“Hello, American sailor. Hello, freedom man.” These words came from one of the refugees crammed on a leaky little boat who came across the USS Midway. They were hoping to get to America from Indochina.
“A small moment with a big meaning, a moment the sailor, who wrote it in a letter, couldn’t get out of his mind. And, when I saw it, neither could I. Because that’s what it was to be an American in the 1980s. We stood, again, for freedom. I know we always have, but in the past few years the world again — and in a way, we ourselves — rediscovered it.”
President Reagan shared this amazing story in his farewell address to the nation delivered 32 years ago this week.
Prior to 1981, the United States was in a malaise and Iran held our hostages for 444 days. It was bad. Now, at the end of the Reagan presidency, we were proud to be Americans again. It was a great feeling.
In his address from the Oval Office that evening, Reagan also gave us a warning. It bears repeating as the words are more important today than they were at the end of the 1980s. He said:
“An informed patriotism is what we want. And are we doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world? Those of us who are over 35 or so years of age grew up in a different America. We were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American. And we absorbed, almost in the air, a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions. If you didn’t get these things from your family you got them from the neighborhood, from the father down the street who fought in Korea or the family who lost someone at Anzio. Or you could get a sense of patriotism from school. And if all else failed you could get a sense of patriotism from the popular culture. The movies celebrated democratic values and implicitly reinforced the idea that America was special. TV was like that, too, through the mid-sixties.”
Just as the president said, I learned about patriotism from my family and my neighbors. My Scout leader was a veteran of both World War I and II. He was active in our church and the American Legion. And he made sure us kids put flags on the graves of veterans every Memorial Day to honor the fallen. We learned to stand for the flag when it went by in a parade and as we sang “The National Anthem.” We learned to love America and what it stands for — freedom.
Reagan continued: “But now, we’re about to enter the nineties, and some things have changed. Younger parents aren’t sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children. And as for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style. Our spirit is back, but we haven’t reinstitutionalized it. We’ve got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It’s fragile; it needs protection.”
Freedom is special and rare. It is why so many people come to these United States of America from all over the world. They yearn for freedom.
As Reagan said, “So, we’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important — why the Pilgrims came here, who Jimmy Doolittle was, and what those 30 seconds over Tokyo meant. You know, 4 years ago on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, I read a letter from a young woman writing to her late father, who’d fought on Omaha Beach. Her name was Lisa Zanatta Henn, and she said, ‘we will always remember, we will never forget what the boys of Normandy did.’ Well, let’s help her keep her word. If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I’m warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit. Let’s start with some basics: more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual.”
Our country is at a tipping point. Too many of our fellow citizens have taken our freedoms for granted, or they didn’t learn about them at all. Liberals have taken over major parts of our campuses and culture. To counter the radicals, we need “more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual.” That’s why I’m honored to be the new leader at Young America’s Foundation as we prepare young people to be defenders of liberty. Will you join our efforts?
• Scott Walker was the 45th governor of Wisconsin. You can contact him at email@example.com or follow him @ScottWalker.