No date in the United States is more complicated than July 4. We can unpack nearly an entire country’s history just from this one day: The Declaration of Independence with Thomas Jefferson’s sweeping prose that inspires many to this day, the opening of the academy at West Point, the Louisiana Purchase, the Erie Canal, the abolition of slavery in New York, Thoreau moving into Walden, Leaves of Grass, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Frederick Douglass’s poignant remarks on slavery and the Fourth of July, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Tuskegee Institute, the culmination of the coup of Hawaii with the declaration of a new republic, the end of the Philippine-American War, the Johnson-Jeffries riots, the patent that made the atomic bomb possible, Lou Gehrig’s famous speech, the independence of the Philippines from the US, the Freedom of Information Act, NASA’s Pathfinder landing on Mars.
Look at all of that. If the Seneca Falls Convention was held two weeks earlier, that’s the story of America, right there, in a day. Some of this was done on July 4 on purpose, of course, but it doesn’t diminish the meaning of this date. As we tend to do, we simplify this holiday. It’s a day off work, there will be fireworks, someone’s going to be grilling, people are wearing clothing that is only see one day a year. For this July 4, I find myself more contemplative. There are many threads intertwining and wrapping themselves around this date. Alongside the shining triumphs, there are sober realities we cannot ignore.
I am a historian, if not by trade, then by enthusiasm. My degree is in history. Much of my pleasure reading is historical non-fiction. Many of my YouTube follows are history-related. The decade of the previous century that fascinated me the most was the 60s. As someone who didn’t live through it but studied it, it felt like a decade that never stopped moving. Every day, every month, every week seemed to have some momentous event. Heroes and villains emerged to fight for or against rights and justice. Some of them are larger-than-life figures today. I saw a lot of nobility in the civil rights leaders organizing and facing massive resistance to win what is owed to them. I wondered what it was like to live then, in an exciting, historic time.
I now feel I know what it was like: Terrible. The distance of history sanitizes it to a certain extent. I wasn’t there, so I didn’t know the everyday horror of black people being brutalized by police, of callously uninterested politicians advancing policy for the benefit of a privileged few. It’s real now. While it connects me to the past in a new way, it does so in a manner that makes me profoundly sad. Regardless of one’s political affiliation, if a group of people says they are hurting, it is incumbent on the rest of us to listen. When we don’t, dormant unrest turns into active anger. History is rife with riots by the aggrieved: The storming of the Bastille, the Stonewall riots, the Boston Tea Party, Black Saturday in Egypt. It goes on and on and on. Even the Magna Carta was signed essentially under hostage conditions. It’s an uncomfortable reality that significant change occurs when anger spills over and can no longer be contained. However, this also means every riot is preventable. It requires open hearts and minds as well as humility. I’m sad to say this is not in abundant enough supply. There will be more riots, probably soon. We will see more heroes emerge, and we will identify more villains.
I take solace in the original promise of the Declaration of Independence. It was written and signed by men who held slaves and considered Native Americans “Indian Savages,” people who didn’t hold truths to be self-evident for all. We have since taken the light of that declaration and set to illuminate all. It has been excruciatingly slow, but we have inched ever closer to fulfilling it. I have faith in the people who will carry us forward. It’s not easy or enjoyable work, but I very much hope we can look back with appreciation the way we do that tumultuous decade a lifetime ago.
This holiday weekend has also sparked a new national discussion on Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills of South Dakota. I can’t recall one like it. It is not disputed the United States government stole the land from the Sioux, just one of the many injustices Native Americans have had to endure. But the monument carved into the rock there feels like an ongoing audacity. Even if the land was returned- and it should be- they would have four faces staring at them, faces that represent years of pain inflicted upon them. There was outcry about using the area for a rally and fireworks show, but the simple fact is it’s just another in a long line of inappropriate activities in the Black Hills.
It wasn’t even the only injustice that weekend. The National Guard forcibly moved people off their own land for the pleasure of others to enjoy a show. We can’t continue like this. If we believe in freedom, if we truly believe in liberty, we must reckon with our past. We never have, which is why we’ve never moved past it. Again, that requires open hearts, open minds, and humility. It also requires sacrifice. When will we be ready for it?
Our past reflects our present. That is why I seek to understand it. I want to know the why and how things came to be, because nothing happened in a vacuum. In college, I shied away from studying World War II; it’s something of a joke in academic circles that the history department is really the World War II department. But it’s something I’ve given increasingly more attention to as the years go by. I think the (real) reason why I didn’t study it much is the same reason I do it now. That time always felt distant, something I could never understand, but something I could still touch. Growing up, WWII veterans were old, but largely alive and well. Their children were the parents of my friends. As hard as it is to truly wrap one’s mind around the Holocaust, I’ve spoken to survivors and their children. It’s always been real to me because I’ve had the privilege of that secondhand experience.
Compare that to World War I: When I was a child, there were still a few WWI veterans alive, but they were old. That was a time I could not touch. It was in the vault of the past, just like the Revolution or the Roman Empire.
In high school for my US History class, we were assigned a project to interview a World War II veteran. I don’t remember the details, but I was supposed to get the relevant details: When they served, where, what happened, etc. My grandfather went into the Army after the war, and I didn’t have any relatives who served then. I ended up interviewing Bill, a friend of my grandmother. Bill had a remarkable story to tell: He was involved in the retaking of the Philippines and the occupation of Japan. He was in the second wave of troops sent at the end of the war. He saw battle, the fights about which schoolchildren learn and movies are made. It was a stroke of luck that I got to hear these remarkable stories from this war, this time. That was when the Greatest Generation was elderly, but not dwindling.
A few years ago, we were passing by New Orleans and my wife indulged my request to visit the National World War II Museum. It’s a big place and it has a lot going on. One of the things you could do was meet a war veteran and speak with him. We didn’t take advantage of that. As a general life philosophy, I try not to regret. But I regretted not taking that opportunity almost immediately. I’ve wanted ever since to go back and talk with war veterans. I want to know their stories. But I also want to pick their brains. I want to know, do they think modern society respects war? Do we understand it, or do we enter into conflict flippantly? They’re from a time that is militarily and politically so different from today. I want to know how this world, this society looks through their eyes.
I haven’t been back. And I don’t have a good excuse for it; New Orleans is within driving distance. Perhaps it’s another thing my depression has denied me. And now with COVID, I don’t know when the museum will give us the chance to talk with a war veteran again. Time is not on our side; there are only about 300,000 alive and that number is dropping fast. When the last one dies, a unique perspective dies with him. A valuable perspective, one I don’t think we’d be able to reproduce.
I hope I get that opportunity again. Since that visit to the museum, I’ve been to Pearl Harbor, an experience that profoundly moved me. The pain of war felt so visceral like it never had before. Eisenhower said he hated war the way only a solider could. I hate it the way a civilian can. That war had the rarest of all things in the history of warfare: Moral clarity. The remaining veterans we have carry that clarity, and I yearn to learn from their wisdom.