Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Contrasting Americans in 1943

I guess I’m not surprised that most Americans seem more exhausted and detached rather than incensed at what’s happening in Syria.  I certainly have been.  Forces that gridlock us today seem eerily similar to those following the First World War, which resulted in the creation of modern-day Syria.

For more than a decade now, Gallup polls have shown that fewer than a third of Americans think our country should build democracy abroad.  Barely half want us even to defend human rights.

These findings remind me though of another poll in the spring of 1943, barely 18 month after America had entered WWII and still two years before its conclusion.  First, some context might be useful.00082_p_10aeuyf6sw0446_b

In the years between the world wars, America had been gridlocked by a blend of isolationists.

This included Republicans who blocked the League of Nations and conservatives from both political parties who demonized immigrants and immigration while promoting economic segregation during a Gilded Age not unlike the one spawned over the past three decades.

This isolationist blend also featured hate groups such as the huge second coming of the Ku Klux KIan along with over 100 groups forcefully promulgating anti-Semitism, ultimately including both Holocaust enablers and deniers.

Caring Americans did not have near the intensity or energy that the vast majority who were self-centered, intolerant, inflexible and bigoted did.  Sound familiar?

In 1939, a poll of Americans was conducted by Elmo Roper, who pioneered the first scientific national opinion polls.  It was taken a few months after Nazi Germans had herded nearly 30,000 Jewish people into one of three concentration camps.

One was Dachau which my father’s U.S. Army battalion would liberate seven years later (one of his photos of a gas oven there is shown above.)

Even after news reports of this Kristallnacht spread here, the poll showed that fewer than 4-in-10 Americans felt Jews should be treated like other people and 53% believed they were different and should be “restricted.”

Ten percent even wanted them deported from America.   In May of that year, Southern Senators threatened President Roosevelt, if as indicated, he dared grant permission for a ship of Jewish refugees including many incarcerated in Dachau to dock in America.

Entry into the war chastened Americans and within a year and a half, another poll by Roper showed that three quarters felt that after the war, American should play a larger global role.

Nearly the same proportion believed America should “plan to help other nations get on their feet,” and half concurred with active involvement in an International organization with “a court and police force.”

President Roosevelt’s moral leadership was also rewarded with 7-in-10 approving of his handling of the war and 2-out-3 favoring a fourth term.  Most of the wars since then such as Vietnam and Iraq haven’t met the moral leadership test.

Some presidents even bucked public opinion to keep us out of war, such as when retired Five Star General Dwight D. Eisenhower, eager to end the Korean War, brushed aside a poll showing half of all Americans willing to drop “the bomb” on what was then termed Red China.

Recently President Obama has tried to do the same while also recognizing moral imperatives.  Americans seem to have grown weary of war, even in response to moral obscenities such as those taking place in Syria.

Or maybe as Winston Churchill famously said – “…Americans will always do the right thing… after they’ve exhausted all the alternatives.”

In his white paper on Moral Courage, Dr. Rushworth Kidder, founder of the Institute for Global Ethics in 1990, makes the case that moral courage is as important as physical courage but it deals with intangibles, values and convictions.

A friend of mine, Ryke Longest, who heads an interdisciplinary clinic and teaches at Duke University Law School here in Durham where I live, teaches his students this “truth”

“The only fights we surely lose are those we surrender by doubting the value of courage.  Courage is not foolhardiness.  Courage is not bravado.

Courage is the notion that some things worth fighting for are worth risking everything in the battle.  The problem of our present is not unique in history, but rather a common theme recurring through the centuries.”

He goes on to a describe a cycle that repeats itself historically – “Fear creates greed for power.  Greed seeks power.  Power stifles justice.  Justice finds a champion.  Champion encourages ordinary people.  Ordinary people overthrow the greedy.”

If you never had a chance to hear professor Longest, here are two inspiring clips, one from the Wizard of Oz and the other Henry V that he uses to make this point.

I have faith that once again and soon, Americans will find their energy and intensity to stand up for their convictions.

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