There is a famous line from the movie “Love Story”: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
It is a totally nonsensical statement which, if embraced by a married couple, will lead to certain divorce. It makes no more sense when applied to love of country.
In an election cycle awash in inflamed political rhetoric, we are told that a real patriot should never apologize for this country’s actions. That American exceptionalism somehow means that we never have to apologize for this country’s missteps and misdeeds.
The great irony looming over this embrace is that the term can be traced to Alexis de Tocqueville’s legendary books about his travels throughout the United States in 1831. In describing an aspect of America’s exceptionalism he notes: “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”
The United States is, without doubt, the greatest nation ever on the face of the Earth. But it is precisely part of our exceptionalism that our country eventually does admit and correct its errors and misdeeds.
After the cowardly bombing and slaughter perpetrated by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order that threw more 100,000 Japanese-Americans from their homes. There was a genuine and immediate threat to this country, and when you are talking about any group of 100,000 people, some of them would have invariably committed acts inimical to the security of the United States.
At the time, the creation of a concentration camp for the Japanese was wildly popular. I know because I was one of those who cheered the interment even though almost all of those interred were known to be productive and loyal American citizens.
Roosevelt closed America’s doors to those who would escape the Nazi death camps. His rationale: “In some of the other countries that refugees out of Germany have gone to, especially Jewish refugees, they found a number of definitely proven spies.”
Almost all of those who sought refuge in this country were turned away and many of them died in the Holocaust. Roosevelt ultimately apologized for banning Jews from U.S. shores and established the War Refugee Board to facilitate the rescue of the refugees. The Truman Doctrine of 1947 allowed for the immigration of displaced persons.
FDR recognized that it was wrong to collectively punish so many for the possible misdeeds of a few. President Ronald Reagan also expressed regret for America’s treatment of the Japanese during World War II interment by signing legislation in August 1988 that apologized on behalf of this country for the internment.
I am an Army veteran who loves his country. I believe that we are threatened by the importation of terrorism, and I believe that anyone who enters this country from whatever nation and no matter what the reason should be carefully vetted. However, Donald Trump’s plan to ban Muslims from entering the United States, or having a part of our citizenry “register” because of its religion, or having any American citizen racially profiled by law enforcement, is wrong and un-American.
Implementing such a plan — or its embrace by a candidate of a major political party — would prove that we have not met our promise of American exceptionalism. The simplest way to avoid burdening future generations from regret is for our government and its leaders to refrain from engaging in speech or actions that would yoke our nation to countless years of apology in the future.
Sol Wachtler, a former chief judge of New York State, is distinguished adjunct professor at Touro Law School.