Over the past few years, I have made a point of visiting Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day, to pay respects to my paternal grandfather, who has been buried there since he died in 2005 at the age of 103. It is always a somber and thought-provoking experience to stand at this old soldier’s gravesite and to wander among the many others — especially those in Section 60, where the fallen from our most recent wars lie, attended by their friends, parents and, sadly, children.
This time, I shed some tears. And I would like to say why.
It has been 100 years since Americans first went to war in Europe against Germany. My Jewish immigrant grandfather joined the Army in 1917, and he was also in uniform to serve in the rematch 25 years later. That repetitive slaughter and enmity gave way to something better and historically unprecedented after 1945 — a German-American alliance — which in turn reached a genuine flowering in the friendship between a democratic, united Germany and the post-Cold War United States.
My family today is literally a product of this history. I married a woman from East Berlin who probably could not even have met me but for the steadfast postwar American commitment to protect Europe against the Soviets. We have three children — the great-grandchildren of the Jewish guy who twice went to war against Germany; think about that. They’re citizens of the United States, Germany and the European Union.
This is not such an unusual story! The deep ties, well beyond the level of commerce, security and diplomacy, between Germany and the U.S. constitute the realization of President John F. Kennedy’s claim that “all free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin.” In my family, certainly, Kennedy’s metaphor has tangible relevance.
So on this Memorial Day, on the 100th anniversary of Kennedy’s birth (also in that fateful year of 1917), I took my youngest German-American-Jewish daughter to show her her great-grandfather’s grave, and JFK’s, at Arlington — and felt a surge of sorrow as I thought about the words that have been exchanged in recent days between President Trump and Chancellor Angela Merkel.
It dawned on me that the foundation underneath the transatlantic relationship, a basic premise of my children’s future, might somehow be slipping because of what’s happening at the highest levels of government, especially my own government.
What myopia. What historical ignorance. What a waste of the effort and sacrifice and goodwill of generations.
Not for a minute do I discount Germany’s, and Europe’s, role in this looming schism. Rolling up trade surpluses while skimping on defense — and directing barely disguised cultural contempt at the United States — is hardly optimal behavior from allies.
But the primitive grievance infusing Trump’s expressions toward Europe is unworthy of a barroom political argument, let alone interactions with long-standing if imperfect partners. To drain the Western alliance of any but transactional meaning is a real insult to the men and women who forged it over decades, and should be deeply troubling to everyone who benefits from it — whose loves and lives would not be possible without it — today.
In words carved in stone at Arlington, Kennedy said we would “pay any price, bear any burden” to “assure the survival and success of liberty.” Trump says NATO’s current spending patterns are “not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States.” He proudly invokes the slogan “America First,” coined by those who in the 1930s would have left Europe to Hitler and Stalin.
There is still time to set everything back on a new and more sustainable course. I left Arlington hoping that maybe this is some perversely inevitable crucible through which our countries must pass, and from which we’ll emerge — necessarily under different leadership — with a stronger, more realistic sense of shared values and interests.
Otherwise, my children will take their children to Arlington and teach them not about the worth of their ancestors’ sacrifices, or the farsightedness of JFK’s policy, but the ultimate futility of both.