ignored the Holocaust?”

With the Allies, the U.S. defeated Hitler and ended the Holocaust. Because totalitarian states do not advertise their war crimes, the Allies had imperfect knowledge of Germany’s extermination policy. Based on that limited intelligence, the Allies considered measures that might have ended the killing sooner. Ultimately, they chose military strategies that conserved the lives of American and other Allied soldiers at the expense of death camp inmates. You may disagree with that decision, but it is factually incorrect to state that the U.S. ignored the Holocaust.

“When we dropped two atomic bombs on Japan?”

Every decent person today opposes the bombing of civilians.

Unfortunately, both sides in World War II used terror bombing. They knew it was morally wrong, but they hoped it would shorten the war by breaking the enemy’s will. We eventually learned that wasn’t true in most cases. Over the ensuing decades, we gradually reduced and eventually ended our reliance on the practice.

The two atomic bombs, however, proved to be exceptions to that rule. They utterly broke Japan’s will, producing a prompt surrender.

What accounted for the difference? It was not the death toll. The firebombing of Tokyo probably killed more people than died from either atomic bomb, but those casualties accumulated over the course of four years and thousands of hostile sorties. Although terrorized, the victims knew what was happening to them and felt like they had some chance to resist and survive.

By contrast, the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki literally did not know what had hit them. In each case, a single plane — flying too high to be seen or heard from the ground — obliterated an entire city.

Thus, it was the suddenness and incomprehensibility of the destruction — and Japan’s belief that we might have more atomic bombs — that prompted the empire’s swift surrender.

Fortunately, that capitulation saved millions of Japanese and Allied lives by averting the need for an invasion of the islands and continued terror bombing.

Ultimately, the case against President Truman’s decision rests on the odd notion that people killed by atomic bombs are somehow more tragically dead than people killed by conventional weapons.

“When we sent thousands of our men to Vietnam to fight and die under false pretenses?”

President Kennedy sent 16,000 soldiers to help defend South Vietnam against Communist invasion and insurgency. President Johnson escalated to 500,000 servicemen for the same reason; his successful military and diplomatic strategy would have produced a peace agreement by 1968 if Richard Nixon had not sabotaged the deal in order to win that year’s presidential election.

Ultimately, Nixon and his successor forfeited Vietnam to the Communists to achieve detente with China and the Soviet Union, but until that happened, Americans knew exactly what they were fighting and dying for in Southeast Asia. The controversy surrounding the Gulf of Tonkin incident does not change the basic fact that the Vietnam War was fought to contain Communism. Like the Korean War, it represented reflected an extension of the Truman Doctrine, a longstanding U.S. commitment to help free people everywhere resist totalitarian domination.

In the end, only two additional dominoes fell, in Laos and Cambodia, with particularly tragic results in the latter case.

Fortunately, with American help, the rest of the region—Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Papua-New Guinea and the Philippines — successfully resisted Communist conquest.

“Or when we did the same in Iraq 12 years ago and are still doing today?”

Iraq is closer to a case of waging war under false pretenses. We now know that the administration of George W. Bush falsified its core case for war against Saddam Hussein with an unprecedented degree of premeditated duplicity.

It is also clear that US mishandling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has destabilized the region, but most analysts see significant differences between Bush and Obama’s conduct of those conflicts and their continuing sequels.

A Vindication of American Greatness

The meme gets a lot of things wrong about history, but the biggest problem is its implicit denial of this country’s greatness. Here are ten glorious aspects of our national heritage:

  1. The principles of the American Revolution and their application by our government and people have, during the life of our country, helped inspire more and more of the world to adopt similar political and economic systems. The more those countries emulate us and our allies, the more their people enjoy comparable freedom and prosperity.

What We Should Feel Bad About

Of course, no people and no country is perfect. Everyone can profit by reflecting on their greatest errors and considering how they can rectify them and avoid repeating them. Here is my list of some of our country’s biggest mistakes:

1. Taking the land by force from its original inhabitants, and treating them very badly ever since.

2. Slavery.

3. Jim Crow laws and other examples of institutional racial, ethnic & religious discrimination.

4. Other forms of economic injustice, including indentured servitude, persecution of labor unions, child labor, inadequate labor laws, etc.

5. Oppression of women.

6. Civilian bombing in the 20th century, especially during World War II and the Vietnam War.

7. The Mexican War, when we picked a fight with our southern neighbor as an excuse to seize half of its real estate.

8. Other miscellaneous bullying around the Caribbean and in Latin America throughout the 20th century.

9. The Spanish-American War, an ignoble mugging of a fading colonial power, together with the subsequent oppression of the people of Cuba, Puerto Rico and especially the Philippines.

10. The War of 1812, when we unwisely picked a fight with Britain and got the White House burned down.

11. Many foreign policy blunders in the Middle East since World War II.


When Trump — a narcissist billionaire, bigot, bully and braggart — pledges to “Make America great again,” the correct answer is:

  1. We’re already great, thanks.

History, politics, education, music, culture. Award-winning high school teacher, former principal. College instructor. Seahawks Diehard. Twitter: @brian_mrbmkz

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