“We build and we defend a way of life, not for ourselves alone, but for all mankind.” That is the phrase Franklin Roosevelt offered and is displayed at Bethesda. He designed the military hospital now known as Walter Reed.
No thought could be more in opposition to the idea of America First. In 1939–41, the America First Committee was a movement that arose to prevent the US from taking any steps to stop the advance of Hitler’s panzers. They wanted to take care of our own, and the devil could take the rest. Not every member of this group was an anti-Semite, to be sure, but every anti-Semite backed America First. It seems strange that America First should gain support in our day.
In 1945, the United States of America gained unconditional surrender from her enemies, won the last battle on every continent, and achieved victory at sea on all oceans. We won that war for all mankind. We believed what Lincoln taught us—that right makes might—and we had seen right make our might. At the beginning of World War II, our army was smaller than Romania’s. Within a year, one of every 11 Americans was in uniform. We not only armed and equipped our own forces, we supplied Britain and the Soviet Union in their struggle against Hitler. As one example, in 1941, America built 6,500 warplanes. But in 1942, we exceeded the president’s call for 50,000 warplanes. Thus, we were justly called the arsenal of democracy.
Nor was this the first affirmation of the belief that right makes might. In our struggle for independence, we declared the common sense of the American mind. The Declaration shared our founding ideals with all. We offered its principles to a candid world with “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.”
Because of these founding ideals, foreigners like Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, Tadeusz Kosciusko, Johann de Kalb, and the Marquis de Lafayette rallied to our cause. And not just Europe’s nobles. The enlisted ranks of our Continental Army were said to “teem with Catholics”; in the 1770s, that meant Irish immigrants.
In his Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln implored the favor of Providence and invoked “the considerate judgment of Mankind.” Ironically, this man, who had barely put his foot ashore on Canadian soil, had with this one act a worldwide impact. Tolstoy reveals that Lincoln’s name was known and our cause was honored even on the Russian steppes. Why? Certainly not for any America First notion, which evinces no respect for the opinions of others.
When John F. Kennedy offered his Inaugural Address, he appealed “to those peoples in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves.” No contempt was hinted at for the people who lived in ship holds of other countries. Kennedy captured the imagination of billions of people around the world when he sent us to the Moon. He did not live to see his goal achieved, but the plaque we left at Tranquility Base proclaims, “We came in peace for all Mankind.”
Ronald Reagan also appealed to human aspirations. He stood at the Berlin Wall and said, “Es gibt nur ein Berlin”—“There is but one Berlin.” And—in words little noted nor long remembered by our free press—he pointed to the radio tower on the other side of the Iron Curtain. He noted that its globe had a “defect,” one that the communist rulers of the East German puppet state had vainly sought to efface. They painted over, etched with acid, and sandblasted it. The sun still shone on the globe of this tower, and it reflected the Sign of the Cross.
Reagan in his Farewell Address told of the Vietnamese boat people fleeing tyranny. Their overcrowded craft met our USS Midway on the high seas. One of these refugees hailed us, “Hello, American sailor! Hello, Freedom Man!” I taught one of their children. Dan joined our student group in the Jefferson Room of the Library of Congress. I pointed to the capital atop one of the marble columns. Inscribed in gold, it read, “The Heavens declare the Glory of God. The Firmament sheweth His Handiwork.”
I think that’s from the Psalms, I told our college interns.
Dan piped up, “Yes, it’s Psalm 19 verse 1.” Young Dan was one of the thousands to whom Ronald Reagan opened the golden door. No America Firster will ever be hailed as a Freedom Man.
We may recognize America First as America’s worst. America is an ideal, and that is the exceptional idea that made us “the last best hope of man on earth.”
Today marks the seventy-sixth anniversary of Japan’s surrender. On this occasion, may we renew our commitment to America’s founding ideals for all mankind, who are “created equal by their Creator.”