Sweet Land of Giving
Uniquely among the capitals of the world, Washington's monumental core pays homage to the word. The glory of the Jefferson Memorial is not the Founder's statue but, carved in stone around him, his words on religious freedom, inalienable rights and sacred honor. At the Lincoln Memorial, one cannot but be moved by the eyes and grave bearing of the martyred president, but even more moving are the surrounding words: the sublime cadences of the Second Inaugural and Gettysburg addresses, both in their entirety. (Lincoln's gift for concision helps. Fidel Castro, of the eight-hour speeches, could not be so memorialized.)
Other capitals celebrate the gloria and fortuna of victory. No Arch of Triumph here. True, in the past few decades the Mall has added Vietnam and Korean war memorials. But these are hardly glorifications of battle. They are melancholy meditations upon wars of sorrow. The very newest addition, the National World War II Memorial, is jarring and deeply out of place precisely because its massive and pointless wreath-bearing Teutonic columns represent European triumphalism disfiguring the heart of a Mall heretofore dedicated to the power and glory of ideas.
But Washington has a second distinction, more subtle and even more telling about the nature of America: its many public statues to foreign liberators. I'm not talking about the statues of Churchill and Lafayette, great allies and participants in America's own epic struggles against tyranny. Everybody celebrates friends. I'm talking about the liberators who had nothing to do with us. Walk a couple of blocks from Dupont Circle at the heart of commercial Washington, and you come upon a tiny plaza graced by Gandhi, with walking stick. And perhaps 100 yards from him, within shouting distance, stands Tomas Masaryk, the great Czech patriot and statesman.
Masaryk, in formal dress and aristocratic demeanor, has nothing in common with the robed, slightly bent Gandhi with whom he shares the street, except that they were both great liberators and except that they are honored by Americans precisely for their devotion to freedom.
Farther up the avenue stands Robert Emmet, the Irish revolutionary, while one block to the west of Masaryk looms a massive monument to a Ukrainian poet and patriot, Taras Shevchenko. And then gracing the avenues near the Mall are the Americans: great statues to Central and South American liberators, not just Juarez and Bolivar but even the more obscure, such as General Jose Artigas, father of modern Uruguay.
Discount if you will (as fashionable anti-Americanism does) the Statue of Liberty as ostentatious self-advertising or perhaps a relic of an earlier, more pure America. But as you walk the streets of Washington, it is harder to discount America's quiet homage to foreign liberators -- statues built decades apart without self-consciousness and without any larger architectural (let alone political) plan. They have but one thing in common: They share America's devotion to liberty. Liberty not just here but everywhere. Indeed, liberty for its own sake.
America has long proclaimed this principle, but in the post-Sept. 11 era, it has pursued it with unusual zeal and determination. Much of the world hears America declare the spread of freedom the centerpiece of its foreign policy and insists nonetheless that America's costly sacrifices in Iraq and even Afghanistan are nothing more than classic imperialism in search of dominion, oil, pipelines or whatever such commodity most devalues America's exertions. The overwhelming majority of Americans refuse to believe that. Whatever their misgivings about the cost and wisdom of these wars, they know how deep and authentic is the American devotion to liberty.
Many around the world find such sentiments and the accompanying declarations hard to credit. Europeans, in particular, with their long tradition of realpolitik, cannot conceive of a Great Power actually believing such hopeless idealism.
The skepticism is misplaced. It is not just that brave Americans soldiers die to permit Iraqis and Afghans to vote for the first time in their lives. There is evidence closer to home and of older pedigree. The skeptics might take a stroll through America's other great capital. Up New York's Sixth Avenue with its series of seven sculptures to Latin American leaders, culminating at Central Park with magnificent statues of Bolivar, Marti and San Martin. To Washington Square Park, where they will find the Italian revolutionary Garibaldi, while his more republican counterpart, Mazzini, resides along West Drive not very far from Lajos Kossuth, now of Riverside Drive, hero of the Hungarian revolution of 1848.
This is not for show. It is from the heart, the heart of a people conceived in liberty and still believing in liberty. How can they not? It is written in stone all around them.