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Several years ago, I ventured into a Latin American nation to teach U.S. history at a provincial university. I asked my third-year students why they were in my class and got the reply, “Because we have to be here.”
When I asked how many of the class enjoyed studying history, not one single student raised his or her hand! I was not terribly surprised. This is most often the case even with students in the United States.
I began my U.S. history class using the analogy of memory and a red-hot stove.
Imagine if one day you encountered a red-hot stove for the first time and having no comprehension of such intense heat, placed your hand on it only to be severely burned and in great pain. The next day, absent of any memory of the event the day before, you once again placed your hand on that same red-hot stove and received the same painful results.
Carry this analogy out to 30 days of doing the same, day after day, one would most likely have little left of one’s hand and be wondering why it was so.
With the telling of this analogy, I did see a light go on in a few of my students’ eyes. Memory and history are very important. Now, try to convince our president of this universal fact. Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it, and with the strong potential of disastrous results. History is a society’s collective memory.
This past week the heads of all the U.S intelligence agencies met before a congressional committee to be questioned about the state of U.S. foreign policy and its reality to the safety of our nation. Our southwestern border was never mentioned as an imminent danger issue. Every report given was in direct conflict with President Trump’s foreign policy positions.
The president’s response was that these professionals needed to “go back to school”!
With the lessons learned that led our world into World War II, the United States emerged as a powerful leader of the free world. As the Soviet Union grew, emerging as a nuclear power in the post-WWII era, the U.S. led the way in forming NATO and leading in creating new alliances and determining how nations behave and cooperate in making the world a safer place for all nations and their peoples.
Our leaders were wise and took lessons from history so as not to repeat the same mistakes. The doctrine of isolationism and America first had proven disastrous and we were never going to go there again. Well, not until President Trump happened along.
Abdication and retreat best describe Trump’s U.S. foreign policy. Abdication is not isolationism. The United States is no longer leading the world in maintaining vital alliances or in continuing to build regional and global institutions that work at setting the rules as to how international relations are conducted.
He has retreated from the U.S. position of world leadership at the heart of the alliances of world order. I predict history will not judge him kindly for this.
Under Trump’s leadership, the United States’ support of free trade, the championing of democracy and leading in concern for climate change and human rights, have been rejected.
There is good news if we would once again seek truth and facts. We could halt this slide into this dangerous past. The cost of working for and promoting world order would cost far less than the current track of Trump’s foreign policy.
The bad news is that such truth does not seem to be welcomed by many Americans. It is a fact of the real world; no nation can insulate itself from the rest of the world or what is happening on the global stage. Trump’s America First and nationalism will not give America an ounce of security or prosperity in a globally interconnected world.
Listen to the lessons of history. We learned on Sept. 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, where Trump’s mentality of America First or every nation for itself will take us. When the free world can no longer count on the sound leadership and judgment of United States, we and the free world are no longer safe and our freedoms are at risk.
The sheriff has checked out. History is screaming at us. Will we listen? President Trump will not.
Edward “Ned” Walsh of Princeton is a retired Baptist denominational worker who served as executive director of Johnston County Habitat for Humanity from 2004-08.