WASHINGTON – At one haunted moment in American history – early in 1939, not long after Kristallnacht – Senator Robert Wagner, D-N.Y., and Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers, R-Mass., introduced a bill that would have allowed 20,000 unaccompanied Jewish refugee children into the United States. Opponents argued that Congress should focus on the welfare of American children, and that German refugees were a Trojan horse. “Twenty thousand charming children,” said President Franklin Roosevelt’s cousin, “would all too soon grow up into 20,000 ugly adults.”
The legislation died in committee. And most of the children, presumably, did not grow up at all. At the time, some 80 percent of Americans opposed increasing the quota of European refugees.
Six years later, journalist Marguerite Higgins was among the first to enter the Dachau death camp as it was being liberated by the 42nd Infantry. She found the main yard empty. But then “a jangled barrage of ‘Are you Americans?’ in about 16 languages came from the barracks 200 yards from the gate. An affirmative nod caused pandemonium. Tattered, emaciated men, weeping, yelling and shouting ‘Long live America!’ swept toward the gate in a mob. Those who could not walk limped or crawled.”
It is easy to forget the epic scale of this transition. On the American side, the Second World War was won with a combination of idealism and unimaginable ferocity. Here was a country that talked of “Four Freedoms” and dropped two atom bombs. Having reduced the Axis powers to rubble and hunger, 90 percent of Americans supported the continuation of food rationing at home if it were necessary to help the starving people of Europe and Asia.
The Marshall Plan poured about $13 billion into European economies. The Truman Doctrine set hard limits to Soviet expansion. NSC 68 defined a policy of containment that put American troops and ships on every strategic frontier. The Bretton Woods institutions fostered global economic cooperation.
An extraordinary group of leaders – politicians, military commanders, diplomats – defined a practical and moral role for America in the global defense of free governments and institutions. “In natural abilities and experience,” writes historian Paul Johnson, “in clarity of mind and in magnanimity, they were probably the finest group of American leaders since the Founding Fathers.” Harry Truman lent his defiant moral sensibilities to the enterprise. Dwight Eisenhower matched humility with power. John F. Kennedy gave poetry to the struggle. “For it is the fate of this generation,” he said, “to live with a struggle we did not start, in a world we did not make. … And while no nation ever faced such a challenge, no nation has ever been more ready to seize the burden and the glory of freedom.”
This is what some now dismiss as “globalism” – the combination of America’s founding purpose with unavoidable international responsibilities. The post-war pre-eminence of the United States has been sustainable, not only because of our military power, but because the global order we shaped is not a zero-sum game. Both America and our allies benefit from American security commitments in Europe and East Asia. Both America and our trading partners can benefit from relatively free global markets.
I have been asking myself: Why is our political moment not just pathetic but traumatic? America now has a president who is staggeringly ignorant of this history – unfamiliar with its heroes and unmoved by its moral achievements. Donald Trump’s view of the world is built on grievances – against migrants who corrupt our country and against foreigners who economically exploit it. Once again, people fleeing from war and oppression are dangerous infiltrators. America wants its money back from free riders such as Japan, South Korea and Germany. The zero-sum game has returned. America only wins when others lose.
The Trump administration is not only an affront to decency and the rule of law; it is an assault on America’s self-conception. In Trump’s view, the United States is a nation like any other nation, defined by ethnicity and oriented toward narrow interests. An American president not only admires Russia; he wants us to be more like it, in both conduct and self-image. Trump’s form of extreme nationalism makes us ordinary – just another power scrambling for advantages.
As Truman might have said: To hell with that. We are the nation that liberated death camps, rebuilt our enemies, inspires dissidents, welcomes refugees, secures the peace on every contested frontier and seizes “the burden and glory of freedom.” This does not make us “globalists”; it makes us Americans.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.