We set aside a day each year to commemorate our nation’s birth and take unabashed pride in our heritage. The American idea is a bold one, perhaps bolder than our white male Founding Fathers realized when they set quill to paper over two hundred years ago; through arms, placards, and ballots each generation has worked out the full implications of the U.S. Constitution. We fought a horrific civil war a century and a half ago to end the evil institution of slavery. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the civil rights and feminist movements paved the way for equal rights and greater opportunities for ethnic minorities and women. Most recently, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of allowing same-sex married couples access to federal benefits and essentially supported gay marriage in California, the largest state in the Union. The America of 2013 is different from the America of 1865 or 1920, but the same principle of liberty and equality has been at work. As a young Theodor Roosevelt stated in a Fourth of July speech he delivered in North Dakota: “American citizens whether born here or elsewhere, whether of one creed or another, stand on the same footing; we welcome every honest immigrant, no matter from what country he comes, provided only that he leaves behind him his former nationality and...becomes an American, desirous of fulfilling in good faith the duties of American citizenship.” Both the strength and challenge of America, I submit, has been the diversity of her citizenry: E pluribus unum. We’re a nation of immigrants committed to an idea. The American system, our representative democracy, can get rather messy and disputatious when it comes to implementing this idea in concrete terms, but thankfully we have an open forum to air differences, a freedom of expression embedded in our political culture, enshrined in our founding document, and protected by an all-volunteer military force.
My daughter Jessi started Plebe Summer at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis one week ago. I think of her most when I think of Independence Day, and I can’t wait to spend time with her at the end of this grueling process during Parents Weekend in August. She’s strong, smart, conscientious, and adventurous—everything you’d want in a future naval officer. Serving in the U.S. military is no small commitment these days, as threats loom in various corners of the world. North Korea is talking tough and threatening our allies in the region. There’s the prospect of a future naval conflict in the Persian Gulf unless cooler heads prevail within the Islamic Republic of Iran. (I was serving a tour in Afghanistan when the Iranians seized 15 members of the Royal Navy and held them for nearly two weeks in early spring of 2007). Relations with the People’s Republic of China seem civil enough, but the Hainan Island incident of 2001 should remind us that minor confrontations always have the potential to escalate. Pirates off the coast of Somalia and worldwide terrorist networks likewise could draw us into a regional conflict. Jessi and her peers at the Naval Academy carry the star-spangled torch of freedom. Is that overstating the case? Well, remember that for all the ill-will we elicit in certain regions because of our military presence or economic interests, our political freedoms and peaceful transition of power from one political party to another are still the envy of much of the world.
So let us put aside partisan rancor on this day of celebration. Let us gaze upon the firework display this night with wide-eyed wonder. Let us appreciate the self-evident truths that Thomas Jefferson penned so eloquently. And let us give way to patriotic fervor as we behold Old Glory. I was watching a documentary about the Holocaust the other day. In an interview, Simon Wiesenthal, the famed Jewish-Austrian “Nazi hunter” and a Holocaust survivor who died a few years ago, described in his thick accent how he felt when the Yanks entered the Mauthausen concentration camp: “In the day of liberation I could not walk, but I wish to see the sun, I wish to see the American tank. On all four I came out of the block and looked on the American flag. I feel that every star…this is a star of justice, and this is a star of friendship, and this is a star of culture. And the stripes…this is a road to freedom.” With proper maintenance, occasional readjustment, and constant vigilance, the United States of America will remain the Land of Liberty.