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Vladimir Putin lecturing America on democracy is like Mortimer Snerd lecturing Einstein on relativity. Never mind. I’m glad he did. Talking about American exceptionalism is inexcusable bragging, unless an anti-American brings it up first.
Indeed, our reluctance to flaunt our exceptionalism is an interesting part of our exceptionalism. When President Putin, in his famous op-ed piece in the New York Times, noted it is dangerous when a people thinks of itself as exceptional, he was probably thinking of Adolf “We-Are-The-Master-Race!” Hitler, whose forces devastated Putin’s Russian homeland in World War II. Was he lumping us with the Nazis? How dare he?
Let’s dismiss Putin for this political felony but leave his theme of American exceptionalism standing. Millions of people have wanted to get into America and out of Russia. Those millions know something about democracy, too. Advancing American troops liberated. Advancing Russian troops enslaved. Hungarians demonstrating in front of Russian embassies as Russian brute force put down their freedom-fight chant “Davai chasi!” That means, “Hand over your wristwatch” in Russian. Wherever American troops went in World War II, the local people learned “chocolate” and “chewing gum” and “Hello, Joe, Whaddaya know?” Where Russian troops went the locals learned “Davai chasi.”
Thanks, Mr. Putin. I wouldn’t dare shove our exceptionalism in your face. But now that you’ve shoved your face into our exceptionalism, let’s explore.
Can you name another country that has amassed more power and abused it less than America? Even with Iraq and Afghanistan the answer is “No, you can’t.” Coincidentally, both America and Russia invaded Afghanistan within the past 34 years. We invaded because Afghanistan was sheltering and abetting those who attacked America on 9/11. Russia’s invasion was “same-old, same-old.” That’s how Russia got so big, obeying the three-word doctrine, “Invade Thy Neighbor”!
Can you name another country that ever amassed more wealth and distributed it more fairly than America? Again, can’t be done. Oh, you can get votes on a “Share-the-Wealth” platform in America. You can even win elections. But you cannot name a country where wealth is as vast and as fairly distributed as the United States of America.
Moving on, can you imagine a country that was attacked, fought a war, won that war and wound up with less land than before the war started? Pretty exceptional, huh? It took an America to do that. After World War II, we gave the Philippines their independence. The Philippines had been an American possession since the Spanish-American War in 1898. Much American blood and treasure went into throwing the Japanese conquerors out of the Philippines. There was no attempt to “hang on” like there was in the case of the post-war British empire, the French empire and the Dutch empire. Yes, it’s true the Filipinos were often referred to as “our little brown brothers” by pre-sensitive Americans. It’s also true we set them free and wished them luck in 1946.
Most exceptional of all may be the atomic bomb. America had the atomic bomb exclusively for four years (from 1945 to 1949. when the Soviets developed theirs with the aid of American spies). And what did we do with it? We ended the worst war in history, saving millions of lives. Then we picked up our wartime allies and our enemies and helped them rebuild their nations and become democracies. Indeed, our wartime enemies Germany and Japan are the strongest and most prosperous democracies in Europe and Asia respectively.
Can you name another country that would behave as well if it had the nuclear bomb exclusively for four years? In my opinion, not Russia, not Iran. Maybe Denmark. Maybe Norway. Maybe not.
One unknown World War II story carries the sweet sting of American exceptionalism. In the closing days, OSS operative Fred Howard, behind German lines, was hiding out from a Gestapo agent. He was trying to hide in a very bad place, underneath a bed. It kept the German busy looking just long enough for American troops to break into the house and save the day. Standing there with American rifles poking him in the ribs the Gestapo guy pleaded, “Please don’t harm my family.” “Don’t harm your family?” repeated Howard incredulously. “What do you think we are, Nazis?”
Here’s a mission for you. Try to find an American who even knows about the Philippines or America’s A-bomb exclusivity. I couldn’t. We Americans are either loathe to rant about our exceptionalism, or too dumb to be aware of it.
Once Notre Dame’s famous football coach Knut Rockne accompanied one of his players to court, where the player was a witness. When he took the stand the defendant’s attorney said, “You play center. Are you a good center?” “Yes,” said the player, “I’m a very good center.” “Are you the best center in college football?” “Yes, I am,” replied Rockne’s player.
Later on Rockne turned on his player and said, “How do you come off saying you’re the best center in college football?” “I know,” explained the player. “I hated to do it.
“But, don’t forget. I was under oath!”