This past week Britain voted to leave the EU. A key theme of the 'Leave' campaign was to wrest control of the nation back and reclaim "lost English pride". In America, Donald Trump has been campaigning since last summer to "Make America Great Again". But what constitutes a nation's greatness or glory? And what is this lost greatness that Trump is seeking to find in America. Perhaps a historical tour through some seminal moments of American history might shed some light on "American greatness".
1. THE PILGRIMS
In 1620, a bunch of about 100 separatist Protestants, disillusioned by the corruption that they saw in the Church of England, set sail on a ship called Mayflower to establish a new religious order across the Atlantic in the New World. Battling terrible sea sickness and a harsh first winter, the separatists, now called Pilgrims, would brave the conditions, establish a colony off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts and eventually befriend the local Indian tribes to ensure their sustenance. It would be the first of many occasions when a persecuted minority would set foot upon America to find freedom and opportunity.
The Pilgrims were America's first true immigrants. Their faith made America great.
2. THE FOUNDERS
In 1776, a group of American aristocrats, after prolonged and agonized debates, took a leap of faith in the dark and challenged the rule of the British king. Disillusioned at being denied any representation in the decisions regarding their affairs, these colonists would declare "independence". They would risk their fortunes, families and even their lives in this struggle against the British Crown. This was no group of armchair agitators. They put their money where their mouth was -- George Washington would lead the Revolutionary Army for over seven years fighting the British all across the American northeast. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams would set sail for Europe to broker diplomatic alliances. Jefferson's opening words in the American Declaration of Independence, that "All men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights," would provide a beacon of hope to marginalized communities for centuries to come and would be the antidote that would eventually resolve America's own internal contradictions, including that of slavery. The founders of America did not close their eyes to the world when faced with British oppression. They evaluated the best systems of governance and chose one in which the voting public became the ultimate rulers.
The idealism of the Founders made America great.
3. THE LIBERATORS
Eighty-seven years after the seminal moment in 1776, close to 200,000 men would face off in a small hamlet in rural Pennsylvania called Gettysburg in a battle that would define the course of the American project. As the Union Army eventually defeated the Confederates over a period of three days, the tide of the Civil War changed and so did the fortunes of the institution of slavery, America's original sin. 40,000 casualties were sustained in the bloodiest battle on American soil before the Confederates withdrew from Gettysburg. A few months later, in a short crisp speech, Abraham Lincoln would put the battle and the larger Civil War in context for the American public. He would remind the nation that at the core of the Civil War was the fate of the "Government of the people" and that the nation must see the war and the end of slavery to fruition to honour those who fell at Gettysburg. The men who fought to overturn slavery were mostly White.
They answered a call to protect their Union and did not let their racial biases prevent them from fighting for the cause. Their courage made America great.
4. THE BELIEVERS
In 1944, another army of Americans would find themselves fighting for an ideal. This time they would cross the Atlantic in an attempt to free Europe from Adolf Hitler's fascist occupation. At a time when opposition to the ideologies of hate was weakening, American intervention would tilt the scales. The young Americans who sailed for battle would be called "the greatest generation". For many, their first step on the beaches of France would be the last ones of their lives -- 2500 Americans would die on the first day of French invasion. By the time the beachheads on the coast of Normandy were firmly established the Americans would suffer more than a 100,000 casualties. For the men who sailed for France, the choice was simple. A call for American leadership had to be answered. They refused to let the greatest challenge in history go unanswered and treat it as someone else's distant problem.
Their faith in the moral correctness of American freedom over Nazi hate would drive them to battle and the ultimate sacrifice of their lives. The belief of this citizen army made America great.
5. THE SCIENTISTS
In 1962, President John F. Kennedy would set a new challenge before his nation. Concerned that the US was losing the space race to the Soviet Union, Kennedy did not withdraw into crazy conspiracy theories or assail the opposition but instead raised the bar for the country to strive towards. In words that can describe not just the moon mission but many preceding and succeeding American struggles, Kennedy asked his nation to strive for goals that were difficult and that required them to "organize and measure the best of their energies". The country delivered on the promise and NASA landed a man on the moon before the decade of 1960s was out.
The drive of the space program made America great.
6. THE CHANGE-MAKERS
In 1965, a group of African-American protestors would brave police beatings, tear gas, insults and taunts from White supremacists as they sought to march across a bridge in Selma and demand voting rights for their community. In a non-violent struggle led by their icon, Martin Luther King Jr., these African-Americans, in true Gandhian spirit, would suffer physical harm but not let their convictions waver. Their resolution would eventually cause the normally cynical Washington D.C. to discover a moral core. The passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 would be another step towards Martin Luther King's "dream" of an America where a man would be judged by his character and not the colour of his skin.
The conviction of this group of African-Americans who fought and suffered for larger cause made America great.
7. THE PACIFISTS
In 1970, American was a nation at war -- both in Vietnam where its young soldiers were fighting a determined Viet Cong, and at home where students across its campuses had declared the war immoral and decided to protest against it. As tensions mounted and President Nixon ordered the Cambodia offensive, the boiling point was reached one spring afternoon in the town of Kent, Ohio. At the Kent State University, the Ohio National Guard, called to confront protestors at the campus, fired into unarmed protesting students. Four students were killed and the war in Vietnam truly came home for America. The image of a young 14-year-old girl wailing over the body of dead student would become an iconic symbol of the futility of the American journey in Vietnam. In the months to come, protests would increase and a weary Nixon administration would seek a way out through "peace with honour". America would lose its military invincibility, countless young men and its clarity of purpose in Vietnam. In some of the darkest years of its history, it would be the anti-war protestors, then seen as hippies and ultra-left wing Communists, who would keep tugging at America's conscience. Their case would eventually prevail, at a huge cost.
The protest of those who stood in front of the bullets at Kent State during that spring of 1970 made America great.
8. THE MERITOCRATS
In the first decade of the 20th century, as the world awoke to the power of technology and the internet, American entrepreneurs had already taken the lead. At the root of this success were not only universities that offer world-class education and cutting-edge research facilities but also a society and culture that valued achievement over social legacy. Many of America's leading new age brands such as Google, e-Bay, Yahoo, Tesla, Facebook and LinkedIn would have at least one co-founder born outside the country. From the huddled masses of Lady Liberty in the 19th century to the brightest academic talent of the 21st, America continues to be the beacon light on the hill. Its dynamism is enhanced by a culture that consistently and sometimes heartlessly rewards merit. The success of Silicon Valley and many other entities across the American corporate landscape is because the country opened its doors to new minds and never felt threatened by them.
The openness and acceptance of American society makes the country great.
9. THE PHOENIXES
Minority leaders have gone on to become heads of state in many countries across the world. In America, this holds extra significance. Especially when members of that minority were treated as slaves until a century and a half ago, and were denied voting rights and equal access to public amenities until the 1960s. Barack Obama, in 2008, is the embodiment of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech. An African-American goes on to occupy the White House, itself constructed in part by African-American slaves. Obama's election did not erase slavery from America's history books but gave its attendant legacies such as Jim Crow laws and inherent racial discrimination a strong counter-push. It demonstrated American capacity for renewal and more importantly reconciliation with a shameful past.
Its ability to look itself in the face and acknowledge its warts makes America great.
American greatness is an ongoing project and disserved by demagoguery, erection of walls or the organization of its people into brackets denominated by race, gender or religion.
As American voters prepare to elect a new president this November, it would be useful to consider these historical moments. American greatness was not defined by nativism, fear or an impulsive response to close the walls around the country. American was made great by a remarkable willingness of its leaders and people to tackle problems no one else was willing to confront. It was made great by a culture that welcomed diversity. It was made great by debate, by acceptance of its own shortcomings and by the struggles of those who sought to improve the stage for the generation ahead. American greatness is an ongoing project and one that is disserved by demagoguery, erection of walls or the organization of its people into brackets denominated by race, gender or religion.
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