Like America, my political beliefs were forged during the fires of a fight for independence from totalitarian rule. I spent my teens fighting in Josip Tito’s resistance in Yugoslavia during World War II.
Like most of America’s immigrants, my belief in the promise of our country began long before I reached her shores. Growing up poor in a suburb of Belgrade, I spent hours in the elementary school library poring over maps and reading the stories of Nikola Tesla and Michael Pupin, poor Serbian boys like me who had gone to America to become great inventors.
My life-long fascination with America – the land far across the sea, the land of opportunity – began in that library. I read about scientists who were unraveling the mysteries of the universe at the California Institute of Technology, and I knew I needed to find my way to Pasadena.
There’s no other country in the world that people dream of so deeply, that people book one-way tickets to sight unseen. What was true for a boy growing up in the chaos of World War II is true for boys and girls growing up in today’s far different world: America is still a synonym for opportunity.
America is the only country where – if you are willing to work for it – you can turn $200 into a pharmaceutical company that has made billions of dollars and saved millions of lives. That kind of independent, entrepreneurial spirit is exactly what built our country.
After seeing so many years of death and destruction during the war, I decided to dedicate my life to saving lives – through medicine and through peace.
I got to live the American dream that started in a Yugoslavian library when I put together the team of scientists who developed the first broad spectrum antiviral drug, Ribavirin. It is one of the world’s major biotechnology drugs and is used to treat tens of millions of people worldwide, including infants hospitalized with severe respiratory infections and adults battling HIV and hepatitis C.
The longer I lived in America, the more mesmerized I became by new American heroes like John F. Kennedy and his New Frontier idealism, with its concern for education, civil rights and the alleviation of poverty. And Kennedy’s liberal social views defined for me America’s necessary and indispensable role in the world. I found extraordinary pride in being an American, and the democratic ideals this wonderful nation has always espoused.
Those ideals are what motivated me to take on one of the toughest tasks in my life. In 1992, I was invited to return to the country of my birth and serve as Yugoslavia’s prime minister at a crucial time. I wanted to turn that country into the California of Europe, overhauling the archaic political and economic edifices of communism and introducing the American political, economic and social values that had drawn me here.
I knew that America had provided the world with a successful blueprint to follow: an integrated and economically sustainable country composed of a union of diverse states. That vision would define much of my political thinking as we worked to bring peace to the Balkans through the Dayton Accord in 1995, which drew new territorial borders inside Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is a vision that has motivated me and my work every day.
America does more than make individual success possible. America shows the world what is possible when everyone has opportunities and freedom. Our forefathers built this country to create a new way of life for its people. They also created a model for democracy envied and replicated the world over. More than 160 of the world’s countries have used written charters based on the U.S. Constitution. There is so much here to be proud of, there is so much here that children around the world still dream of. I celebrate America’s spirit of independence and promise of opportunity today and every day.
Milan Panic, former prime minister of Yugoslavia, is a California businessman who started ICN Pharmaceuticals.