Politics & Policy

Rediscovering American Character

The most amazing thing about America has always been ourselves, as we are rediscovering in our exemplary response to the disaster of September 11th. “A restless, reasoning, adventurous race,” our national psychoanalyst, Alexis de Tocqueville called us, “which does coldly what only the ardor of passion can explain.” We are a bundle of contradictions, at once the most religious and the most secular, the most individualistic and the most socially conscious, the most isolationist and the most interventionist people on earth. Our unique dynamism is generated by these contradictions; they create an inner tension that drives American creativity.

#ad#Like no other people, we tend to our own personal affairs, and we have done it so well, we are the first people in history to believe that peace is the normal condition of mankind. That is one of the two major reasons why we are never ready for the next war. Every time a war ends, we demobilize, believing war itself has been defeated. As far back as 1846, when we were on the verge of a two-front war that produced the expansion of the United States into Texas, California and Oregon, the Congress was planning to shut down the military academy at West Point. We have to be dragged into war. In the 20th century we were torpedoed into the First World War on the North Atlantic, bombed into the Second World War in the Pacific, terrified into the Cold War by Stalin, and shocked into the Gulf War by Saddam Hussein. September 11th revealed that we had once again let down our guard, despite years of terrorist attacks against Americans within and beyond our borders.

The other reason we are not ready for war is our radical egalitarianism and our belief in the perfectibility of man. We think all people are fundamentally the same, and, having turned the study of history into a sanitized hymn to the wonders of multiculturalism, we are reluctant to accept Machiavelli’s dictum that “man is more likely to do evil than good.” It is singularly bad form for anyone in America to suggest that there are some truly evil people, and even some thoroughly evil regimes, whose hatred of us is so intractable that “live and let live” will not do. It has to be “kill or be killed.”

Having understood our character better than anyone else before or since, Tocqueville warned that foreign policy was our Achilles heel. But he also recognized that we have an amazing capacity to draw together, and to postpone our craving for personal success until the common good has been safeguarded. “War almost always enlarges the mind of a people and raises their character,” he tells us, and “in some cases it is the only check to the excessive growth of certain (selfish) tendencies.” Just ask the Germans or the Japanese or the Soviets, all of whom grossly underestimated our enormous capacity to unite to accomplish a national mission.

They are not alone; our national capacity to spontaneously organize ourselves to overcome challenges is hard to explain, even for a genius like Tocqueville. It is the mystery of American patriotism. How does it happen that in the United States, where the inhabitants have only recently immigrated…where they met one another for the first time with no previous acquaintance; where, in short, the instinctive love of country can scarcely exist; how does it happen that everyone takes as zealous an interest in the affairs of the whole state…as if they were his own?

It is because we feel ourselves part of a common enterprise-the advance of freedom — and we spontaneously organize ourselves to achieve that enterprise.

One of the few to understand this magical process is Oriana Fallaci, the celebrated Italian writer, a longtime thorn in the bodies of the self-important, a proud Tuscan who has become a New Yorker, who took four full pages of the Corriere della Sera to speak of the September events and our response to them. She was struck by the response at Ground Zero to the president.

All of them, young people, little kids, the old, and the middle aged. White, black, yellow, brown, purple…Did you see them or not? While Bush thanked them they waved the American flags, raised their clenched fists, and roared, “USA! USA! USA! In a totalitarian country I would have thought, “but look at how well the powerful have organized them!” In America, no. In America you don’t organize these things. Especially in a cynical metropolis like New York. New York workers are tough guys, and freer than the wind. These guys even disobey their trade unions. But if you touch the flag, if you touch the country…

The fact is that America is a special country, my dear friend. A country to envy, of which to be jealous…and it is that way because it is born of a spiritual necessity…and of the most sublime human idea: the idea of liberty, or better, of liberty married to the idea of equality…

Oriana Fallaci is our friend, and she understands us very well. Our enemies don’t, which is why they constantly make the mistake of striking at us before they can be sure they will take us out. Thus, the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. Thus, Osama bin Laden in New York and Washington. They see our internal divisions, they see our drive for material comfort, they know our leaders dread the thought of body bags, and they think we are not capable of fighting them hand to hand. They should listen to Tocqueville, who knew back in 1831 that once we are engaged in a fight, “the same passions that made them attach so much importance to the maintenance of peace will be turned to arms.” The awesome power of a free society committed to a single mission is something they cannot imagine.

I daresay that few of us, a month ago, imagined that the American people would react with such vigor, such coherent rage, such determination to destroy the evildoers. Until then, many of us believed, feared, or suspected that our will had been sapped, that our great wealth had made us thoroughly self-indulgent and indolent, and that we might well fail such a test.

Now we know better, and our enemies will soon see the evidence in their own streets, deserts, and mountain redoubts. We have rediscovered the roots of our national character, which are an unshakeable confidence in the rightness of our mission, deep religious conviction, and a unique ability to come together to prevail against frightening obstacles. Once we have defeated the latest incarnation of servitude — this time wrapped in a religious mantle — we must remind ourselves of what we are, and the magnitude of our task. Next time, we must not listen to leaders who delight us with fables of peace and who tell us we are not worthy of our high calling. Next time, we must dismiss those who tell us that all people are the same, all cultures are of equal worth, all values are relative, and all judgments are to be avoided. Silvio Berlusconi was right: We’ve accomplished more than our enemies, and the overwhelming majority of mankind knows it.

Have you seen millions of people from the West clamoring to live in Iran, Iraq, or Saudi Arabia? Do you think Assad, Saddam Hussein, or the Ayatollah Khamenei could win a free election? If their regimes come under attack, will their people spontaneously rally round them? If you answered “yes” to any of the above, kindly report for reeducation.

Finally, next time, we must remember that those who wish for peace must prepare for war, remind ourselves that Americans are great warriors, and get ready to fight again. Because that’s the way it is.

Michael Ledeen — Michael Ledeen is an American historian, philosopher, foreign-policy analyst, and writer. He is a former consultant to the National Security Council, the Department of State, and the Department of Defense. ...

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