It was 1965 when the delegates of the United Nations gathered in San Francisco to celebrate the founding of the U.N. in that city 20 years before. I was a curious teenager, so together with my pal Pete, we snuck into the Opera House as anniversary preparations were under way — to get a glimpse of history.
Later, I’ve visited Muir Woods to the north of San Francisco, where delegates to the newly formed U.N. gathered on May 19, 1945, within a grove of towering redwood trees. It’s an inspiring, almost holy, place called Cathedral Grove, with a plaque placed there, as it says, “to honor the memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt,” who is described as “Chief Architect of the United Nations, and Apostle of Lasting Peace for all Mankind.”
These thoughts come to mind because recent events suggest that people are starting to forget the terrible history of the 20th century. Dictators’ armies had rampaged across continents, tens of millions of people had been killed, nations had been flattened, and genocide had been put into practice.
Everything that followed came in reaction to that catastrophe, including creation of institutions like the United Nations, NATO and the European Union. President Harry Truman spoke at the conference in 1945 and Lyndon Johnson spoke at the anniversary in 1965. It’s an inspiring history of U.S. leadership, memorialized by that plaque in Cathedral Grove.
This history accounts for the appalled reaction of many people to the re-appearance of parading Nazis and to the actions of current leaders, who have kinder words for the dictators who threaten us than for the European allies who weathered the storms of war and stood beside us to build the peace.
Back then the democracies defeated the dictators, showing that democracy need not be weak when confronted by a mortal threat. But it came at a terrible cost. When my friend Pete and I watched them preparing the Opera House for that celebration in 1965, memories of genocide and war were still fresh. His mother was a war bride from Belgium. My father had been a sailor in the Pacific.
Hate has a way of seeping out through the crevices and cracks of society, but if we keep our memories fresh, democracy will remain strong enough to stand up against hate and for our common humanity.