Amid the glut of media attention on President Bush’s landing on the USS Lincoln — and the subsequent protestations by various Democratic leaders — the event’s substantial historical and symbolic significance has been ignored. With questions ranging from cost estimates to docking delays and sex appeal, the most important aspect of the incident is the one that has remained unexamined: What does it mean?
The setting of the speech was obviously symbolic, not merely because the president landed on a carrier returning home from battle but also because the USS Lincoln provided a fitting historical backdrop for the content of the president’s short address. The two major messages that must be taken from the speech should remind us all of a speech delivered by the carrier’s namesake in November of 1863 after his forces triumphed in the pivotal battle of a long and costly war. These messages are as clear to us now as they were to those listening on the grounds of the developing Gettysburg cemetery. First: “We stand for human liberty… America’s tradition, which was declared at our Founding.” And second: While we have won a great victory today, the war is not yet over and “our mission continues.” Both speeches note that while a great victory has been won, there is much left to do and many battles yet left to fight. This is not what one would expect of a victory speech, which could be triumphant and confident of further success in exhorting the people to continue to support the efforts of the army and the government. Even so, both presidents chose a more cautious and contemplative tone to reflect the understanding that the real conflict, in each case, had not yet reached its conclusion.
Bush’s address also resembles Lincoln’s in its references to our nation’s commitment to certain ideals. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is easily one of the most widely read speeches in the history of the United States, but the first six words are commonly overlooked in schools across the country as merely an introduction, rather than the foundation of the entire oration. “Four score and seven years ago” from 1863 is 1776 — the year Jefferson announced in the Declaration of Independence the principles upon which the new nation was to be founded. Lincoln chooses the Declaration — not the Constitution — as the country’s founding document, because it lays down its ideological foundations, the most basic beliefs that announce the character of the nation and serve as the soul to the structural form created by the Constitution. It was then that the Founding Fathers “brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Lincoln’s Address is a sanctification of those ideals on the battlefield of a war he believed would determine whether or not the founding principles of the Union would “long endure.” It is a restatement of the union’s cause, and a call to rededicate the will of the people to the Declaration’s spirit.
The Declaration itself is a statement of human freedom, known also as the natural rights of man in a philosophical tradition drawing heavily from John Locke. It names certain truths to be self-evident, inarguable, and guaranteed by a just government:
“That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
This is one of the basic ideological statements of our country, one of the concepts without which the United States could not exist. But this statement is more than just the foundation for one nation, since it holds that these rights are guaranteed to all men by the nature of their very existence. We hold that all men are created equal in terms of these rights, and so all must be entitled to them if some men are. As Jefferson wrote in 1790: “Every man and every body of men on Earth, possess the right of self-government.” This is true of men born in Iraq, Iran, India, and Iowa. This is the tradition of which Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg, and the tradition of which President Bush tried to remind us in his speech on Lincoln’s ship.
This latest battle in the war on terrorism was in keeping with the most basic elements of this country’s founding philosophical principles. President Bush, like Lincoln before him, understands that the ideological foundations of the United States must be continually fought for and preserved, and are indeed as special as they are basic to all men. There appear to be many critics who believe quite the opposite — including many in the State Department’s top positions. They seem to believe that some people are either incapable of supporting a democratic government or else undeserving of freedom, and should be left to suffer the injustices of an oppressive government for the sake of “stability.” For Lincoln, the question was whether or not blacks were similarly endowed by their Creator with these rights, answered first in 1863 by the Emancipation Proclamation and later in 1865 by the 13th and 14th (and in 1870 by the 15th) Amendments to the Constitution, which needed to be reconciled with the principles on which it rested.
President Truman, as noted by President Bush, also attempted to answer the question of how to serve as champions of freedom in a world full of its enemies. As he said in 1945: “We must build a new world, a far better world — one in which the eternal dignity of man is respected.” Truman believed, as had Lincoln and Jefferson, that action is required to ensure that man’s dignity is protected and man’s promised liberty is preserved. He had Congress appropriate $400 million for aid to Greece and Turkey in order to help stem the flow of Communism westward and prevent those peoples from falling beneath the oppression of the hammer and sickle.
Truman said also: “I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” According to Locke, Jefferson, and our Declaration of Independence, we are all born free people with the right to self-government and liberty. These rights are not privileges granted by legislation; they are ours by virtue of our very existence, not as Americans but as humans.
President Bush’s speech from the deck of the USS Lincoln does indeed rest on Lincoln’s faith in the strength and determination of this nation’s commitment to its founding ideals. Those who seek to make up political ground by chattering about the carrier landing would do well to remember what this country stands for, and what we must now do to rededicate ourselves to those principles. As the president states in his speech, “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work for which they who fought here have this far so nobly advanced.” If we are uncertain about his meaning, then we may be farther from our foundations than we know.
— Gabriel Ledeen is an undergraduate at Rice University in Houston, Tex. and an officer candidate in the United States Marine Corps.