What is America’s finest hour?
This Independence Day let’s ask: what as a nation is the greatest thing we’ve ever done? Our defining legacy; the thing that if human history were suddenly frozen in amber should be what we’d want to be most fondly remembered for.
The American Revolution itself might be the obvious choice. The crowning achievement of the Enlightenment, our revolution galvanized much of the world into believing that the laws of men could supersede the rights of kings, and kick-started the idea of nations founded on individual and collective rights.
That would be a fine choice, but an argument could be made that government by the people, for the people was inevitable someday, somewhere. Maybe we were just lucky to be first. If so, to be truly memorable we would have to do something staggeringly magnificent to prove to the world that the American Experiment wasn’t just a fluke. That the American success story wasn’t just a happy circumstance of distance from the Old World and a resource rich continent ready and available to be exploited. No, to find our finest hour we would have to prove we had the determination to stand firm against history and push back against the worst tendencies of the Old World, and just as importantly, help mold the world in our best image.
Which is exactly what we did when we helped liberate Old World Europe from fascism in World War II. That military victory however, was only the beginning of the great American moment. Some might even say that was the easier part, because once the fighting was done it was time to win the peace. The gargantuan heavy lifting, leveraging our economic and military might and steeled by our sense of moral obligation, allowed the United States to rebuild the world in its image. That image, originally expressed in our Enlightenment origins, meant we advocated for and created a liberal democratic international order not just to counter-balance Communism, but because we knew that the future of humankind was cradled in our collective humanity.
Call it “The American Way,” but this sincerity of purpose wasn’t just about economics, ideology or being the toughest hombre on the block. We so dearly believed in a society based on a free press, free judiciary, honest elections, human rights, free trade, and protection of the environment that we instilled those ideas and moral authority first in the countries we defeated then rebuilt, and then spread them with alliances around the world. America was the LeBron James of world powers. We said, “get on my back, play like me, and I’ll lead you to greatness.” We knew we’d succeed when others did as well, and we had the blueprint to make it happen.
We created a great, global democratic order that terrified dictators and presidents-for-life and gave hope and freedom to millions. For decades the United States was that shining city on a hill, the beacon the world looked toward wanting to emulate. We were a colossus that even when struggling or flawed, through our commitment to real freedoms and individual dignity, represented the greatest hope and the deepest aspirations of humanity. That, is the greatest thing we ever did. Yet here we are, throwing it all away.
Call it the “Trump Doctrine,” which involves coddling up to despots, dictators, fascists and thugs while deliberately, unnecessarily and under false pretenses, fracturing the Western alliances and community of democracies that oversaw those decades of peace and prosperity and won the Cold War. President Trump falsely disparages previous foreign policies as leading from behind; but his Doctrine, disgustingly, is retreating from the front.
Independence Day is coming up and we should celebrate the revolution not just for what it meant to us, but to the rest of the world. Starting July 5 though, and clear through to Election Day, we need to think about who we are and who we are becoming. Because the thugs, phonies and grifters currently in power, who lie about the law, commit atrocities and invoke the Bible in their defense, and who chose dictators over allies, are killing the best of who we can be. America isn’t “winning” anything, and America First cannot mean America Alone.
David Rafferty is a Greenwich resident.