Once There Was A Country

Are we still living in America? One wonders. But we’d better recognize the source of the problem and confront it before they cancel John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart.

America was once a proud country, a gracious one, and an accomplished one. That’s no longer true, but there is one American institution that bears the responsibility for this fall and that can still be reformed.

Once there was a country that could magnanimously reconcile its most profound differences. The victorious general of a civil war returned to the losing general his sword. The policy in the aftermath of strife was “Reconstruction” not “Retaliation.” Hands were shaken, each side saluting its former enemies for their fortitude and valor.

Once there was a country where the legislative leaders of opposing factions, a southerner and a northerner, Senators Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas and Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois, could bicker and haggle by day and dine together and enjoy one another’s company by night.

Once there was a country that knew how to deal with violent offenders. A child was raped and murdered in New Brunswick, New Jersey, on December 22, 1921, the perpetrator pretending to be Santa Claus. The police quickly identified a suspect with a prior arrest for child molestation and apprehended him on Christmas Eve in a shack in the woods 12 miles from the crime scene. Blood-stained garments were found. Eyewitnesses testified to having watched the suspect lure the child away.

The trial was held on January 3, 1922, and the defendant convicted of first-degree murder. The case was open and shut, the defense attorney saw no reason to file an appeal. The prisoner expired in the electric chair on February 7, 1922, 48 days after the murder.

It so happened that the reporter covering the story for the New York Times was Merian C. Cooper, the future creator of King Kong. Before working the metro beat for the Times, Cooper, a World War I aviator, had organized the Kosciuszko Squadron, a group of ten veteran American airmen who fought for Poland in the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-20.

With Cooper and his squadron mates scattering the Bolshevik cavalry, the Poles turned back the Soviet infantry at the gates of Warsaw, preventing the Russian Revolution from being exported to Western Europe. Shot down, captured, nearly starved to death, Cooper escaped from a Soviet prison camp in Moscow and was awarded Poland’s highest military honor upon returning to Warsaw. His story was told here.

Countries with the strength to enforce their laws breed strong people. Once there was a country that believed so passionately in its traditions that, when its president, Woodrow Wilson, asked Congress for a declaration of war to “bring the Government of the German Empire to terms,” stating that “the world must be made safe for democracy,” practically the entire nation mobilized to assist in the enterprise. Bankers and financiers left Wall Street to help the American Red Cross increase its capacity to staff and equip field hospitals and an ambulance corps. Clubwomen learned to prepare surgical dressings for the Red Cross. The wives of Wilson’s cabinet secretaries organized the women in their husbands’ departments to knit stockings and wool caps for American doughboys. Set designers from Hollywood and Broadway joined sculptors, painters, architects, and illustrators in the Camouflage Corps, a new unit of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Homemakers were enjoined to conserve food for the troops by observing Meatless Tuesdays, Wheatless Wednesdays, and other economic measures. The war was financed in part by promoting the sale of “Liberty Bonds” to average citizens.

When the need arose two decades later, American industrialists turned their factories to producing war materiel, becoming an “arsenal of democracy,” their country’s secret weapon.

Once there was a country whose men in uniform knew the whole nation had their back.

Once there was a country whose flag inspired pride, sacrifice, courage, and determination.

One hundred years ago, it was widely believed that a new continent would be found in the Arctic Ocean in the vicinity of the North Pole. Scientific treatises were written “proving” its existence. As aviation developed, the mythical land became endowed with strategic importance and commercial value.

A volunteer ground crew of 50 civilians sailed north with pioneer aviator Richard E. Byrd, Lieutenant Commander, USN, to help him locate that “lost continent” before the greatest polar explorer in the world, Roald Amundsen, could find and claim it for Norway. They were Wall Street executives and street toughs, Harvard men and garage attendants. When a Norwegian gunboat blocked the sole pier at Kings Bay, Spitsbergen, preventing Byrd from offloading his experimental aircraft, the civilian volunteers built a raft at sea, in a raging blizzard, to ferry the plane to shore.

The Norwegians radioed a warning. It’s too risky, you can’t possibly succeed, they insisted. Some three hundred yards of water swelled between Byrd’s freighter and the snowbound shore. The sea was thickly caked with drifting ice. If the winds rose, the ice floes would surge forward, sweep down on and destroy the makeshift raft.

Byrd’s men grabbed the oars, undeterred. “They were fighting mad by this time,” Byrd said, “ready to carry the plane ashore on their backs. This had become more than an expedition. It was a patriotic American undertaking.”

Once there was a country that, when challenged to do the impossible, did the impossible. Once there was a country one of whose leading liberal journalists one hundred years ago, Ray Stannard Baker, said, that “If a city produces good and noble and beautiful human beings, then it is a good city.” Good and noble and beautiful, not whiners, decadents, and nihilists.

If we want that kind of country and those kinds of cities back again, we have to understand where and how we lost them. We lost our country in the universities, as an entire generation was taught grievances, obsessions, and panaceas. They became ideologues. They became commentators. They became elected officials and corporate managers. They howl in the streets, topple statues, elevate criminals to the status of victims, and refuse to prosecute them. They posit a social good, such as justice, and demand it, and have the arrogance to imagine they also possess the wisdom and capacity to bring it about…instantly.

They seek to silence anyone deviating from the party line.

If we want back the country we once had, the country that united its factions, enforced its laws. preserved its principles and traditions, and accomplished great undertakings, we will have to confront the universities before new generations can be so corrupted.

We will need in leadership roles men and women of character and integrity. We will need national leaders who understand that a university is a failure if it does not emphasize history and classical literature, humility in studies, and flexible thinking, and cannot get a passing grade from organizations that monitor life on campus, such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). In that case,

  • Its faculty should not receive a dime of federal research funding;
  • Its students should not be eligible for federal loans;
  • And its current graduates should not be hired by any agency of the federal government.

Do not expect such heroism and resolve from the Great Mediocrity, Joe Biden, and his administration. But a new president will be elected in a free and hopefully fair election within four years.

Mike Pence, Ted Cruz, Nikki Haley, Tom Cotton, Ben Sasse, Mike Pompeo, Dan Crenshaw, Josh Hawley -- do you have it in you to wage this battle? And win?

Sheldon Bart, Acting Vice President of the American Polar Society and author of Race to the Top of the World: Richard Byrd and the First Flight to the North Pole (Regnery History), is also a trustee of the Foundation to Illuminate America’s Heroes (www.illuminateamericasheroes.com). He is currently writing a book about American intelligence in Bolshevik Russia.

IMAGE: Richard E. Byrd’s expedition in the German Federal Archives. CC-BY-SA 3.0.

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