Two weeks ago, I pointed out that we live in something close to the best of times, with record worldwide economic growth and at a low point in armed conflict in the world. Yet Americans are in a sour mood, a mood that may be explained by the lack of a sense of history. The military struggle in Iraq (nearly 2,500 military deaths) is spoken of in as dire terms as Vietnam (58,219), Korea (54,246) or World War II (405,399). We bemoan the cruel injustice of $3 a gallon for gas in a country where three-quarters of people classified as poor have air conditioning and microwave ovens. We complain about a tide of immigration that is, per U.S. resident, running at one-third the rate of 99 years ago.
George W. Bush has a better sense of history. Speaking last week at the commencement at West Point -- above the Hudson River, where revolutionary Americans threw a chain across the water to block British ships -- Bush noted that he was speaking to the first class to enter the U.S. Military Academy after the Sept. 11 attacks. And he put the challenge these cadets willingly undertook in perspective by looking back at the challenges America faced at the start of the Cold War 60 years ago.
"In the early years of that struggle," Bush noted, "freedom's victory was not obvious or assured." In 1946, Harry Truman accompanied Winston Churchill as he delivered his Iron Curtain speech; in 1947, communists threatened Greece and Turkey; in 1948, Czechoslovakia fell, France and Italy seemed headed the same way, and Berlin was blockaded by the Soviets, who exploded a nuclear weapon the next year; in 1950, North Korea attacked South Korea.
"All of this took place in just the first five years following World War II," Bush noted. "Fortunately, we had a president named Harry Truman, who recognized the threat, took bold action to confront it and laid the foundation for freedom's victory in the Cold War."
Bold action: the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan in 1947, the Berlin airlift in 1948, the NATO Treaty in 1949, the Korean War in 1950. None of these was uncontroversial, and none was perfectly executed. And this was only the beginning. It took 40 years -- many of them filled with angry controversy -- to win the Cold War.
The struggles against Soviet communism and Islamofascist terrorists are of course not identical. But there are similarities.
"Like the Cold War, we are fighting the followers of a murderous ideology that despises freedom, crushes all dissent, has territorial ambitions and pursues totalitarian aims," Bush said. "And like the Cold War, they're seeking weapons of mass murder that would allow them to deliver catastrophic destruction to our country."