Commentary: For Veterans Day, what is the secret of America?

What is America’s secret? How is this country “exceptional” or “unique?” For this Veterans Day, let us consider this question. To my mind, Veterans’ Day is an even more important holiday than even the Fourth of July. We declared our freedom on July 4; we kept it because of the sacrifices made Americans on Veterans’ Day, and that to me is even more worthy of celebration.

Few countries have been so underestimated in its history. England, the world’s superpower at the time, lost our revolutionary war to a bunch of “Yankee Doodle” farmers. Japan thought America would take decades to recover from their sneak attack at Pearl Harbor, but found their homeland bombed by Doolittle’s raiders months later — a foretaste to their coming destruction. The Soviets proclaimed they would “bury capitalism” but instead were contained and ultimately bankrupted by steadfast American power.

Sustained by the finest military the world has seen, America’s exceptionalism can be seen as a combination of geographic and historic factors.

1) FOUNDING PRINCIPLE, The concept that “All Men Are Created Equal” had been found in similar form in less influential documents and in the writings of enlightenment philosophers, but was now enshrined in the Declaration as the nation’s reason for existence, even before the Constitution.

2) CONSTITUTION While many nations have precedents that they appeal to, we were the first nation in the history of the world that had a true written Constitution. While it has been amended, usually for the better, and sadly has been too often ignored, it remains a standard for protecting our rights and freedoms.

3) CITIZENSHIP Most of the world’s nations are “tribal,” i.e., primarily of one ethnic and heritage- like Germany or Japan. America is the only country in the world that is based primarily on words, the set of principles as enshrined in our original documents. Swear allegiance, follow the rules and become an American! Living up to lofty ideals has not been easy or easily accomplished, and they might never be totally achieved, but they are worthwhile goals.

4) ELECTIONS In 1800, the world witnessed the first peaceful transition of power by a nation’s chief executive when Jefferson beat John Adams for president. This commitment to the electorate was renewed in 1864 when America voted — in the world’s first election held during a major war — and demonstrated America’s unshakable commitment to popular sovereignty.

5) LOCATION While Japan and England had the defensive bonus of being islands, they still had the looming threat of nearby China and Continental Europe. Thanks largely to our geography, America, unlike any of the other great nations, does not have a major military power on its border, or in its immediate neighborhood; a distinct advantage especially during our national development.

6) PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS Another geological advantage is its diversity and mineral wealth. While America contains tropical and arctic regions, most of its territory is in the productive temperate zones. It also generally is self-sufficient and not dependent on any nation for mineral needs — except perhaps from friendly Canada and Mexico.

7) SLAVERY Human bondage was a contradiction of the Declaration of Independence and our founding principles, and the fight against it was uniquely American. Slavery around the world usually declined not because it was seen as wrong, but because (1) of outside pressure, (2) its existence became unprofitable (3) or the result of a successful slave revolt. In the history of the world, only in America was human bondage extinguished primarily for moral reasons. This happened when a sizable proportion of the free population, in alliance with slaves, decide that slavery itself was an intolerable evil, and made great sacrifices to eliminate it from the nation.

There is, to my mind, a fascinating religious parallel to the invention of the phrase “American Exceptionalism.”

In the Bible, the Canaanite prophet Balaam tries to curse his enemy, the Jews. Instead, Balaam unwillingly ends up blessing the nation Israel. Based on what he saw, he was somehow unable to denounce his foes. Instead, Balaam’s praiseworthy observation of “How goodly are thy tents, oh Jacob…” today is part of services and sermons in churches and synagogues.

In the 1920s the phrase that honors our country was born under similar circumstances. A faraway up-and-coming European leader, looking for flaws in his North American adversary, was briefed about the United States. He learned about our country’s historic path, virtues and freedoms. That leader, one of the greatest world’s dictators, summed up what he heard, describing it as “American Exceptionalism.” That leader was Josef Stalin, and, according to historian John Steele Gordon, that was the first time that exact phrase was ever used.

Every once in a while, people need to learn or be reminded of what makes America unique among all the countries in the world. We have endured this long because of the sacrifices of our veterans and military, and on Nov. 11, let us pause and remember this fact, and thank a serviceperson for their sacrifice.

You can offer your thanks at an unusual meeting of the Dover Public Library’s History Book Club to be held on Wednesday, Nov. 13 at 6:30, where we will honor the “Greatest Generation.” We have the honor of hosting military personnel from World War II, particularly nurses from both the European and Pacific theater of combat. Come and hear their stories. Call Larry at 335-8344 for more information.

Larry Koch, Ed.D., is a resident of Magnolia.

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