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A Day to Remember: Memorial Day 2019

On May 30, 1963, I urged citizens to remember 42 years earlier when locals dedicated a granite monument in Ashland, Oregon as “a permanent memorial, reminding those that come after us of the glory of the republic, the bravery of its defenders and the holiness of its ideals.” This monument, dedicated shortly after World War I in 1921, remembered those who had not been brought back alive on our troop ships.  They had died in trenches, of poison gas, or in tank warfare, maybe side by side with the British in the fields of bloody France.

When preparing to speak to more than a hundred locals, I read up on war and peace, suffering and victory, and the joy found in winning.  Often I reflected on that emotional World War I against the Kaiser and the sacrifices in trenches and sunken ships.

It had been a War to Make the World Safe for Democracy. Woodrow Wilson, his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins and academic life lived at Princeton, had chosen Herbert Hoover to be “Food Czar” with the mandate to unite the farmers of America behind the mission of making sure Europe (the part in Allied hands at least) did not starve.

At home, homeland happy Germans and agitating Socialists had a minimum audience for their protests.  In the Navy Department, the Assistant Secretary, hale and hearty Franklin D. Roosevelt, was charged with creating a mine field to keep Germany out of the North Sea.  He dealt in the capitol with my engineer father, Vaughn Taylor Bornet of the Budd Company to make a success of it.

A few decades earlier, 1898, I pointed out, we had fought Spain to free Cuba “in the cause of humanity and to put an end to the barbarities, bloodshed, starvation, and horrible miseries” that colony was felt to be suffering.  

In half a century it would be time to invoke the memory of Midway and Okinawa, of D-Day. We ensured the survival of Britain and France and occupied Japan!  Plenty there to memorialize!  It was indeed true that World Wars I and II had been victorious after The Yankees had come to the rescue of democratic regimes fighting the Kaiser, Nazis and Fascists…. 

On February 2, 1966,  I raised the question—as Vietnam was still being actively fought over—whether there was “an ethical question” in that war we were waging so seriously, yet so unsuccessfully.  I didn’t do very well, I thought in retrospect, so in 1976 I revised my remarks.  Looking back, I wrote this emotionally  trying paragraph:  

“We can now look back upon Vietnam, that tortured spot on the planet, and we look hopefully for signs that Good and Evil were clearly defined and readily identifiable to those who undertook the long crusade by force of arms.”  

A world of jungles surrounded us back then.

Today we look back full decades.  We visit and walk pleasantly about in today’s Vietnam. We regret we didn’t “win.” We still deplore Communism—that is, after departing by plane or ship.  And, especially, we regret all those deaths—on BOTH sides.  As we take pleasure in the happiness now visible on the sidewalks, we know that while the economy thrives, freedom is short. We also know full well that the war waged from Kennedy to Nixon, yes!,  should have been curtailed long before it was!

We do have a right to ask bluntly,  “Did we have to wage it with such extraordinary vigor (just because we weren’t winning).” Did we find Honor in not stopping?  We sought, it must be said, a victory of the kind we had won earlier, in the 19th and 20th centuries. It was unaccountably being denied us in jungles way off somewhere. It was humiliating!

In my book on celebrating our patriotic holidays I pointed out that “The literature that attempts to evaluate the Vietnam War is thoughtful and immense.”  Competing with it here is out of the question—although I must admit to having been, as a working historian,  very much a part of it as I defended “patriotism” back when.  I  devoted maybe 200 pages to President Johnson’s turmoil when deciding what in Hell to do in Southeast Asia. 

He could see that the Communists were not going to prevail in the rest of Southeast Asia!  In Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore the Philippines,  Republic of China, and Shri Lanka.  Whatever North Vietnam and China might want, South Vietnam was to be their limited prize.  We had been content with what  had “worked” in South Korea, but that South Vietnam had been a different ballgame, it had turned out.

The Vietnam disaster had an effect on the kind of patriotism that prevailed earlier; no doubt about it.  This time, we had Lost!  For awhile, we just wouldn’t think about it too much or too often.  Find something else to consider when reflecting on our body politic.

I will dare, as I conclude this troubled essay, to quote from my book’s page 149:  “The anti-patriotic among us sometimes descend to portraying the United States in the role of an “empire” engaged routinely in “imperialist” invasions and dedicated to “conquest” for only “economic gain.”

For some among us, Patriotism sometimes seems just “old hat.”  Not for everybody.  One thinks back on what can easily be termed “Great Causes” supported by us in the Past. Some are still part of our active heritage. There is a free Europe.

Partly from what we did in our past emerged a new Commonwealth, an independent British Empire.  Bad as it is sometimes, Africa could be worse.  We have helped, overall—not wisely, always, but aided by philanthropy centered in the U.S., by Gates, Rotary, and others, by sometimes doing the right thing.  Maybe we’re a little better than we sometimes think!

Yet our Nation’s prestige has suffered severely in the past two years.  Leadership has lost us the affection of far too many countries who were once so close as to show pride routinely.  Beginning with that inexcusable withdrawal from the Paris accords on climate, we have from our top office displayed misunderstanding, even contempt, for other Lands.

This must stop; the end of “going it alone” cannot come too soon.  Surely this mostly verbal misbehavior is a temporary and transitory thing.  All in office in the Executive Branch need to bear in mind at all times that they are trustees for our evolving reputation.  We must, and we will, strive to do better, very soon.  Downhill is not the right direction for the United States of America!

This Memorial Day is a good time to think back, bring our minds up to date, and fly that beautiful flag while humming or singing one of our moving, patriotic songs.  For this quite aged American, it remains “God Bless America” all the way.