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Independence Day 2004
SAF/PA 2003 Air Force Public Affairs
Independence Day, 2003
We gather here today to celebrate the 227th birthday of this great nation. It was on this day in 1776 that our Founding Fathers declared to the world their independence from British imperial rule. It took seven long years of war, and cost the lives of many courageous American patriots, before that declaration of independence became a reality in 1783. But from that day on, we have come together on July 4th to celebrate liberty and the cause of freedom.
It is therefore all the more appropriate that, as we celebrate more than two centuries of freedom, we are watching another nation take its first tentative steps toward democracy. The Iraqi people have at last been liberated from the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein, through the determined and decisive efforts of U.S. and coalition forces. Operation Iraqi Freedom brought just that - the Iraqi people's long-sought freedom from fear, starvation, abuse and torture.
Just after the war's end, President Bush told Iraqi-Americans in Michigan, "The desire for freedom is not the property of one culture; it is the universal hope of human beings in every culture. ... Freedom is God's gift to every person in every nation."
Mr. Bush told the story of a man who escaped from Iraq in 1991, then returned to his homeland in 2003 as a member of the 101st Airborne Division. When he first saw the cheering crowds of Iraqis welcoming coalition troops, he wept. The Iraqis could hardly believe what was happening, he said, so he told them, "Believe it - liberation is coming."
The war in Iraq also illustrated a fundamental truth: It is not enough to merely believe in freedom, or to desire to be free. The precious gift of freedom depends on our willingness to defend our liberty with our words, our actions and, if necessary, our lives.
We tend to forget just how great a risk our Founding Fathers were taking when they signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. When Patrick Henry said, "Give me liberty or give me death," it was more than just a rhetorical flourish. Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of 56 members of the Second Continental Congress who signed the document, said, "Stepping forward to sign the Declaration was like signing your own death warrant." They were committing treason against the crown of England, a crime punishable by death.
And, in fact, of those 56 signers, nine were killed, five were captured by the British, and 18 lost their homes and all they owned in the War of Independence. But these men genuinely believed that liberty was worth fighting for. And each succeeding generation of Americans has followed in their footsteps, guarding our precious birthright of freedom and democracy.
Our nation has faced some tremendous challenges over the past two centuries, but we have overcome each obstacle through the steadfast courage and conviction of the American people.
When our country was not quite a century old, it was torn apart by the bitter divisions of the Civil War. The country's very survival was in doubt as President Abraham Lincoln struggled to unite the nation. On July 1st through July 3rd, 1863, Americans fought Americans in the bloody fields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. On those three days alone, 51,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were left dead or wounded.
When Lincoln later dedicated the national cemetery at Gettysburg, he said, "We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." The nation was saved, and the union restored. But that did not mean the end of threats to our freedom.
On July 4, 1941, when the specter of Adolph Hitler's Third Reich threatened to dominate the free world, President Franklin Roosevelt addressed an anxious nation. He urged his countrymen to ignore the isolationists who warned against entering the war in Europe, and to take up arms in defense of freedom before it was too late.
"We cannot save freedom in our own midst, in our own land, if all around us our neighbor nations have lost their freedom," Roosevelt told radio listeners. "The United States will never survive as a happy and fertile oasis of liberty surrounded by a cruel desert of dictatorship."
Just six months later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and the United States was at war. Shortly thereafter, General George Marshall predicted, "Before the sun sets on this terrible struggle, our flag will be recognized throughout the world as a symbol of freedom, on the one hand, and of overwhelming power on the other."
General Marshall's words certainly were prophetic. From General Dwight Eisenhower's "Great Crusade" to liberate the continent of Europe to the atomic bombs dropped on Japan to end the war in the Pacific, the American flag did indeed become a symbol of both freedom and global power.
For the second half of last century, the United States used her unprecedented global power to wage an extended struggle against repressive Communist regimes around the world. The fall of the Soviet Union in December 1991 marked a turning point in world history.
Without the brutal hand of Soviet influence, the winds of freedom began to sweep across the world. The power of our ideals helped tear down the walls and barbed wire that enslaved the people behind the so-called "Iron Curtain" of Eastern Europe. Growing numbers of democracies began emerging and flourishing around the world.
Consider this fact: In 1914, just before the First World War, there were only about a dozen democracies in the world. Today, there are more than 120, according to a Freedom House study. The United States has truly become a beacon of freedom and opportunity throughout the world. The flame of liberty continues to shine, offering a glimmer of hope to oppressed people everywhere.
The world changed forever when America was created in 1776, because from that day on, freedom has had a defender. Unlike any other country in the world, the United States came into the world with a message: That all men are created equal, and all are meant to be free. Over the years, we Americans have struggled to make that vision a reality, but our fundamental beliefs have remained firm. We believe in the rights and dignity of each person, the rule of law and equal justice for all.
President Ronald Reagan once said, "It's so precious, yet freedom is not something that can be touched, heard, seen, or smelled. ... The air we breathe is also invisible and taken for granted, yet if it is denied even for a few seconds, we realize instantly how much it means to us. Well, so too with freedom."
One of the signers of the Declaration of Independence was John Adams, who went on to become the nation's second president. He later wrote his wife, "I believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. ... It ought to be celebrated by pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other."
Obviously, we've taken Mr. Adams' suggestion to heart. Americans love parties, and the Fourth of July is a chance to throw one heck of a party. On this most American of all holidays, many communities have parades, complete with high school marching bands and floats decorated in red, white and blue bunting. Families enjoy picnics, complete with hamburgers and hot dogs, potato salad and baked beans. Concerts fill the night air with the sounds of patriotic music, especially John Phillip Sousa's rousing "Stars and Stripes Forever."
After dark, our national celebration of freedom is topped off by dazzling fireworks displays across the country. John Adams would have loved it. They light up the sky with a kaleidoscope of colors, accompanied by the "oohs" and "aahs" of an appreciative audience in lawn chairs. Ironically, July 4th also marks the date when two of our Founding Fathers died. John Adams, our second president, and Thomas Jefferson, our third president, and the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, both died on July 4, 1826. That was 50 years to the day after they declared this nation's independence from Britain, an occasion we still celebrate today.
But our enjoyment of these summer celebrations is tempered by the knowledge that our nation is again threatened by forces who wish to destroy our way of life. Still, after the attacks of Sept. 11th, 2001, we have seen that our love of country is more passionate than ever in the face of such deadly threats.
Shortly after those attacks, someone asked an Air Force pilot if anyone at his base had a personal connection to the victims of September 11th. He said, "I think we all do. They were all Americans." Like the signers of the Declaration of Independence, the victims of Sept. 11th believed in the freedom to achieve their dreams in this country, and they gave their lives in pursuit of those dreams.
From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terrorism, Americans have known that freedom and justice are worth fighting for. But repelling this threat will require all the resources we can bring to bear. President John Kennedy once noted, "When there is a visible enemy to fight in open combat ... many serve, all applaud, and the tide of patriotism runs high. But when there is a long, slow struggle with no immediate visible foe, your choice will seem hard indeed."
President Bush has said that winning this war on terror will take time. We must be willing to persevere for months, if not years, to preserve our cherished freedoms from terrorists who despise our way of life.
Much has changed since our Founding Fathers established this nation as a beacon of hope for the rest of the world. But they would surely recognize the Stars and Stripes, whether draped defiantly over the damaged wall of the Pentagon, or waved joyously from a C-17 cargo plane by a former prisoner of war returning home.
And they would surely recognize the character of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, answering their nation's call to duty. Like the Minute Men who left their homes and took up their muskets to defend a young nation, our men and women in uniform stepped forward to defend America from new and deadly threats to our freedom. Through their service and sacrifice, they make every day Independence Day.
Today is a day of gratitude and a day of celebration. We thank you for your service, and for all you do to support the United States, the greatest nation on earth.