On the Fourth of July it is usual for people to wax eloquently about freedom. We symbolically break out powdered wigs, quill pens, and flintlock muskets to celebrate another observance of that radical revolutionary defiance of the most powerful nation in the world at the time, Great Britain.
Perhaps for us living in America of the first decade of the 21st century, we should take time to reflect on just how miraculous it is that the revolution symbolized by that document signed in a steamy Philadelphia in early July 1776 has lasted these 221 years. Twenty-two decades later we still enjoy “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We should take a moment to realize how rare such an outcome is for revolutions, how rare it is that widespread personal and political freedom continues.
Less than ten years after our victory at Yorktown, revolutionaries seeking freedom for the common man in France overthrew their king. They executed King Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette, on the guillotine. The revolution was high jacked by radical extremists bent on revenge and retribution. In the name of revolution they carried out wholesale slaughter of anyone perceived as an enemy of the people. This in turn led to rise to power of a military strongman, Napoleon Bonaparte, who in turn made himself absolute emperor of France. Liberty, equality, and fraternity were lost for many decades.
In my lifetime I have seen our nation try to export liberty. That was one of our goals in Viet Nam. We were going to build a bastion against Communism in Southeast Asia by having a strong democracy centered in Saigon. After spending billions of dollars and sacrificing the lives of 51,000 of America’s best and brightest, the dreams of democracy were crushed by the victory of Ho Chi Minh and his Communist allies.
Our latest effort to export radical democracy is facing a similar fate. In 2003 we had grand visions of removing the brutal dictator in Iraq and establish a strong democracy centered in Baghdad which would become a launching point for democracy to spread throughout the Middle East. This, we were sure, would be a bastion against radical Islamic extremists.
In a terrible flashback to Viet Nam, the same tragic chain of events is again unfolding. We have not found a cadre of brilliant visionary patriotic Iraqis to lead their people. We have instead gotten caught in the middle of a scenario more like the French Revolution, where leaders are using their newfound power to settle old grudges and fill their own pockets. We have invested many more billions of dollars and a growing number of the lives of America’s best and brightest with little to show for it. Ultimately we will be forced, like we were in Viet Nam, to accept failure and leave Iraq no closer to genuine democracy than they were under Sadam Hussein.
The French Revolution, Viet Nam, Iraq, and a countless other failed efforts to establish real democracy should serve to remind us that we are the continuing beneficiaries of an 18th century miracle—the successful establishment of democracy. I believe our liberty is precisely a miracle, an undeserved gift from Almighty God. As such the most appropriate way to celebrate the 4th of July is not with fireworks but with fervent prayer of thanks to Him who continues to give us “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.