THOUGHTS ABOUT THE UNITED STATES AND ITS HISTORY
By Mark Seliber
I took 12 weeks away from BOLLI (and the rest of my regular life) this spring and traveled all around the United States. If I were writing a detailed book about my journey, it’s working title would be:
America: the Beautiful, the Stolen, the Resourceful, and the Generous
Here is a brief summary of what I gathered from my trip.
This is a great-looking country, and I’m glad I got to see so much of it in person. The 48 contiguous states have land area similar to Europe, Canada, China, Brazil and Australia but, I suspect, more diverse terrain and features than all of them. The mountains, canyons, plains, deserts, lakes, rivers, and coastlines are amazing.
A couple of years ago, I read an op-ed that attributed a large portion of this country’s historically great economic production to two thefts: land from the indigenous peoples and over two centuries of labor from African slaves. I certainly saw much evidence of this in my travels. The latter, from a long list of civil rights sites I visited – in particular, the Underground Railroad Center for Justice in Cincinnati, which laid out in great detail the history of the slave trade in North America, going all the way back to the first group of slaves sold by Portuguese traders in Jamestown Virginia in 1619. The story of European and later United States appropriation of the ancestral lands of our first inhabitants also started in Jamestown. I followed this thread throughout my travels–the French and Indian Wars and conflicting loyalties during the Revolutionary War; the Trail of Tears as native tribes were sent west of the Mississippi once the new United States expanded beyond the Appalachians; the further relocation of most of the tribes to Oklahoma Territory when the Homestead Act made the land in the Great Plains valuable; and finally the discovery of gold in the only remaining sovereign native land (the Black Hills of South Dakota), which led to Little Big Horn, Wounded Knee, Indian reservations, and boarding schools for native children where their culture and language was forbidden.
THE RESOURCEFUL – NATURAL RESOURCES AND GREAT INVENTIVENESS
The land of the United States certainly was blessed with abundant natural resources–salt, coal, iron ore, natural gas, oil, the fertile soil of the Great Plains, abundant forests for timber, gold, silver, copper, uranium, borax, and all kinds of other minerals. And the American people quickly learned how to use all of these to their economic advantage.
A partial list of the great ideas invented or further developed by the ingenious and entrepreneurial minds of our countrymen and women includes:
The steamship, the cotton gin, canals (like the Erie), the railroad, mechanical farming, mining, anesthesia (at Mass General), the telegraph, electricity, the telephone, the phonograph, automobiles, assembly lines, airplanes, radios, radar, nuclear power (for better or worse), television, space exploration (including, of course, that moon landing we’re commemorating this month), and just about everything related to computers, the world wide web, the internet, smart phones, and artificial intelligence.
In the last hundred years, as the most powerful nation on earth, the United States has been generous in supporting democracy around the world. Entering World War I helped end the stalemate on the Western Front. The United States supported Great Britain’s solo stand against Nazi Germany through the Lend-Lease program in 1940-1941 and then, of course, joined World War II after Pearl Harbor, helping to turn the tide in Europe with the D-Day invasion of 75 years ago. Then after the War, the Marshall Plan enabled war-ravaged Europe to rebuild itself, and NATO and the United Nations managed to end the first Cold War.
But I witnessed the benefits of great things that our government has done to improve our lives over our history. Again, here’s a list:
Public education (starting with my two alma maters, Boston Latin School and Harvard), land-grant colleges and universities, the Homestead Act (not so good for native peoples but good for settlers heading west for economic opportunity and independence), the transcontinental railroad, our national parks, canals and dams, and all the building done by the Civilian Conservation Corps as well as the WPA during the New Deal, Social Security and Medicare, the GI Bill for Education and low-cost housing loans after World War II, and the Interstate Highway System.
Individually and collectively, the people and government of the United States of America have done amazing things in the last nearly 250 years. I remain confident that we have many more wonders in our future.
Mark, a native of Boston, worked as an actuary for 35 years and retired in 2017. He immediately joined BOLLI with his wife Rachel and has thrown himself into classes, performing in the theatrical productions, and writing presentations.