Commentary

American History Redux

By JOHN M. IMPERIALE | Jul 05, 2017

Who could imagine an America like this?

The country has a president who never ran for office before in his life. His political beliefs, if any, are mostly unknown since it was unclear before he ran for the highest office in the land whether he was even a Republican or Democrat. His passion for the game of golf seems to eclipse his passion for legislative achievement, perhaps because the Congress is mostly dysfunctional. Instead of passing legislation, congressional investigative committees run rampant, with unproven allegations made against leaders of both sides of the aisle. Private citizens are having their very patriotism questioned not for any actions that may or may not have taken, but for whom they simply met with, even inconsequentially. The threat of Russia and Communism infiltrating our government seems very real.

And while that is going on in Washington, everyday Americans live with the threat of weapons of mass destruction being used by our enemies. Adults and children alike wonder when the next bomb will go off; will today be the day that I die? That golf-loving president refuses to rule out using nuclear weapons against our enemies. His military advisers regularly recommend keeping “all options” on the table.

For black Americans, the fear that they live with is even more real as racial strife seems worse than ever.  Federal troops are needed more than once to quell racial violence. And that in spite of civil rights legislation and favorable Supreme Court rulings promoting widespread desegregation, and an unexpected cultural blending of the races.

Immigrants, especially Hispanics, are seen as a threat to middle-class whites, taking jobs and lowering home values. Still, the economy is thriving, though not for everyone. Technology is costing jobs, and imports from Asia are eliminating manufacturing here at home.

The America described above sounds a lot like today’s America. And it sounds like an awful, horrible time.

And yet it was the 1950s, a decade widely known as the “Happy Days” and described as “boring,” and even “uneventful” since it was the decade in between the second World War in the 1940s and the mayhem of the 1960s.

The point of the above look-back into history (or as I call it, “my formative years”) is not merely to reflect on the old maxim that history repeats itself, but to think about why such a troubled time is remembered so fondly. And how we can make today better.

Americans were optimistic, and the decade of the 1950s actually improved as the years went by, taking us from the very hot Korean War to the Cold War, from segregation to Brown v. Board of Education, from rationing to McDonald’s. American technology went from developing the hydrogen bomb to founding NASA and the invention of the microchip. And so on.

Our president, that same golf-loving, non-politician, set an example of measured, steady leadership, of grace under pressure. A military hero, the general affectionately called Ike was the exact opposite of unpredictable irrationality. He exuded class and made Americans trust him without ever saying “trust me.”

And when the crazies in Congress, such as Joe McCarthy, went too far, members of both parties rejected them and their tactics. Congress, instead of just talking about it, actually passed a massive infrastructure spending bill and the Interstate Highway System was born. While Japan built transistor radios, we built computers.

The decade has been described by historians as one with a “widespread sense of stability, contentment, and consensus in the United States.”

We can be that way again.

The history of America is replete with the horrors of war, the disgraces of racism, the unfairness of sexism, the genocide of Native Americans, the ravages of depressions, the injustices of corruption, the violence of crime waves, the fear and mistreatment of immigrants, the ineptitude of political leaders, the plundering of our natural resources, and myriad other problems that could have led to an end to our system of government.

But the history of America is even more a story of the brave men and women who have fought for this country in just causes to preserve democracy. American history is told by Rosa Parks, a heroine of the 1950s, and Frederick Douglas and Martin Luther King Jr. and so many others who fought for the notion that “all men are created equal.” It is the story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Chapman Catt and New Jersey’s own Mary T. Norton who fought for the notion that “all people are created equal.”

The Navajo Code Talkers put aside what early Americans did to the Navajo Nation and helped America win World War II. When the country went through economic catastrophes, it was the American spirit, supported by extensive government programs, that brought us back to prosperity, whether it was in 1807, 1873, 1907, 1920, 1973, 2007 or a dozen or so other times. Murder and crime are at an all-time low, even if murder and crime are an obsession of many news outlets.

We got over the fear of German and Irish immigrants and the Immigration Act of 1924 that barred most Italians from coming to America. The wisdom of the founding fathers in creating three branches of government allowed us to survive corrupt presidents (Harding, Nixon), ineffective presidents (Benjamin Harrison, Buchanan, Carter, Ford; take your pick of a few others). While the current president views protecting the environment as a “job killer,” it was Richard Nixon who created the Environmental Protection Agency, putting him second only to Theodore Roosevelt as nature’s friend in the White House. His motivation was purely political – protecting the environment would win him votes in his 1972 re-election. Perhaps this president will take a similar, if self-serving position at some point (if he feels the pressure from citizens beyond his “base”).

Today feels horrible. We are a country divided, led by a divisionary figure. The press is portrayed as the “enemy of the people,” but calling it that is a far cry from the Alien and Sedition Acts that President Adams supported, which actually attempted to silence the press. Trying to find a president who actually liked the newspapers of his day is harder than finding a president who actually kept his promises (James Polk is the closest, because he made hardly any promises).

The only thing we have to fear is ... oh, there seems to be so much to fear.

And that’s the point. One can look at the 1950s, a decade fondly remembered for its boring simplicity, and see the same turmoil we see today. And one can look at almost any moment in America’s history and see worse, or just as bad, leaders. Equality, economics, justice and, really, all social issues are a part of a troubled American history.

And so we are here, 2017 looking a lot like 1957. But it does not feel a lot like 1957.

Sixty years ago, there was hope amidst the turmoil. Americans recognized where they came from, what they had just gone through. They knew how resilient and strong they could be.

Dwight D. Eisenhower was not a perfect president. Some may say he was not even a very good one. His legislative achievements were modest, though the next time you drive on any interstate highway, thank Ike. And while you are thanking Ike, perhaps tell your representative in Washington that our roads and bridges could use some serious fixing. The jobs that would come with such a program would also be a boon to our economy. It is not easy to come up with other legislative accomplishments for President Eisenhower. His “compromises” on civil rights were weak and shallow, but they did take us on a path we needed to go on.

And he knew how to keep us out of war, as only someone who lived through war could.

Most importantly, President Eisenhower set a tone and a character for the country. He was strong, a gentleman. He was optimistic, even after experiencing horrors beyond imagination. He was an American president and a world leader, believing that one position required the other. He made us proud.

If we ask nothing more of our current president, can we not all write or call (or tweet!) and just ask him, if it is not in him to be as statesman-like as Ike, to at least not be an embarrassment.

A president really sets the tone for the country. And our tone today is truly disdainful. Oh for the Happy Days!

John M. Imperiale of Harvey Cedars can be reached at johnmimperiale@gmail.com

 

 

 

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