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."
The New Republic's Peter Beinart argues that Bush, unlike Truman, has shown no respect for international institutions. But the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan were unilateral American initiatives, and Truman used the United Nations to respond in Korea only because the Soviets were then boycotting the Security Council. Otherwise, he would have gone to war, as Bill Clinton did in Kosovo, without U.N. approval. Bush did try to use the United Nations on Iraq, but was blocked by France and Russia, both stuffed with profits from the corrupt U.N. Oil for Food program.
But as Bush pointed out, we have worked with 90-plus nations and NATO in Afghanistan and with 70-plus nations on the Proliferation Security Initiative. We're working with allies to halt Iran's nuclear program.
"We can't have lasting peace unless we work actively and vigorously to bring about conditions of freedom and justice in the world," Harry Truman told the West Point class of 1952. Which is what we're trying to do today -- in Iraq and the broader Middle East, in Afghanistan, even Africa.
Reports of Bush's West Point speech noted that Truman had low job ratings -- lower than Bush's, in fact. But does that matter now? Bush, as Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis has written, has changed American foreign policy more than any president since Truman, and like Truman he has acted on the long view.
"The war began on my watch," Bush told the class of 2006, "but it's going to end on your watch." Truman might have made the same point, accurately as it turned out, to the class of 1952. We're lucky we had then, and have now, a president who takes bold action and braves vitriolic criticism to defend our civilization against those who would destroy it.