In 1999, Time gathered a list of public figures to make a once-in-a-century pronouncement. Their task: determine who the “Person of the Century” was to be. In the end, after much deliberation, the honor went to Albert Einstein. A worthy choice in many ways, Einstein changed the world, and brought to humanity a new and more accurate understanding of our universe and how it works. Not everyone agreed with the choice, however, and columnist Charles Krauthammer made a compelling case for why Time had chosen the wrong person. The honor, he wrote in the Washington Post, had to go to Winston Churchill. Had Einstein – whom Krauthammer called “the best mind of the century” been removed from history, it is likely that his discoveries would have been discovered eventually. Churchill however “carries that absolutely required criterion: indispensability.” While Krauthammer concedes that Churchill was wrong about some matters, had he not existed “civilization would have descended into a darkness the likes of which it had never known.” For his firm stand in the face of Nazi terror to his post-war dedication to ensure the West prevailed over totalitarian communism, Churchill is, Krauthammer asserts, the indispensable man.
I believe Krauthammer to be correct in his assessment: Churchill was the most indispensable person of modern history. But if there is an indispensable person, is there also an indispensable country? There is, and there can be no doubt that it is the United States of America.
The society in which we live today is remarkable throughout history. The government in my home country derives its power from the consent of the governed, and I can vote for my elected representatives. Though systems of government vary, this is a true statement in much of the world. The Freedom in the World report for 2017 lists 145 countries as free or partly free, and only 50 as “not free.”
For most of human history, this would be United States of America it would not be true. Our country was born with a revolutionary call of the self-evident truths that “all men are created equal, and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.” The government that would follow is to protect those rights. The new nation set up by the Founders would become the most exceptional in history. Freedom as we understand it owes its ubiquity to the United States.
The previous sentence, however, is a controversial one in today’s day and age. Modern historians are often reluctant to see the American experiment in government as a success, epitomized by the late Howard Zinn and his iconic book, A People’s History of the United States. Zinn stated, “U.S. actions have been uncivilized and inhumane.” His writings advanced the idea that the United States has been a negative influence on the world stage. His hope for the future was that the American people would be inspired by the rare “fleeting moments of compassion” throughout our history rather than be repetitive of the overall story, which he painted as a long tale of abuse and oppression.
While our country certainly has had its share of mistakes – particularly slavery and its legacy and the treatment of Native Americans – this is not exceptional. All countries have had moments they now regret. Humanity is imperfect, and no matter where they are or how solid the principles of their society are, human beings will at times be cruel or unjust. But to determine whether the American experiment has been a positive one that has advanced human freedom or not, we must examine what the United States has done that other countries have not.
When the Constitution was drafted, much of the world was skeptical that such a government could survive. And yet through those difficult early years, our republic endured, witnessing a president defeated for reelection passing power peacefully to his rival. The wisdom of our Founders and the genius of their government allowed a system that could do the unheard of. It was also a system that could correct its own faults. Without doubt, the greatest shortcoming of the Founding Fathers was their tolerance of slavery. However, the republican government of the United States allowed the election of Abraham Lincoln, a man who recognized slavery as the evil that it was.
In the midst of a brutal civil war, Lincoln reiterated our commitment to government of the people, by the people, for the people. Despite the fighting and the destruction, a presidential election was held during the war, where Lincoln’s opponent was permitted to run an unfettered campaign against him.
When the world was threatened by Nazi tyranny, it was America that became the arsenal of democracy. Our industrial might and our technological genius was put to work building the airplanes, tanks, guns, jeeps, and ships that were needed to keep the cause of the free world alive. No other nation on earth could have stepped up to accomplish that task. When an unprovoked attack brought us into the war, many of our greatest commanders whose names are iconic to any student of history – Marshall, Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, Nimitz – fought for freedom. It was because of such leaders that on one June morning in 1944 thousands of young Americans, side-by-side with their Canadian and British brothers in arms fought and died to liberate the European continent. Less than one year later, American soldiers shook hands with their Russian allies across the Elbe – marking the end of Europe’s long nightmare. By the year’s end, the Japanese, in the face of massive destructive power from the US, surrendered, and the war was over.
Many nations have won wars. But following our victory, instead of plundering our former enemies, we rebuilt them. American money poured into Europe, and rebuilt entire nations. Today Germany and Japan are among the most prosperous nations on the earth. Both are free, democratic nations in which their people are free. American relations with both countries are marked by friendship, trade, and peace, rather than war.
When the Soviet Union imprisoned a vast territory of Europe and Asia behind the Iron Curtain, a generation of Americans stayed strong in the face of tyranny, and kept the flame of liberty burning. Our vigilance paid off. In 1989, one by one, tyrants in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Albania, Bulgaria, and Romania fell. In their place bloomed new democracies basking in the sun of freedom. Without America, that would have been an impossible dream.
What is exceptional is how much of our modern world – centered around freedoms we enjoy – would have been impossible without the United States. Take the United States out of history and the world as we know it would be completely unrecognizable and far worse off. The United States of America is clearly the indispensable country.