I haven’t written a cranky-old-man column in years. At 76, I feel entitled to the role when I use it sparingly.
I lived through World War II. Here are my two strongest memories: Watching tears cover the faces of my “rock-rib Republican” parents as we listened to the broadcast of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s funeral. And shouts of “we did it together” the day Japan surrendered.
My extended family lost sons and friends. Some returned with shattered bodies and what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. I recall the tears of Gold Star parents and war widows.
Civilians were still living with severe wartime rationing. Even ice cream was hard to get. (But since I was supposed to be allergic to milk, I only got sherbet anyway.)
I began to understand that our country’s flag stands for sacrifice together.
I witnessed that sense of unity shattered during the Joseph McCarthy era witch hunt. What was really scary is that, at first, Sen. McCarthy made sense to lots of people. My father shrugged him off, saying “People from that part of Wisconsin were always a little crazy.” I bought into one of the anti-Communist fears’ spinoffs, the radio and television series “I Led Three Lives.”
One program featured a Moscow-directed bit of 1950s high tech: a mini-rocket launcher in the form of a canister vacuum cleaner. I hadn’t noticed canister cleaners since my family had Hoover uprights. One of my friends moved to Burbank next to what is now Burbank Bob Hope Airport. Their housekeeper used a vacuum just like the one on “I Led Three Lives.”
I seriously relayed the perceived threat to our nation’s security to my grandfather, normally a very serious and patriotic person. He burst into laughter. But he gave me some advice that, on the whole, has served me well for nearly seven decades:
“Danny, don’t be a dupe!”
He told me stories of his encounters with “snake-oil salesmen” during his years as a senior corporate executive. Their common pitch was aimed at selling you something that you don’t need at “an incredibly low price.”
I asked, “Isn’t that what Mussolini and Hitler did with the Italian and German people?” My grandfather gave me one of his rare smiles. I understood what he was saying because we were looking at images of a nearly obliterated German city in Life magazine. The price of buying from “snake-oil salesmen” can be beyond human endurance.
Many nations throughout history have been tempted by a “man on a white horse” when democracy gets messy.
The Greek historian Thucydides tells us about the fate of Athens when it turned the reins of power over to Pericles. The Athenians never recovered from the consequences of the Peloponnesian War.
We have seen the price young Americans have paid for misguided strategies in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Imagine the consequences of one man, who says he “knows more than the generals,” acting solely on his one counsel in the nuclear age!
Do we really need what GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump — a rough, but effective, scare-mongering salesman — is offering us?
The country’s violent crime rate is about half of what it was in 1991. There is ample evidence that so-called illegal Americans among us commit fewer crimes than the rest of us.
The salesman says he will make us, again, a “city upon a hill.” The verse I learned from my grandmother’s King James Bible from Matthew 5:14-16 is “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.”
To me, that light should reflect our greatest strength. The unity I saw among the cheering sailors, Marines and soldiers, aircraft and shipyard workers in Long Beach on Aug. 15, 1945, is the essence of that strength.
In San Luis Obispo, that strength included the contributions of Americans from despised minorities like Leo Kikuchi, killed in the 442nd in Italy while his wife, Susy Eto Kikuchi Bauman, was in a Japanese-American relocation camp. And Arthur Choy Wong, manager of the National Dollar Store, champion World War II bond salesman.
Let’s not lose the ability to use the talents of all Americans!
Don’t be duped by someone trying to sell us simple solutions.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.