Why We're in Haiti -- Because We're Americans

Why We're in Haiti -- Because We're Americans

By Richard Reeves - January 19, 2010

PHILADELPHIA -- In February of 1961, President Kennedy asked this question of Jawaharlal Nehru, the prime minister of India: "What do you think of the idea of our Peace Corps?"

Nehru answered that he thought it was a good idea, that pampered young Americans would learn a great deal about life serving in the villages of India.

Kennedy was not amused by that answer. Like any other American, he thought we were sending out some of our best and brightest to remake Indians and other poor people around the world.

Years later, in researching a film about young men and women who served in the corps, I learned that Nehru was exactly right. India was not changed a bit, but the American volunteers who went there were changed for life. In disproportionate numbers, they chose lives of service in humanitarian and social work, government and non-governmental aid work and sometimes as writers or reporters documenting the lives and hopes of others.

Giving is more blessed than receiving. I'm on the road now promoting my book, "Daring Young Men," about the pilots and crews, American and British, who gave up part of their lives and risked their lives to deliver food, fuel and medicine to West Berlin in 1948 and 1949. Soviet troops blockaded the city's land routes to try to drive out the Allies, and "we," if I can use that word, kept the 2 million desperate people of the former enemy capital alive by landing rickety war surplus planes every 90 seconds until the Soviets finally gave up.

Those young men did change Germany and the world. But the work of the airlift changed most of them just as much. In researching the book in four countries (the United States, Germany, Great Britain and France), I was surprised that the men involved, many of them war heroes or figures of great distinction later in life, saw the airlift as the highlight of their lives.

"All I saw were starving women and children," said Lt. Gail Halvorsen, a C-54 pilot. "They looked at us like we were angels from heaven. ... I came from a dirt farm in Utah. We were religious people. I felt a lot better feeding people than killing them."

Of course, we weren't all angels by any test, but as Lincoln had said, there are missions that bring out the better angels of our nature. And I decided to write about the airlift, almost forgotten in history here, at a time when I saw few better angels. When an interviewer here asked me why I decided to write the book, I said, "Abu Ghraib."

It was not only that "incident." It was the fact that I could not stand the America of "preventative war," of "extraordinary rendition" -- of torture. That was not the America I grew up in, a small boy, part of a nation I thought did the right thing because it was the right thing, a country that led by example rather than power -- even when we had so much power.

So, moving now to Haiti. A great tragedy in a sad place, as helpless as West Berlin was in 1948 when President Truman, against the advice of all his wise men and generals, said: "We stay in Berlin. Period." And also amid the attacks of political opponents -- this was the time of the Truman-Dewey election -- who said it could not be done, we were surrounded by a million men of the Red Army, and that, anyway, it would cost too much money.

We did stay. Made a lot of mistakes, but finally figured it out and made it work, showing that the impossible takes a little while. Maybe it re-elected Truman; it certainly made him more popular with enthusiastic backing from many Americans who had under-rated him, but that was not the point. It defined America in the eyes of much of the world and in the red-white-and-blue hearts of a lot of little kids like me.

This is from a letter written years later by a German boy the same age as me. He is Wolfgang Samuel, who became a colonel in the U.S. Air Force and a distinguished writer as well:

"The (Americans) were so different from the soldiers I had known -- those had been men with hard faces and guns. The Airlift soldiers were not like that ... they looked more like people to whom life had been good and didn't mind sharing their good fortune."

I hope now that we will stay in Haiti doing what needs to be done. I'm sure we'll screw up some of it, but it is a chance to show the world what Americans and the American military can do.

Richard Reeves

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