November 25, 2005
America's Unique Devotion to Liberty
WASHINGTON -- Uniquely among the capitals of the world, Washington's
monumental core pays homage to the word. The glory of the Jefferson
Memorial is not the Founder's statue but, carved in stone around
him, his words on religious freedom, inalienable rights and sacred
honor. At the Lincoln Memorial, one cannot but be moved by the
eyes and grave bearing of the martyred president, but even more
moving are the surrounding words: the sublime cadences of the
Second Inaugural and the Gettysburg Address, both in their entirety.
(Lincoln's gift for concision helps. Castro, of the eight-hour
speeches, could not be so memorialized.)
celebrate the gloria and fortuna of victory.
No Arch of Triumph here. True, in the last few decades the Mall
has added Vietnam and Korean memorials. But these are hardly glorifications
of battle. They are melancholy meditations upon wars of sorrow.
The very newest addition, the World War II memorial, is jarring
and deeply out of place precisely because its massive and pointless
wreath-bearing Teutonic columns represent European triumphalism
disfiguring the heart of a Mall heretofore dedicated to the power
and glory of ideas.
has a second distinction, more subtle and even more telling about
the nature of America: its many public statues to foreign
liberators. I'm not talking about the statues of Churchill and
Lafayette, great allies and participants in America's own epic
struggles against tyranny. Everybody celebrates friends. I'm talking
about the liberators who had nothing to do with us. Walk a couple
of blocks from Dupont Circle at the heart of commercial Washington,
and you come upon a tiny plaza graced by Gandhi, with walking
stick. And perhaps 100 yards from him, within shouting distance,
stands Tomas Masaryk, the great Czech patriot and statesman.
in formal dress and aristocratic demeanor, has nothing in common
with the robed, slightly bent Gandhi with whom he shares the street
except that they were both great liberators, and except that they
are honored by Americans precisely for their devotion to freedom.
up the avenue stands Robert Emmet, the Irish revolutionary, while
one block to the west of Masaryk looms a massive monument to a
Ukrainian poet and patriot, Taras Shevchenko. And then gracing
the avenues near the Mall are the Americans: great statues to
Central and South American liberators, not just Juarez and Bolivar
but even the more obscure, such as General Jose Artigas, father
of modern Uruguay.
if you will (as fashionable anti-Americanism does) the Statue
of Liberty as ostentatious self-advertising or perhaps a relic
of an earlier, more pure America. But as you walk the streets
of Washington, it is harder to discount America's quiet homage
to foreign liberators -- statues built decades apart without self-consciousness
and without any larger architectural (let alone political) plan.
They have but one thing in common: They share America's devotion
to liberty. Liberty not just here but everywhere. Indeed, liberty
for its own sake.
has long proclaimed this principle, but in the post-9/11 era,
it has pursued it with unusual zeal and determination. Much of
the world hears America declare the spread of freedom the centerpiece
of its foreign policy and insists nonetheless that America's costly
sacrifices in Iraq and even Afghanistan are nothing more than
classic imperialism in search of dominion, oil, pipelines or whatever
such commodity most devalues America's exertions. The overwhelming
majority of Americans refuse to believe that. Whatever their misgivings
about the cost and wisdom of these wars, they know how deep and
authentic is the American devotion to liberty.
the world find such sentiments and the accompanying declarations
hard to credit. Europeans, in particular, with their long tradition
of realpolitik, cannot conceive of a Great Power actually believing
such hopeless idealism.
is misplaced. It is not just that brave Americans soldiers die
to permit Iraqis and Afghans to vote for the first time in their
lives. There is evidence closer to home and of older pedigree.
The skeptics might take a stroll through America's other great
capital. Up New York's Sixth Avenue with its series of seven sculptures
to Latin American leaders, culminating at Central Park with magnificent
statues of Bolivar, Marti and San Martin. To Washington Square
Park, where they will find the Italian revolutionary Garibaldi,
while his more republican counterpart, Mazzini, resides along
West Drive not very far from Lajos Kossuth, now of Riverside Drive,
hero of the Hungarian revolution of 1848.
not for show. It is from the heart, the heart of a people conceived
in liberty and still believing in liberty. How can they not? It
is written in stone all around them.
2005, Washington Post Writers Group