What does an American write to citizens around the world in reference to the suicide attacks on the World Trade Center, Pentagon and unknown targets on September 11, 2001?
I could say that the events shocked many Americans who didn’t believe it could happen here. I could say that it has angered many Americans who want a pound of flesh in return. I could even say that everything has changed.
Yet I think the most truthful thing one could say about America now is a kind of mass resolve to the task ahead.
It is not appreciated outside of the U.S. the degree to which most Americans really have no interest in politics and war. Calvin Coolidge said that the business of America is business, and he caught something there. Nothing, of course, that hadn’t been caught earlier by Alexis de Tocqueville when in his peerless book, Democracy in America, he wrote: “I know of no country, indeed, where the love of money has taken stronger hold on the affections of men and where a more profound contempt is expressed for the theory of the permanent equality of property.”
To contemporary ears, these words ring harsh. But they could actually be the motto of a non-violent society. The words really mean that Americans as individuals are focused not on affairs of state or on bringing civilization to greater glory. Most Americans, most of the time, are focused on their individual lives and building a good life for themselves, their families and their posterity. Put another way, most Americans have not the slightest interest in going to war or doing battle.
But it seems as if every few generations, a call goes forth. And it is the burden of being the United States of America that we must answer the call.
People have forgotten that America was drawn kicking and screaming into World War I. Americans hated the idea of getting involved in European conflicts. Indeed, as war raged in Europe, President Woodrow Wilson ran for re-election, and won, on the slogan: “He kept us out of war.” Even the downing of the British liner Lusitania was not sufficient to convince Americans to go to war. It was only after a series of German submarine attacks on American ships that the U.S. reluctantly declared war.
After the war, American citizens demanded that the army is demobilized so we could go back to living our lives. The army was downsized to the point that at the start of World War II, the U.S. had only the 17th largest army in the world. We became 16th when tiny Belgium was occupied.
As war raged in Asia and Europe, Americans once again had no desire to fight. Indeed, had the Japanese not actually attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor, it would have been impossible for President Franklin D. Roosevelt to get a declaration of war through the Congress. Indeed, shocking as it may now seem, even after Pearl Harbor, it is unlikely that Roosevelt could have gotten a declaration of war against Germany, except Germany declared war on the U.S. first.
After the war, when our economy was the only substantial economy left unscathed by war, when our armies were already spread across the globe, if we had the slightest desire for territorial aggrandizement or dominion over the earth, we could have just stayed put. But the American people insisted and demanded a demobilization so rapid and pell-mell that it led to Korea, Vietnam, and the cold war.
So to people around the world who worry about American power, I can put you at ease. Americans yearn to trade and travel, to farm and to forge, to import and export. Some wish to enjoy leisure, while others find redemption in work or study. But after an attack like that of September 11, 2001, there is a consensus that we have no choice but to put aside present-day concerns and deal with the problem presented.
After all, without security, commerce cannot easily proceed. Now there is no choice but to defeat the terrorists and those countries that give them sustenance.
Americans have great motivation to win this war; after all, we have much to lose. Great strength often reveals itself only when roused, and the terrorists and their supporters have made a grave error to think Americans will be cowed, for we are made of sterner stuff than that. The terrorists think it is heroic to crash planes into buildings and kill many people; Americans think it heroic to rush into buildings and save them. Americans will win. The victory may not be easy, but it will not be a close finish.
Our partners around the world should know that we apologize for any disruption the long twilight struggle ahead might cause in the export of America’s bounty. We will, of course, endeavor to keep things moving without interruption. In any case, please rest assured that as soon as this generation finishes saving the world for civilization, we will be back at our first love, doing business in a mutually beneficial way with the people of the world.