This, in other words, remains a society with fewer barriers to opportunity and success than any other in civilization’s long history. America remains a land where virtually everything is possible, where upward mobility is an altogether legitimate expectation, where barriers based on class, race, creed, and national origin have been eliminated to a degree unprecedented in any great nation. And no sacrifice in terms of, say, ethnic identification or religious practice is expected as a quid pro quo for making it.
The rewards bestowed on those who work hard and manifest genuine talent are boundless. In recent years alone, a refugee from religious persecution in Nazi Germany, Henry A. Kissinger, rose to the office of secretary of state. An immigrant from China, A. N. Wang, created one of the nation’s leading computer empires. A black graduate of the City College of New York, General Colin Powell, currently heads the American armed forces. Indeed, the list of those who rose to the top from humble origins-smashing any and all perceived barriers — is virtually endless.
Consider, also, the winners of the most recent Westinghouse Science Competition for talented high school students. The list, which reads like a miniature United Nations roll call, is a roster of recent immigrants — from Russia, China, Korea, Vietnam, Eastern Europe, and Africa. By dint of diligence and aptitude, young people who’ve. been in this country no more than a couple of years — and who still speak English in the accents of their native lands — have been awarded keys to futures brighter than those their wildest dreams would have allowed them to imagine.
A society capable of absorbing new-comers in this fashion has to be blessed with rare strength and self-confidence. And this self-confidence has created internal resilience. That’s what makes it possible for free political debate to flourish here, and for full freedom of expression to thrive.
Was it a sign of weakness that far-reaching debate and rare soul-searching preceded the January congressional decision to authorize the use of force in the gulf? To the contrary, only a nation sure of its values could have permitted so open an expression of dissent on the eve of a major armed conflict. Only a nation confident that its citizenry and its leaders would rally to the cause — no matter what their initial views on the wisdom of going to war — could have allowed a debate of the kind that took place.
No one feared for the survival of the Republic as a consequence of public dissent. We live in a nation committed — again, on a level unprecedented in history — to protecting the civil liberties of even those who oppose democracy itself. Such is our confidence in our institutions and our national ideals.
“Only a nation confident that its citizenry and its leaders could rally to the cause-no matter what their initial views-could have allowed a debate of the kind that took place.”
Moreover, we live in a society prepared to confront and acknowledge past error. This is exceedingly rare, even in genuine democracies. Yet the popular culture here regularly includes widely acclaimed films and plays about the darkest moments in recent American history. The internment of the nisei (Japanese-Americans) during World War II was the topic of one recent film. That film was produced on the heels of a congressional decision to pay reparations to those who were interned, and to their descendants — in apology for the indefensible wartime order to send Japanese-Americans to camps in the western desert.
Many are the films and plays that treat the excesses of the McCarthy-era “Red Scare.” The Irwin Winkler film Guilty by Suspicion, with Robert De Niro, is but the most recent such enterprise.
A society capable of admitting error, of acknowledging behavior that fails to conform to the ideals that define America, has to be built on a firm foundation. Thus, the extraordinary tolerance that informs American political discourse. Thus, the willingness to allow critics of the war to mass on the steps of the Capitol in Washington and denounce American policy while our troops are in the field. And thus, the optimism that leads most Americans to believe — even in the face of economic setbacks — that no domestic problem is so big that we can’t somehow devise a way to deal with it.
We live in a society capable of bouncing back. America’s current encounter with greatness, after all, represents a return — after a period of nearly two decades — from the depths of despair.
Recall the bicentennial of 1976. For all the tall ships and proud flags, it was a hollow affair, a joyless celebration at a less than optimistic historical moment. The Vietnam experience had called into question nearly everything we thought we stood for — freedom, rectitude, armed might. No longer was it clear that America aroused the admiration and envy of the world. Instead, we seemed to constantly provoke disdain and even hatred.
And, of course, the Watergate affair raised doubts here at home about the integrity of our political system. Still, the 1976 celebration went forward. Eventually, our determination to put a black period behind us was crowned with success.