The American Can-Do Attitude (2)

My blog post of yesterday brought a thoughtful response from Rose Kent, a writer of wonderful children’s books: “Some assets can also be liabilities. Our can-do spirit has served us well at times. Surely it brought us independence from the most powerful nation in the world in the 18th century. It saved the world from totalitarianism as well. We Americans need to do a better job of learning from our mistakes. Vietnam became a topic nobody wanted to speak of from early on after the war. But there was a great deal there to unpack.”

As usual, Rose brought balance to my thoughts. Despite my intent, my words came off stressing the negative. What I meant to say is that our can-do attitude is admirable but can mislead us. As colonies and later a young nation, we faced challenges that required us to be stalwart and positive. Our westward push to the coast of the Pacific Ocean succeeded because we held our heads high and carried on. And our performance in the two world wars bespoke our optimistic leadership. Our can-do attitude on the whole is a good thing.

But we as Americans need to learn not to look down on other cultures who have suffered defeats and disasters we have never known. We must learn the humility to see others, who are different from us, as our equals. We especially need to overcome out linguistic arrogance and learn other languages. In the process, we’ll learn deeply about how people in other cultures think.

And Rose is right that we need to look at the Vietnam war and understand why we lost. A good many books have come out in the last half-dozen years examining in detail where we went awry. We can’t afford to lose wars because we don’t understand the culture and strategy of the enemy and can’t figure out how to counter it.

My sense is that younger Americans, those under fifty and especially those in their twenties and thirties, have learned from the mistakes of their parents and grandparents. They will do better than we have done. I pray that they study the languages of those who oppose us. I propose that they start with Chinese, a language that taught me volumes about how to think in general and particularly about how the Chinese think.

2 thoughts on “The American Can-Do Attitude (2)”

  1. Thanks for the kind words, Tom. Yours is a thoughtful post. I think you’re right about those under age fifty being open to learning from prior generations’ mistakes. We have to do better at engaging these young people. Yes about the terrific books but Millenials grapple with life lessons in newer, more concise ways now, not just reading books (although I do wish more of all of us read). This goes to the media and barrage of Trump, Trump, Trump news 24/7. I understand it on one level, but still. Why are we not getting more news on the world, including other cultures we are ignorant about, as you state? Why not return to history, for example, have moderator shows that discuss the learnings of Vietnam and other ways of discussing this? Let’s do it while we have those who were there still with us. Ken Burns did a terrific job with his documentary series last year. Sadly, it had poorer ratings than his prior series. And still I think young people want to hear more about Vietnam and other historical topics besides the empty summary that it was a mistake. Write on.


    1. Rose, thank you. Sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner—I’ve been uncommonly busy. Yes, I wish we’d have more discussions of other cultures and talk about why we failed in Vietnam, but the news on Trump is so riveting I can’t take my eyes off it. I try to avoid politics in this blog, but some of Trump’s actions are so egregious I feel compelled to comment, especially when the news has to do with the intelligence community where my heart is. Trump has done untold damage to our intelligence apparatus. That endangers the whole country.


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