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The Last Best Hope on Earth

By William J. Bennett

Today, our country celebrates Memorial Day. Originally called "Decoration Day," the holiday started spontaneously enough in 1866, when a drugstore owner in Waterloo, NY sought to honor those who died in the recent Civil War. Townspeople joined Henry Welles' cause to commemorate the fallen and they placed "flowers, wreaths and crosses on the graves of the Northern soldiers in the [Waterloo] cemetery." They decorated the graves. In short order, others joined around the country and by 1868, according to the History Channel: "Children read poems and sang civil war songs and veterans came to school wearing their medals and uniforms to tell students about the Civil War. Then the veterans marched through their home towns followed by the townspeople to the cemetery." Soon enough, heroes from other wars were honored as well, and the name became "Memorial Day."

Abraham Lincoln described our country, in his message to Congress in 1862, as the "last best hope of earth." Were it not for the United States today--or, for that matter, in Lincoln's time--what would the world look like? Aside from the hundreds of thousands of dead and suffering, would anyone put the plight of the Sudanese on the world's conscience today? It is fashionable in some quarters to say that our policies against Muslims have caused other Muslims' wrath toward us. But do we remember just our last two-decades' worth of military excursions? Wolf Blitzer at CNN reminded us a few years ago: "Almost every time U.S. military forces have been called into action to risk their lives and limbs, it's been on behalf of Muslims," to save the Afghanis against the Soviets, to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein, to help Somalis, to help Muslims in Bosnia and then Kosovo and to overthrow the Taliban. To Afghanistan in our current global war on terror, we can add Iraq--and come to the realization that our policies and our military have liberated over 50 million Muslims in just the past five years.

In our current war, we've lost almost 3,000 brave soldiers. On September 11, 2001, we lost 3,000 citizens who did not sign up for war, but rather signed up to live freely as Americans. If our war on terror ceased right now, it would be the first time that the number of those who died repelling the enemy was less than the number of people who died in the initial attack on us. But no matter, our war will go on, because our enemy is large and has continued on. Still, we need to remember every American soldier and citizen, alike, in this war--including those in our first battle against the 9/11 attackers, those brave citizen-soldiers on United flight 93 who took over a hijacked airliner heading for the capital and put it down to save as many innocent lives as possible.

Memory is an important part of our country; it is a critical part to sustain it, to honor it, to love it. And sustaining, honoring, and loving it deserves. The words engraved at the top of our National Archives building, erected during the time of FDR, spoke to why. It states that "the glory and romance of our history," are preserved there. "Glory and romance" is, indeed, the 230-year-old story of who we are and what we have done.

But we are forgetting that, too. The great historian David McCullough recently warned that we are raising, "generation after generation of young Americans who are historically illiterate, we are running a terrible risk for this country. You could have amnesia of a society, which is as detrimental as amnesia of an individual." Indeed, in a recent survey, only 22% of college seniors could properly identify the phrase "Government of the people, by the people, and for the people;" 23% knew that James Madison was the Father of the Constitution; and only about a third of our college seniors knew that our Constitution established the division of power in our government. At the high school level, "American history is our worst subject," according to what education professionals recognize as our Nation's Report Card.

We cannot love what we have taken for granted and forgotten. We cannot honor what we do not know. We need to engage in what Tom Wolfe has called "the great relearning." There is no better time to start that relearning than on this Memorial Day, so that we can remember and honor what we have done and what we stand for. It is for this reason, and more, much more, that I dedicated my new book on American history, America: The Last Best Hope, this way: "To the American soldier, whose fidelity, patriotism, and valor have made this land the last best hope of earth."

Radio host William J. Bennett is the author of America: The Last Best Hope, and the Washington Fellow of the Claremont Institute.


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