DENVER – One of the proudest moments of any parent’s life is watching one’s robed offspring stride across a stage and accept a college diploma from a beaming administrator. My wife and I enjoyed such a moment this spring as we watched our oldest son – at the tender age of 38 – accept a Bachelor of Science degree in Hospitality, Tourism and Events Management from Metropolitan State University of Denver. Combined with his years of experience as a chef and caterer, his degree positions him to enter the executive ranks in Colorado’s tourism industry.
But his degree is more than just job skills in a growth industry; he got a good grounding in liberal arts, too, and spent more than a little time taking history classes. If his vocation is inn keeping in all of its permutations, his avocation is military history, specifically World War II and its causes. And his particular area of interest, and one on which he wrote several papers while in college, is the Pacific theater of that war and how the U.S. got dragged into — and then won — a two-front war. What he found wass somewhat unsettling and caused a bit of a heated discussion over that weekend.
The topic of conversation was James Bradley’s “Flyboys,” the lesser-known but brutally honest follow- up to his bestseller “Flags of Our Fathers.” I’d found the book on my son's bookshelf and he recommended it, so I took the book with me and started reading while waiting for the commencement to begin. I was a little startled by Bradley’s frankness about how the U.S. came to be embroiled in war with Japan.
Bradley starts the book by giving a detailed and unvarnished account of the brutality with which Europeans conquered and exploited the North American continent and compares that conquest with colonization efforts all over the non-European world. He also explains, succinctly but comprehensively, the history of Japan that put it at odds with the United States of the 20th century.
While he gives the Japanese no pass for their narrow-minded and short-sighted pursuit of Pacific dominance, neither does he let Americans off the hook. He makes it clear that, in invading first China and then Korea, Japan was simply instituting its own form of the Monroe Doctrine. If the U.S. could claim suzerainty in the Americas and adjacent islands, Japan felt justified in claiming the same in Asia and the Pacific. Bradley further explains that all Japan wanted was to join the imperial club, to be treated as an equal among nations that could subjugate other peoples in pursuit of wealth and power. And he justifiably accuses Americans of racist hypocrisy in condemning Japan for its rapacious conquests in China and Korea, when Americans modeled that very behavior in conquering … well, America.
None of this was news to me; what was surprising was my son's enthusiastic recommendation of the book in light of his known conservatism. Throughout his adulthood, he's believed that everyone has the same opportunities, that the differences between success and failure lie in the decisions we make, and that the primary reason for long-term unemployment is simply laziness. He also has always believed the fairy tales he was taught in school about how this country was developed. So it occurred to me that, when faced with an authorative accounting of the real history of the United States -- and, in no small part, his own heritage -- he might be willing to talk about the disparity between history as he learned it and history as it really happened.
I was wrong.
Having learned what he has learned, my son now wishes to not discuss it any more and “move on.” He is tired of having white males constantly blamed for every bad thing that ever happened to the rest of the world. “I don’t know why people have to keep bringing it up,” he said.
It took me a while to formulate an answer, but I do have one and it is this: “Bringing it up” is called teaching. If the United States of America is ever to become the land of the free and the home of the brave, we have to start teaching our children an accurate, honest history of our nation’s beginnings, and there is much to be ashamed of in those beginnings. The eradication of the continent's original habitants was a stated government goal from Abraham Lincoln forward. The enslavement of them and later genocide practiced against them wasn't just the result of a few misguided hotheads in the Old West -- it was official government policy. That policy included christianization of all native people, wherever Americans found them, a direct contravention of the nation's foundational law.
Not that there weren't some nice ideals expressed in our nation's founding documents. Equality, justice, and liberty are good policies for any government to pursue, but in the 19th century, the French did a better job of it (at least inside their own borders) than we Americans. There's no doubt that the men and women who founded this nation were enlightened, progressive, liberal, courageous and often brilliant. They were also hypocrites, slave-owners, racists and elitists. The problem is that generations of Americans have lionized these people to the point that we believe they were perfect, or nearly so, and that they actually did create a "more perfect union," which somehow has deteriorated into something less than it once was.
What we need to continuously "bring up," as my son put it, is the imperfection of the people who founded our country. We must be honest about the motivations that created our revolution and admit to the hypocrisy of a people that demanded equality and freedom for its citizens while maintaining millions in the abject misery of slavery. We need to tell our school children that, while Thomas Jefferson was writing the Declaration of Independence, he was also calculating the profits of breeding and selling black people the same way a farmer calculates the profits of breeding and selling livestock. Our goal in educating tomorrow’s leaders should not be to make them like yesterday’s leaders, but better than that. Only by constantly “bringing it up” can we teach our children how to mold the homeland we’ve always wanted but never had.
I hope, in time, my son will realize that earning his college degree was not the end of his life of learning, but a beginning. I hope that, as he pursues his personal quest for success and fulfillment, he uses the other things he learned in college to care about other people’s quests for success and fulfillment as well. What makes me proudest of him is not just the man he is now, but the man he is becoming and will be.