Guest Column (8/20/09)

The ultimate question

Aug. 20, 2009

By Edwin Cooney

It was bound to happen. The ultimate question –“do you love America?” – has finally caught up with me.

It’s a painful question, not because of its answer, but because sincere people feel compelled to ask it.

I was a four-year-old kindergartener and America was fighting Communism in Korea when I first became aware of our country. I knew we were “the good guys” because everyone I knew – my foster parents, my friends, my teachers in regular school and Sunday school, and, of course, my minister – were “good” and THEY were Americans. If, as they assured me, Korean, Chinese, and Russian Communism was bad and had to be stopped by brave American soldiers, it must be true.

Like most American boys, I loved adventure stories and most of the heroes were American to the core. I thrilled to the stories of young George Washington’s adventure from comfortable Virginia into the wilderness of the Ohio River Valley during 1753-54 where he and his companion Christopher Gist nearly drowned in the icy waters of the Monongahela River while demanding that the French stop stirring up the Indians against British settlers. I relished the stories of General Jackson’s 1815 victory at New Orleans, Admiral David Farragut’s Civil War naval battles at Mobile Bay and New Orleans, and Teddy Roosevelt’s adventure at San Juan Hill (really it was Kettle Hill) in 1898, and, oh, so many more.

The America I grew up in stood for ideals: crime doesn’t pay, freedom and justice for all, America – the land of opportunity, and, of course, the golden rule of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

My boyhood heroes included: Abraham Lincoln who walked 15 miles to return two cents to a customer of his Salem, Illinois store and, as President, freed the slaves; Douglas MacArthur who returned to liberate the Philippines during World War II; and, of course, President Eisenhower, a soldier who became President to insure our safety and our peace.

America, of course, wasn’t all about war. America was also about baseball, the Mickey Mouse Club, Hula hoops, strong, taciturn men in cowboy hats, sweet, smart and fun-loving girls in cuddly sweaters, pop music, and, ultimately, the space race.

As a teen, I fretted about Nikita Khrushchev’s hair-trigger temper and dependence on vodka as his finger wavered above the nuclear button.  Then there were those five tense days in October of 1962 during which a determined President Kennedy, who had himself tasted war in the South Pacific, calmly and steadily applied pressure in the right place and gave ground where necessary until the crisis had passed. While during the years that immediately followed “The Missiles of October,” I would have gladly sacrificed my physical well being to teach North Vietnam’s leader, Ho Chi Min, a lesson, I began slowly but steadily to take an intense interest in what America was all about.

America, after all, was and is my home. If Vietnam was a quagmire, if civil wrongs needed to be transformed into civil rights, if in foreign affairs we experienced crisis after crisis, what was wrong? If there were political scandals, why did they occur? Thus, my study of American history became and still remains a passion.

As I assert to those who wonder what makes me tick, my personal regard or love doesn’t require perfection. Nor do I regard political differences as moral differences.

It has been observed that forty years ago the differences between Republicans and Democrats were primarily strategic. Today, political differences are too often viewed as moral differences. Hence we have “the Radical Left” and the “Wacko Right.” Few people press the Right to identify “the moderate left” or the Left to identify “the sane right.” The result of this is that the well of ideas in this free society has been at least temporarily poisoned. Even worse, we too often dehumanize rather than merely politically oppose one another.

At least twice in our history, during the time of the Civil War and the Vietnam War, Americans have experienced this emotional phenomenon. It could be that much of our domestic frustration stems from the Vietnam War era and has been enhanced by additional political and economic crises.

Even with all of our suspicions and fears, we know that it is here where Americans have traditionally debated and created the promises and opportunities for the strongest, most intelligent and safest land on earth.  Here we were born or here we came to thrive and this is our home.

As an old familiar song reminds us:  “THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME.”

It’s hard not to love that idea!