As our culture drifts from its founding, Americans have an obligation to keep that spirit alive.
The spirit of liberty defined
We look forward to this edition of the Observer every year. We publish our annual “Spirit of America” section — with the hope we can capture and keep alive some of the values and characteristics that have defined American exceptionalism since our nation’s founding 239 years ago.
But as we see day after day, as our nation’s culture drifts farther and farther from its founding, staying true to those roots and values is becoming increasingly difficult. To use the refrain we often hear: We must never forget.
We must never forget and constantly should remind ourselves and teach our offspring whence we came; how this nation came to be; and especially the price our ancestors paid to allow us to be where we are today.
In that vein, we must never forget the two most cosmic epochs in our nation’s history, the two periods more than any that have defined the Spirit of America, a spirit that you can call a relentless burning for and relentless defense of Liberty.
Those periods, of course, would be the founding of the United States of America and, a century and a half later, the greatest assault on liberty throughout the world, World War II.
We are reminded of the first, of course, every July 4 with the showers and explosions of colorful fireworks, regaled with patriotic music.
But how many Americans ever stop to think about those indelible words that a 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson etched into our nation’s psyche and culture:
“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 that declaration 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.”
Jefferson’s declaration rang louder than cathedral bells throughout the world when 56 members of the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, ratified and signed the document Jefferson authored: the Declaration of Independence. Perhaps the only other documents in world history that compare are the 10 Commandments and Magna Carta.
To be sure, Jefferson’s declaration became the compass and inspiration that gave the colonists the courage and perseverance to defeat the most powerful military force in the world. It defined the cause for freedom. It propelled the “Spirit of America.”
And it still does.
For the century and a half that followed, the people of the United States pushed ahead, on a journey of great triumphs and tragedies. The War Between the States marked the most profound challenge to the Republic.
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, 2015, on the eve of our nation’s 239th birthday, in this little slice of America, Observer reporter-photographer Jessica Salmond has recorded images and pearls of wisdom of a few of our region’s own members of the Greatest Generation in our “Spirit of America” section.
Salmond sat with otherwise ordinary Americans, who are anything but ordinary. And she traveled on the 22nd Honor Flight mission to Washington, D.C., with 80 veterans who toured the nation’s war memorials.
“I felt honored to be the recipient of some of their experiences,” Salmond said. “Sitting next to those men and women and being privileged to listen to their stories really struck me. Whether they were involved in the military or something else, they all had a story to tell, and I learned something valuable from each individual.”
All of Salmond’s subjects embody and have in their bones the “Spirit of America” — that ever-burning flame for Liberty that, in their day, carried the United States to victory.
Our ancestors — from the Revolutionary War to the Greatest Generation — endowed us with the obligation that we must never forget. The Spirit of America is the Spirit of Liberty. It’s not free. We must protect it and spread it, especially among our own.
Truman’s ode to the Greatest Generation
When President Harry S Truman addressed the nation two weeks after the Japanese surrendered to the Allies to end World War II, Truman told the story of how all of America embraced and lived the “Spirit of America:”
“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 mines 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.”