Eventually, the Roman Empire collapsed upon itself. The sun did finally set on the British Empire. The Cold War ended with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Will Syria be the crisis where we abdicate our role as the last remaining superpower?
We were at first a reluctant superpower. Our country stood by as Hitler swallowed most of Northern Europe and set his sights on England. Even as British civilians sustained devastating casualties, “opinion polls showed that most Americans favored giving help to Britain--but did not want to send U.S. troops to fight.” (1) The Great Depression and the toll of the first World War were still fresh wounds to our national psyche and we were not up for another fight.
The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor ended our reluctance and solidified our country. We finally excised the separateness of the civil war and “were much more committed to the idea of country, rather than region.” (2) Beyond the sacrifice of 16 million service members, those on the home front endured rationing, planted Victory Gardens and purchased war bonds. (3) “Despite the internment of their family members, young Japanese-American men fought bravely in Italy, France and Germany.” (4) The Greatest Generation proved we could face whatever challenge was put before us if we worked together to harness our can-do spirit.
If World War II set up our country for ascension into Superpower status, the end of the war set the tone for how we would use that power. We alone had the advantage of nuclear weapons but did not seek world domination. Instead of permanently occupying or seeking retribution from our vanquished enemies, we helped reconstruct world torn Europe through the Marshall Plan at a cost of $13 billion. (5) Our occupation of Japan was focused on establishing a “constitutional democratic government” and lasted less than ten years. (6)
Our accomplishments at home were equally inspiring. The G. I. Bill expanded educational opportunities, grew the middle class and “helped make U. S. democracy more vibrant.” (7) The Eisenhower “Interstate System has been called the Greatest Public Works Project in History.” (8) It made travel easier, cut the cost of transporting goods and gave farmers greater access to markets. (9) The country committed itself to achieving Kennedy’s lofty “goal...of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”(10) Planting the American flag on the moon not only increased our national pride as we battled the Cold War, the mission to get there provided technological benefits for our terrestrial life.
The private sector also excelled on the world stage. Ray Kroc, Walt Disney and Asa Candler promoted brands that grew beyond our borders to become symbols of America. Microwave ovens, video tape recorders, oral contraceptives, lasers, integrated circuits, microchips, computer video games, compact discs, handheld calculators, computer mice, liquid-crystal displays and artificial hearts were all birthed in this country.
I have lived my entire life in an America whose spirit has been under constant threat. Vietnam brought the horrors of war into our living rooms and forced us to confront the possibility that we were engaging in a conflict for reasons that were not entirely benevolent. The Watergate crisis exposed corruption in a way that has seemed to permanently destroy our trust in government. The rise of globalism has disrupted our workforce and threatened the middle class foundation that this country is built on.
During these difficult times we have seemed to regress into past behaviors. We have again divided ourselves, this time along the red/blue divide. The last spontaneous swelling of national pride that I remember was the announcement of the death of Bin Ladin and this seemed based more on well-deserved vengeance than genuine accomplishment. The attacks of 9/11 were the biggest on American soil since Pearl Harbor, but instead of sacrifice we were asked for our “continued participation and confidence in the American economy.” (11) The resulting war in Afghanistan still continues, fought by a volunteer army and hardly noticed by the American public. We even put the bill on the national credit card.
Instead of facing our challenges head on we seem to have been infected by a can’t do spirit. In the past, our education system fueled the growth of the middle class, but has not kept up with providing the skills needed for a new economy. The rising price of higher education threatens to once again make it a commodity only for the rich. We claim to be too broke to fix our crumbling infrastructure, even if doing so would provide needed jobs in the short term and make us more competitive in the future. We have not sent a man to the moon since 1972 and lack any kind of unifying goal for our next big mission.
Our ill defined Global War on Terror has made our country war weary and pushed us back toward the isolationism that defined us before World War II. This is clearly evident in the argument that we are not the world’s policemen that seems to be dominating the debate over Syrian intervention. Debating the benefits of military versus diplomatic solutions is a worthwhile activity, but abdicating any responsibility in the crisis threatens our standing on the global stage. An exceptional nation would not allow this happen.
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