Why aren't we thankful?

James Reston

November 29, 1991|By James Reston

Washington -- WITH THE Cold War over and with fears of another Pearl Harbor at rest, it's hard to remember a Thanksgiving weekend when there were more reasons for the U.S. to give thanks than in this second year of the last decade of the century. But somehow there is little rejoicing. We seem to be at peace with everybody but ourselves.

How could this be? For 50 years since the invention of atomic weapons, we have lived in fear of a third world war. In the first two world wars, 70 million people were killed.

In the Cold War against communism, when the two political parties finally agreed on a non-partisan foreign policy, the U.S. avoided a third world war with comparatively few casualties. Surely this was a cause for rejoicing, but that's not the way it is.

Instead, we are engaged here in a series of mean and nasty arguments over abortion, racial politics, the cost of credit cards, who's to be blamed for the economic recession and unemployment, and what's the matter with George Bush and Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York.

You might have thought that at least for this one holiday week the president would have brought a sense of historical perspective to the national debate. But in this year, when the "evil empire" collapsed, he proposed a five-year military budget that, in constant dollars, would be 25 percent higher than 20 years ago, at the height of the Cold War.

No opposition party can really compete with the president in changing the thought of the nation during such a revolution in world affairs. As Woodrow Wilson said, the president's "is the only national voice in affairs. Let him once win the admiration and confidence of the country and no other single force can withstand him. His is the vital place of action in the system."

President Bush seemed to sense the truth of this for a time, and talked of "a new world order," which he started with a war that took the lives of more than 150,000 Iraqis and Kurds, which he barely mentioned.

There was a kind of jingoistic rejoicing after the painful liberation of Kuwait, but since then the object of his policies seems to have been his own re-election, and the Democrats have responded with their own brand of bush league politics.

Accordingly, it's easy to understand why the American people are not rejoicing this Thanksgiving Day, for they are also suffering from the consequences of these wars, hot and cold.

While paying for the threats to their security from abroad -- necessary as those payments were -- their children have been shortchanged in the schools; the problems of crime, drug abuse, health insurance and compassion for the homeless have been under-financed, if not neglected; and the nation's industries, once the envy of the world, have been losing their lead to our former enemies, Germany and Japan, whose budgets concentrate, not on military defense, but on research and development for products that are competing with ours and often beating us in world trade.

In short, we have changed the world, but haven't changed our minds, and this is not surprising.

For if the people are told for more than 12 years by their leaders that they should think about themselves and their own special interests, that they can spend their way to prosperity and happiness with borrowed money and that government is not the answer but the cause of all their problems, you shouldn't be surprised if they are disappointed in the pursuit of greediness, and ask, after their sacrifices in the Cold War and Operation Desert Storm, "Where's the rainbow?"

James Reston is former chief Washington correspondent and executive editor of The New York Times.

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