Every Fourth of July commemorates a great moment in American history, and yet not every Fourth of July comes at a happy time for the country. And this Fourth is one of those unhappy ones. According to the RealClearPolitics rolling average of public opinion, the percentage of Americans who think the nation is going in the right direction is in the low 20s, while the percentage thinking we’re on the wrong track is in the high 60s. In other words, public sentiment is 3:1, negative.
Yet in both good times and bad, we must look at the situation head-on, because only an honest assessment justifies the hope that we can identify problems and fix them.
For instance, July 4, 1942, came in the early days of World War Two—and that was a time for straight talk, not happy talk. Just eight months previously, the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, sinking or disabling much of our Pacific fleet. And then in the weeks that followed, Japan had overwhelmed American forces from the Philippines to Wake Island. Yes, the U.S. Navy had won a marginal victory at the Coral Sea in May 1942, as well as a major victory at Midway the following month. And yet the U.S. had yet to launch an on-the-ground offensive; the first American landing at Guadalcanal would not take place until August.
Meanwhile, in the Atlantic war against Hitler’s Germany, Nazi U-boats had sunk more than 500 American cargo ships from January to June 1942, and nearly 1200 more would be destroyed in the second half of that year. Meanwhile, the first American landings in North Africa would not take place until November.
In other words, on that particular July 4, our commander-in-chief, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, didn’t have much good news to report. Yes, he had pledged ultimate victory in his “date which will live in infamy” speech, delivered to Congress and the nation after Pearl Harbor; as he stated on December 8, 1941, “With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounded determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph—so help us God.”
Yet in his radio address to the nation on July 4, 1942, Roosevelt struck a stoic note. He began by recalling crucial historical moments: “For 166 years this Fourth Day of July has been a symbol to the people of our country of the democratic freedom which our citizens claim as their precious birthright.” And yet, he continued, 1942 was proving to be a “grim anniversary,” as the U.S. and its allies “are now engaged in deadly war.”
Indeed, he continued, setting a stark tone, “Never since it first was created in Philadelphia, has this anniversary come in times so dangerous to everything for which it stands. We celebrate it this year, not in the fireworks of make-believe but in the death-dealing reality of tanks and planes and guns and ships.”
FDR concluded with words about the Fourth that were simultaneously somber and uplifting: “The tough, grim men who fight for freedom in this dark hour take heart in its message—the assurance of the right to liberty under God—for all peoples and races and groups and nations, everywhere in the world.”
Indeed, over the next three years, those “tough, grim men”—some 16 million in uniform—won a great victory against both Japan and Germany; they were joined, of course, by some 350,000 women who also wore uniforms, and by the homefront population which worked in war production, bought bonds, and paid the taxes to make the war effort a success.
In other words, Americans showed something that seems in short supply today: a sense of national teamwork. Nevertheless, the cost was high: more than 400,000 Americans lost their lives during World War Two.
Yet still, it was worth it—we won and saved not only ourselves, but also the world.
So that’s why the first Fourth of July after the fighting was over, in 1946, was a happy occasion. Indeed, on July 4 of that year, FDR’s successor in office, Harry Truman, granted independence to the Philippines. We might note that the U.S. had spent almost 40,000 lives on that island nation during the war, first in a valiant-but-doomed effort to defend it in 1941-2, and then in a glorious liberation in 1944-5. It’s that bloody sacrifice, followed by political magnanimity, that makes the Philippines a close ally of the U.S. to this day.
So now to our time: The U.S. is not engaged in a foreign war, at least not anywhere close to the level of World War Two. Yes, there is that forlorn military engagement in Afghanistan. To be sure, it’s a conflict in which Americans have fought bravely—and some 2,372 have given it their lives—and yet few Americans understand the mission or think it’s a good idea. Yet we stay anyway, despite having no obvious purpose and no evident end goal.
And as for that murky Russian-bounty story, which the Trump administration firmly disputes, it’s readily apparent that plenty of people in Afghanistan—not all of them Afghans—want to see America bleed. So the one sure-fire way to stop the bleeding is to get U.S. troops out. Afghanistan will be about the same, no matter what.
Yet even if we’re not fighting much abroad, we do seem to be fighting a lot—over everything from the Trump presidency to the police to face masks. And we shouldn’t kid ourselves about what could happen if we can’t pull ourselves together; as Abraham Lincoln observed a century-and-a-half ago, a house divided against itself cannot stand.
Thus we might pause over a headline atop a recent column by Bloomberg News’ Noah Smith: “Coronavirus Brings American Decline Out in the Open: Without fixes for infrastructure, education, health care and government, the U.S. will resemble a developing nation in a few decades.” Smith starts out by assessing the terrible impact of COVID-19, spreading the blame far and wide:
The most immediate cost of U.S. decline—and the most vivid demonstration— comes from the country’s disastrous response to the coronavirus pandemic. Leadership failures were pervasive and catastrophic at every level–the president, agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration, and state and local leaders all fumbled the response to the greatest health threat in a century.
So what, as a result, could happen next? According to Smith: “In the worst-case scenario—the U.S. could collapse like Venezuela.” He adds that such a national debacle is only a distant possibility, and yet, he insists, such Venezuela-ifcation:
…is no longer out of the realm of possibility, thanks to the complacency, arrogance and misplaced priorities of U.S. leaders and the deep and bitter divisions among U.S. voters. If the U.S. goes from rich, world-straddling colossus to floundering dysfunctional developing nation in just a few decades, it will be one of the most spectacular instances of civilizational decline in world history.
We might add that the 20th-century British historian Arnold Toynbee, in his magisterial 12-volume A Study of History, concluded that almost all of the civilizations he chronicled had fallen as a result of internal decay and civil war. In other words, in the cold light of history, there’s no reason to think that the U.S. is exempt from the same sort of historical cycles of rise and decline that have confronted past realms and empires.
So what can we do to stave off such a dolorous fate? How to save the once-soaring American eagle and keep it from thudding to earth?
We should all take time this July 4th to think on this question, and yet in the meantime, we might pay heed to a 2018 survey of Americans’ civic knowledge. According to the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, only 36 percent of Americans could pass a basic test on American history, including such questions as which war it was in which Dwight Eisenhower led our troops.
Oh, and by the way: Just last month the foundation voted to remove Wilson’s name–it’s now just the WW Foundation.
One might point out the irony that an organization, dedicated to furthering American historical knowledge, is choosing to “cancel” a man as consequential as Woodrow Wilson. Even if he is out of fashion today, Wilson was elected twice as president of the United States, and he led it to victory in one of our most important conflicts, World War One.
Such are the times in which we live.
So in this troubled Fourth of July, we should be mindful, even respectful, of our past. Warts and all, it’s our shared history, across these 244 years. And so we’re better off knowing about it—and not trying to destroy it.
In fact, if we choose to learn about our history, all of it, we will discover that we do, indeed, have a great foundation for better Fourths to come.