STEPHEN AMBROSE EDITORIAL:
Editorial in the October 14, 2001, edition of the New Orleans Times-Picayune by Stephen Ambrose.
On December 8, 1941, a large group of Navajo Indians saddled their horses, loaded their rifles, and rode off their reservation to the nearest army recruiting center. They told the surprised recruiting officer that they were ready not just to enlist, but to start fighting that very day. Their country had been attacked. They would go to war.
In the decades since the end of the Indian wars, the Navajo had seen little of the promise of America. They had eked out a hardscrabble existence in the desert where they had been consigned as wards of the U.S. Government. The government’s aim was to turn them into white citizens, which meant destroying their language and culture. They had few educational opportunities. Those in the Bureau of Indian Affairs schools were forced to speak and read in English only.
It was ironic, then, that the U.S. military enlisted not just the Navajo’s courage and manpower but also their language. The Navajo Code Talkers became an important part of the military’s combat communication system. They could speak over an open radio system, confident that neither the Germans nor the Japanese would ever be able to crack their language. The Code Talkers’ story deserves to be celebrated and remembered not just because of its success in the war, but because it speaks directly to the American spirit.
There were many others who fought beside the Navajos. Most of the young men and women who joined the military came from families who had endured the worst of the Great Depression. They, too, had seen little of the promise and opportunity of America. Yet they were ready to fight when needed. Among them were African-Americans in slavery. The Civil War gave them freedom, but throughout the Second World War they remained segregated in the North as well as in the South. Their schools were inferior, if they existed at all. They were discriminated against in employment in music, in the movies, in their lives. Mexican-Americans were treated like scum. Aside from the small Japanese-American community — soon to be torn from their homes and sent into camps in the desert — and the Chinese-Americans, there were virtually no Asian-Americans. Women, too, struggled for their identity. They could be housewives and not much more. For the most part, women who worked for wages were nurses, telephone switchboard operators or teachers. But they were all Americans. They agreed with what Dwight Eisenhower would write his brother Milton on the day Germany invaded Poland and began World War II. “Hitler should beware the fury of an aroused democracy.” And they were determined to demonstrate the truth of something he wrote in 1947, as the Cold War was beginning. “It would be a grievous error to forget for one second the strength and might of this great Republic.”
The war showed what the American spirit could accomplish, once the people were unified and fighting as a team. And it began the process of dealing with its sins and shortcomings, of abandoning racism and male chauvinism. It took a long time and the process is not yet completed, but racism gave way to openness; women have opportunities undreamed of by their mothers and grandmothers. Asian-Americans, once excluded, became an important part of the country. People from the Middle East, almost non-existent before the war, came too and contributed to this nation. All this started with the way in which America fought the war, as an open, free society of people who volunteered.
"We are all in this together," was a common saying. It expressed the essence of the American spirit. Americans believed in democracy so much that in 1944, at the height of the war, they had a national election to pick their leader — something no other nation did.
After the Germans and Japanese had surrendered, America extended its hand to its former enemies. For 12 years Germany had lived under the totalitarian rule of Hitler and his Nazis, but with American guidance and help, it became a democracy. Japan was a feudal society, dominated by its emperor and its military. During the war, the hatred between Americans and Japanese knew no bounds. But after September 1945, America guided Japan, giving Japanese women their rights for the first time, abolishing the feudal system and creating democracy.
Immediately after the Germans surrendered, Lt. George McGovern and his fellow pilots of B-24s, who had just completed their 35 missions bombing the Germans, began flying to northern Italy, Austria and Germany, carrying not bombs but food to defeated foes. In 1948, the United States committed vast amounts of its resources to restore the economies of former foes and former allies alike. This act of generosity, unparalleled in the course of human history, was a product of the American spirit. The stable democracies of Western Europe and Japan owe their existence in no small measure to the Marshall Plan.
That spirit makes the world a better place. Building a healthy empire of liberty and extending its blessings to other nations is a monumental task that will be more a process than a destination. But after the terrorists are eliminated, America can help bring the Muslim world into the modern world — by encouraging it to educate and feed its women, end feudalism, extend human rights to its suffering masses — as in Germany and Japan. Fifty years from now, we’re going to see the advent of democracy and universal education in the Muslim world as the main result of Sept. 11th. That change is going to be one of the great events, not just of the 21st century, but of the millennium.