To be sure, there is nothing free about Freedom.
World history is an unfinished book on man’s struggles for Freedom — from the time of Moses leading his people out of Egypt to the streets of Tehran today. At every marker along the way, the cost of Freedom is extraordinary. Death and Destruction dominate.
We know this in the United States. Our history is a never-ending struggle for Freedom, starting with the Pilgrims seeking religious freedom in the 1600s and culminating July 4, 1776, when representatives of 12 of the 13 colonies ratified a Declaration of Independence from monarchical tyranny.
This is the story and history lesson we remember most. And, as we look back on our nation’s 223-year history this week, the era of 1776 was the first of two cataclysmic epochs that forever defined the Spirit of America.
The Spirit of America — a relentless burning for Freedom — became etched in our nation’s collective psyche and culture when Thomas Jefferson penned the indelible words that: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Jefferson fortified the colonists’ passion for Freedom when he added, “That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government.” It was not just their “right,” Jefferson said, “it is their duty.”
This was earth-shattering at the time. And far beyond courageous. It gave rise to the statement often attributed (never verified) to Benjamin Franklin in the wake of the Declaration of Independence: “We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall hang separately.”
Equally earth-shattering was that George Washington’s rag-tag troops — ravaged by smallpox, ready to mutiny and short of ammunition and food — inexplicably defeated the most powerful military force in the world. It had to be the hand of Providence, as Washington acknowledged in the months and years that followed the Revolutionary War. In his first inaugural address, Washington said:
“It having pleased the Almighty Ruler of the universe to defend the course of the United States, and finally raise up a powerful friend among the princes of the earth, to establish our Liberty and Independence upon a lasting foundation, it becomes us to set apart a day for gratefully acknowledging the Divine goodness, and celebrating the important event which we owe to His Divine interposition.”
And when he gave his farewell address, Washington again acknowledged the Divine Invisible Hand. But he also admonished his fellow Americans to be ever mindful of their liberty, with “a strong incitement to unceasing vows … that the free Constitution, which is the work of your hands, may be sacredly maintained …”
Washington urged his countrymen, “under the auspices of liberty,” to preserve their freedom and happiness, carefully and prudently, and by example recommend it “to the applause, the affection and adoption of every nation which is yet a stranger to it.”
And so began the legacy of the Spirit of America — the cause of liberty and freedom.
The second defining epoch
We flourished over the next 165 years, with great triumphs and tragedies. The War Between the States marked the most profound challenge to our Republic of united states. The military losses in that conflict alone still tops all others — 623,000. Extraordinary Death and Destruction.
But in terms of a threat to our freedom and liberty, the Civil War, as horrific as it was, was not as defining to the Spirit of America as was World War II. Except for the Revolutionary War, no event or epoch united the American people under one cause — to protect and defend freedom from tyranny — the way World War II did. Every resource, every able-bodied man and woman contributed to the effort to defeat Hitler and his atrocities and the Japanese Empire, which was equally as ruthless.
D-Day, Pearl Harbor, Battle of the Bulge, Iwo Jima, Bataan, Hiroshima, Nagasaki. On and on. The participants in these unimaginable battles have garnered our admiration as “The Greatest Generation,” reaffirming all that constitutes the Spirit of America.
But it’s impossible here to convey a sense of the magnanimity of 1941-1945, and the millions of stories etched into that generation’s memories. On this day, however, July 2, 2009, on the eve of our nation’s 223rd birthday, the words of one man, Harry S. Truman, the man who made perhaps the biggest decision of that time — to drop the atomic bomb — capture the Spirit of America at that time. These are Truman’s words to the nation on Sept. 1, 1945:
“My fellow Americans, the thoughts and hopes of all America — indeed of all the civilized world — are centered tonight on the battleship Missouri. There on that small piece of American soil anchored in Tokyo Harbor the Japanese have just officialy laid down their arms. They have signed terms of unconditional surrender.
“Four years ago, the thoughts and fears of the whole civilized world were centered on another piece of American soil — Pearl Harbor. The mighty threat to civilization which began there is now laid to rest. It was a long road to Tokyo — and a bloody one.
“We shall not forget Pearl Harbor …
“To all of us there comes first a sense of gratitude to Almighty God, who sustained us and our allies in the dark days of grave danger, who made us to grow from weakness into the strongest fighting force in history, and who now has seen us overcome the forces of tyranny that sought to destroy His civilization …
“Our first thoughts, of course, — thoughts of gratefulness and deep obligation — go out to those of our loved ones who have been killed or maimed in this terrible war. On land and sea and in the air, American men and women have given their lives so that this day of ultimate victory might come and assure the survival of a civilized world. No victory can make good their loss …
“Only the knowledge that the victory, which these sacrifices made possible, will be wisely used can give them any comfort. It is our responsibility — ours, the living — to see to it that this victory shall be a monument worthy of the dead who died to win it …
“This is a victory of more than arms alone. This is a victory of liberty over tyranny.
“From our war plants rolled the tanks and planes which blasted their way to the heart of our enemies; from our shipyards sprang the ships which bridged all the oceans of the world for our weapons and supplies; from our farms came the food and fiber for our armies and navies and for our Allies in all the corners of the earth; from our miles and factories came the raw materials and the finished products which gave us the equipment to overcome our enemies.
“But back of it all were the will and spirit and determination of a free people — who know what freedom is, and who know that it is worth whatever price they had to pay to preserve it.
“It was the spirit of liberty which gave us our armed strength and which made our men invincible in battle.
We now know that that spirit of liberty, the freedom of the individual and the personal dignity of man are the strongest and toughest and most enduring forces in the world.
“And so on V-J Day, we take renewed faith and pride in our own way of life. We have had our day of rejoicing over this victory. We have had our day of prayer and devotion. Now let us set aside V-J Day as one of renewed consecration to the principles which have made us the strongest nation on earth and which, in this war, we have striven so mightily to preserve.
“Those principles provide the faith, the hope and the opportunity which help men to improve themselves and their lot. Liberty does not make all men perfect nor all society secure. But it has provided more solid progress and happiness and decency for more people than any other philosophy of government in history.
And this day has shown again that it provides the greatest strength and the greatest power which man has ever reached.”
The “Spirit of Liberty” is the Spirit of America. It’s not free. Protect it.