I remember when people were proud of this country because we thought we were better than the rest of the world.
Like everyone else, I was caught up in the stories about how we deserved all the blessings we had because we worked for them, and if you worked, you got ahead. It didn’t make any difference who your parents were, or how much money the family had, if you worked, got an education, played by the rules of law and fair play, you had a bright future.
This was America.
We had saved the world from the Nazis and served retribution to the Japanese for their attack on us in peacetime. Everybody knew that. We fed the children in the rubble-covered streets of Europe, sent medical help to the bombed-out cities, and felt good for our charity.
The fact that the rubble and chaos and stink of death and disruption was due in large part to American bombs was shrugged aside. We didn’t start it; the Nazis did. The Japanese did.
We were better than the Russians because they let communists take charge, and everybody knew that capitalism was the only system for people who wanted to keep what they earned. If we wanted to share the wealth with others, we’d make donations, and serve as volunteers, but we would decide for ourselves who to help, how much to give, and no government was going to tell us what to do with our own time and money.
We were free; we had inherited the right and fought to keep it. That’s why we were better than anyone else.
It helped to be removed from some of the complications that other nations face. We had oceans that limited immigration problems. If other countries had problems, we could send them a little money, and the Red Cross or something; but not too much, because we believed that charity begins at home. We were taught that at home, in school, in church.
We spoke English; American, really. That made us better, too. The whole world was learning to speak English, because they looked up to us. We were the best country in the world. Everybody wanted to come live in America. Who could blame them?
We had taken raw nature and open land and owned it; turned rivers into corridors to the wealth of the lumber, land, minerals and potential of unspoiled wilderness. We tamed the land and conquered the peoples we found there; we were entitled to it, because we could and would take it, trade for it, buy it, sell it, feed it with our accumulating wealth and expanding technology and our work ethic. Survival of the fittest was no longer just meeting the needs of food, shelter and clothing; it was now about competing, growing wealthy and dominating all who would challenge us.
I was a disciple; John Wayne was my hero. Davy Crockett epitomized America’s search for its destiny and the straight talking individualist seeking his place — or creating it wherever he chose.
But about the time I hit 15, the Russians beat us into space with that Sputnik thing, and that put us back on our heels for a while. We were no longer the only country with bombs that could melt the globe and poison the universe.
And I started looking around and noticed that not everyone who worked hard was getting ahead. Some had easier paths, and inherent privilege, and justice was not respected as every citizen’s birthright. The law worked better for some than for others.
The American dream was more accessible for some, and there were people willing to do anything to keep it that way. Sharing was a dirty political word in some places, and the color of your skin had a bearing on how much someone thought of you before you opened your mouth.
Still, I believed that an essential value was our belief that whatever happened, we were all in this together.
I don’t believe that anymore.
I wonder what history will say. Some won’t want to hear it.
Dean Minnich retired from a career in community journalism. He writes from Westminster.