Publishers Note: This series was originally written in 2015 and is being reposted in 2020 for its pertinence to current issues.
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” – Neil Armstrong
We walked on the moon.
Think about that for just a moment. We, who of our own power can only expel ourselves a few feet into the air, traveled 250,000 miles into space. Having correctly calculated the gravitational pulls of the sun, the earth, and the moon, we created the Apollo spacecraft capable not only of exploding out of earth’s atmosphere but also of alighting on the moon. And then we—vicariously through Neil Armstrong—stepped down from the lunar module and actually walked upon the surface of the moon.
And by “we” I mean Americans. It wasn’t the Soviets, not the Chinese, not the Germans or the French or the English or the Japanese. Americans landed on the moon. That’s not to disparage those other nations; it’s to celebrate ours.
America is the story of accomplishment and achievement. Compared to other nations, America’s history is short. But it is not lacking. In fact, it surpasses them by far. Look at what America has accomplished: We invented the airplane, discovered electricity, developed MRI and laser technology, excavated the Panama Canal, and created the personal computer, e-mail, and the Internet. Sunglasses, potato chips, credit cards, chocolate chip cookies, Band-Aids, can openers, CDs, microwaves, air conditioning, and Tupperware were all invented in the United States. Edison created the phonograph and pioneered the electric light bulb, Eastman created photographic film, and Ford utilized the assembly line to create the Model T in America. The liquid-fuel rocket, disposable diapers, Kevlar vests, GPS, Scotch tape, cell phones, and machine guns are American inventions. We conceived the telephone, the cotton gin and mechanical reaper, pioneered the steamboat, constructed the first skyscraper, produced the atomic bomb, and developed the Polio vaccine. We founded marvelous national parks, generated the Hollywood film industry, carved Mount Rushmore, imagined Disney Land, and conceived football, basketball, and baseball. We erected the Golden Gate Bridge, Hoover Dam, the Empire State Building, and the stately structures and memorials in Washington, D.C. We laid the first transcontinental railroad and paved the interstate highway system. Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, and Elvis are products of America. The list of American bands is as exhaustive as is our sound and style preference. We penned To Kill a Mockingbird, The Grapes of Wrath, Twain’s tales along the Mississippi, Gone With the Wind, and Poe’s chilling classics. We painted icons such as Washington Crossing the Delaware, American Gothic, and Let Us Have Peace, and saw artists like Cole, O’Keefe, and Pollack. And this list just scratches the surface!
But not all of these inventers were Americans, were they? Alexander Graham Bell (telephone), Levi Strauss (blue jeans), Nikola Tesla (radio, fluorescent lighting, induction motor, Tesla coil), Einstein (where do I begin?), and John Roebling (suspension bridges) are just a few great inventors and innovators born in other countries. So how can America claim them? Because they all came to America so they could create, invent, flourish, prosper, and thrive. It is not an American birthright that leads to great accomplishment. Rather, it is the American opportunity resulting from American freedom that provides a workshop for American achievement.
America has the best hospitals, top schools and universities, more Global 500 companies, premier movie and television studies, elite sports leagues (soccer notwithstanding), and—this is just personal opinion—the best food anywhere. You want Chinese, Mexican, Italian, fine French cuisine, Indian, Thai, Mediterranean, Middle-Eastern—you can get it all in America—often at the local mall. We also have the hamburger, thank you very much.
Yeah, you can nitpick and find flaws in a lot of these inventions. I’m not saying they’re wholly altruistic. Yes, other nations have done pretty well in giving us gun powder, the steam engine, smallpox vaccine, and the flush toilet. People rave about the food in Italy and the cityscapes of Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, and art and architecture of Europe. America is not the only source of great inventions, technological breakthroughs, and scientific innovations. But her accomplishments outshine all the rest. That’s why inventors have long come to America. That’s why sports stars play in our leagues. That’s why those in need of healthcare seek treatment here. That’s why actors and actresses aspire to Hollywood. It’s not because we have in intrinsically better soil or our DNA is more special, but because we have freedom and opportunity that do not exist elsewhere.
Ask yourself, what great inventions came out of Soviet Russia? What improvements did the Nazis give us? How are the oppressive regimes in the Middle East and Africa enriching society? Is it because Russian people, German people, Arab people, African people are less talented, intuitive, creative than American people? Of course not. American people are Russian, German, Arab, African, English, French, and Asian.
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of America is America. According to journalist and author John Gunther, “Ours is the only country deliberately founded on a good idea.” Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States, took that a step further: “America is the only idealistic nation in the world.” This great nation was founded by men, who I dare say, understood the human condition and the ways of the world as well as any that have ever lived. They knew that America could not follow in the footsteps of so many nations before them. And thus they fashioned a constitutional republic—“if you can keep it” as Benjamin Franklin told a woman after exiting Independence Hall at the close of the Constitutional Convention. Or, as President George Washington wrote in a 1789 letter to English historian Catherine Macaulay-Graham, “The establishment of our new Government seemed to be the last great experiment for promoting human happiness by reasonable compact in civil society.”
And yet, here we are over 200 years later. America has been attacked by everyone from King George III to Osama bin Laden, nearly torn apart by a four-year Civil War, beleaguered by slavery and segregation, worn thin by World Wars, critiqued and criticized here and abroad, and has fixed flaws while discovering more. But this extraordinary experiment—this prodigious idea—has stood the test of time. The great American experiment has been an overwhelming success story. Perhaps none of the myriad American accomplishments—built on opportunity born of freedom—are so remarkable, outstanding, and influential as that. Our “alabaster cities gleam,” our infrastructure abounds, our technology innovates, our stars shine, our discoveries revolutionize—all as a reflection of the great idea that is America.
“The idea that anything is possible, that’s one of the reasons why I’m a fan of America. It’s like hey, look there’s the moon up there, let’s take a walk on it, bring back a piece of it. That’s the kind of America that I’m a fan of.” – Bono(1)
1. Bono, “Because We Can, We Must.” Commencement Address. University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. May 17, 2004. Address.
Nathan Birr is the author of more than a dozen full-length novels and several short stories. When not writing, he enjoys painting, watching football (or any sport), traveling, and spending time with his family. He lives in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, with his wife, Sierra.