America is great because we are good, as de Tocqueville once reminded us. We must never forget that and never forget to be proud of who we are.
Sometimes wisdom lives deep in the universe, or far away in time, or prowls unnoticed some distant land. One day, quite unexpectedly, you stumble upon it – through a telescope, in a history book, or landing in a beat-up helicopter somewhere in northern Laos. Telescopes and books are good, but this account is about Laos.
The year was 2004. My job was Assistant Secretary of State. No one in that role had bothered with Laos for ages. Flights were iffy, uninsured, and once there, the only way about was a rickety helicopter. Still, Americans gave money. I wanted to know what it was spent on.
In Vientiane, we talked about accountability, stopping drug production, religious freedom for Christians. Our ambassador said he wanted to show me something. I said sure.
We piled into an old helo with broken windows, hot as Hades, aroma of aviation fuel, and chopped air north. Two hours later – teaching geography – we rotated down on a little hillock.
What in the world could he show me here? Happy for the tour, aware of this country’s war-torn history, I was curious. My mission was assuring accountability for our money. I wondered.
Laos is a sad, small pocket of humanity, history tied to communist insurgencies in Vietnam and Cambodia, civil war ending in 1975, not much progress since, jungle, rural, poor.
The country’s ethnic Hmong people were largely anti-communist, helped Americans, rescued downed pilots. When we left Vietnam – and Laos – Communists surged to power, like the Taliban in Afghanistan.
On the ground, Hmong sympathizers were hunted down, persecuted, made to pay. Many were killed, thousands fled, some had to stay. As with Uighurs today in China, if not killed or imprisoned, 30,000 got “reeducation” camps.
For years after, Lao and Hmong conflicts raged, ethnic hostility defining. While some Hmong rejoined society, many fled to the high mountains, impoverished, persecuted, addicted to heroin.
Now, our helo settled on a hillock in those mountains, thump-thump-thump-shoo. I climbed out – and looked around. Empty jungle sprang to life with children, peeking, then laughing and running toward us, encircling our helicopter.
“I want to show you something,” was all the US Ambassador said. We walked into a peaceful, economically prospering, well-ordered, oddly positive village. Old men smiled, offered cooked animals while potbelly piglets ran about, pets and sustenance.
In a jute hut, the village gathered, wove jungle flowers, put them around my neck, sang, and spoke through interpreters. What did they want me to know, this visitor from far away?
They were doing well and grateful. They had no idea what America looked like, where it was, or much about who we were, except that Americans – somehow cared about them. This they knew.
They had a drug treatment tent, ending addiction in a widening circle. They had learned to cultivate, husband, become self-sufficient. They were curiously connected to America, a place they would never see, yet still admired.
That was when I noticed something shocking, missed amid children’s laughter, old men’s offerings, flowers, my brain still un-clattering from time in the sky: This village was integrated, a happy configuration of Lao and Hmong families, somehow beyond all the bloody, ethnic hostility of the past, one community.
This, of course, is what the Ambassador wanted me to see. Yes, we needed to hold central Laos accountable for counter-narcotics money, demand an end to drug production, push the rule of law.
But this was something else, proof of the possible American dollars creating a self-sustaining, mini version of what we valued most, peace, equality, liberty, prosperity – unlikely, yet here.
Time passes, political events supersede one another, ocean waves lapping human shores, moving the sand, changing what was, never sure what is next, but something big washed over me.
We Americans are doing good all over the world, have for a long time, domestic politics notwithstanding. We are a powerful idea – a double-helix of liberty and equality, sustained by the expectation of self-rule, seeding honor, imagining order, forming prosperity from chaos.
We hear about the world on fire, terror, trauma, loss, missed opportunities – all true. They call us to lead, show the way, discern between good and evil, unceasingly demand accountability.
But that is not all that is afoot. Our idea, supported with unblinking faith – here and around the world – continues to change lives. America is beautiful, even if we do not stop often enough to understand ourselves, what we mean to each other, and to the world. Our idea is big and true.
Bidding that grateful village in nowhere Laos, “goodbye,” we cranked up engines, blades rolled until they throbbed, hummed, and we lifted. America is a force for good in the world, and we so often fail to understand how many we affect. We may stumble, but that “truth is marching on.”
Yes, wisdom lives in lots of places, the universe, history, but also here, now, somewhere in forgotten, faraway places. America is great because we are good, as de Tocqueville once reminded us. We must never forget that and never forget to be proud of who we are.
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