This issue finds us at the dawn of a new millennium, an apt time to reflect upon a unique privilege.
We are the guardians of the memory, the sacrifice and the ideals of those who achieved victory in World War II. Our charge is to be responsible, vigilant and courageous in the defense of the freedom that so many fighting men and women won for us more than half a century ago.
Each of us is a historian. The historian has a noble, almost sacred responsibility to preserve the past and bring it to life in the mind’s eye. With the passage of time, World War II becomes more and more distant. It holds less of the flavor of current events and more of history. Unless the historian succeeds in bringing the stories of the war to life, in conveying the essence of the struggle and the fact that real people were involved, future generations are much less likely to feel connected to those events. A granite memorial in the town square, an impressive piece of statuary, one of many headstones inscribed with a name…these will only go so far.
As we step forward into the 21st century, we must be aware of our responsibility. We must remind our children of the meaning of patriotism, duty, honor and respect. We are responsible for telling them what happened and why it happened–all the while with the fervent hope that it will never happen again. In the classroom, the workplace, the Oval Office and the living room we are accountable for what takes place in the years to come.
In order to defend freedom in the new millennium, we must be vigilant–guarding against those who would forcibly impose another system of government upon us that restricts our freedom. The world has experienced tremendous change since 1945. Five decades of the Cold War have come and gone. The Soviet Union is no more. The Berlin Wall came tumbling down. Still, there are those who would take away the freedom that was won and maintained by our forebears.
In firm and peaceful strength, not in boasting, saber-rattling or the pursuit of glory or wealth, we must remain vigilant. Attentive, alert, wary and wakeful, we are charged with remembering the price of freedom–as well as the price of a false sense of security, the lure of complacency and the tragedy of unnecessary suffering. We must strive to avoid having to utter sentences beginning with the words “If only.”
Vigilance is sustained by preparedness. Vigilance is nurtured by remembrance. Vigilance is perpetuated by awareness. To paraphrase the words of President John F. Kennedy, we should be committed to the defense of any friend and to the opposition of any foe. One of the great lessons of World War II is that maintaining vigilance is essential to the preservation of the things we hold dear.
In the months preceding the Gulf War, President George Bush vowed that there would be no appeasement of Iraq, no treaty rewarding aggression in exchange for a transparent peace. Clearly, he was referring to the sad chain of events that culminated in the Munich Pact of 1938, the sellout of Czechoslovakia and the hastening of global conflict. Lesson learned.
When new challenges come, and most certainly they will, we must be courageous in the defense of freedom. Perhaps at no other time in history has the line between the forces of good and evil been so clearly drawn as it was in World War II. Quite possibly, we will see that day again.
Courage is more than bravery under fire. It is the wisdom and the willingness to do the right thing. Fortunately, we have examples of true courage surrounding us every day.
In the new millennium we must not go looking for trouble, but neither can we afford to shrink from a threat. In doing either, we would dishonor the memory of those who sacrificed their lives. The courage to employ strength justly and equitably, whether through diplomatic or military means, ensures that we will remain the captains of our fate.
World War II was, without question, a catastrophic event. Whether one thinks in terms of lives lost, money expended or ideologies advanced and extinguished, the cost was enormous. Our acceptance of responsibility, our vow of vigilance and our commitment to courage hold the key to our future, and indeed to our very survival.
Before we step through the millennial doorway, we, as historians, are required to take a long look back. Look back to an embattled Britain, a Soviet Union bled white and an unprepared United States. Look back to Pearl Harbor, Stalingrad, El Alamein, Midway and Normandy. Look back to Auschwitz, Dachau and Nanking. Look back into the eyes of evil, and then feel lifted by the ultimate triumph of a greater good.
Then, and only then, can we turn and stride confidently into tomorrow.
Michael E. Haskew, Editor,World War II