Steven Spielberg’s 1998 Academy Award® winning epic, Saving Private Ryan, about the search for and safe return to his family of the sole-surviving Ryan brother, was based, in part, upon the true story of Fritz Niland of Tonawanda, New York, and War Department policy after the loss of the five Sullivan brothers, of Waterloo, Iowa, aboard the USS Juneau. Near the movie’s end, Private James Ryan, played by Matt Damon, kneels beside mortally wounded Captain John H. Miller, played by Tom Hanks, the man who, along with many others, gave everything to save Private Ryan. With his last breath, Captain Miller whispers, “James, earn this. Earn it!”
Decades later, James Ryan returns to Europe and the grave of his fallen Captain. After several moments, he speaks:
Every day I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge. And I’ve tried to live my life the best that I could. I hope that it was enough. I hope that, at least in your eyes, I’ve earned what all of you have done for me.
It is not known whether the man who wrote those words, screenwriter Robert Rodat, had in mind Walt Whitman’s poem, “O Captain! My Captain!,” but he may well have. After all, he was inspired to write Saving Private Ryan upon visiting Putney Corners, New Hampshire, and seeing a memorial to eight brothers killed in the Civil War. Whitman, mourning the death of President Abraham Lincoln, wrote: O Captain! my Captain! Our fearful trip is done; the ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won. . . . Exalt, O shores, and ring, O bells! But I, with mournful tread, Walk the deck my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead.”
Ironically, it was President Lincoln who addressed those who, like Whitman, had been left behind. In his November 1863 Gettysburg Address, after dedicating that “great battlefield” to “brave men living and dead,” he called upon “us the living” “to be dedicated to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. . . to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us. . . that this nation under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
In January 1983, President Ronald Reagan echoed Lincoln’s admonition by declaring: “Freedom is not something to be secured in any one moment of time. We must struggle to preserve it every day. [For] freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” Therefore, from these two great presidents, we learn that “the living” must “struggle” “every day” to “preserve” “freedom.” As Benjamin Franklin said in 1787 outside Philadelphia’s Independence Hall when asked “What type of government have you given us?” “A republic, if you can keep it.”
To ensure future generations could “keep it,” the Founders’ Constitution recognized, as James Madison wrote, “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Thus, they crafted a system of “checks and balances.” It was not enough, however, only to preserve freedom; although essential, more was required. The Founders knew what Katharine Lee Bates—a college professor who, on a Fourth of July 105 years later, was inspired to write America the Beautiful as she traveled to Colorado—that America is a work in progress: “May God thy gold refine/ Till all success be nobleness/ And every gain divine.” Thus, the onus upon all Americans is to pursue the goal the Founders set forth in the Constitution, “[to] secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity. . . .”
Every Fourth of July calls upon us to honor those who, like the men of Captain Miller’s platoon from Saving Private Ryan, sacrificed all for our freedom, but also to wonder aloud, as did Private Ryan, whether we have earned what they have given us.