Like many commentators before me, my reflections on the passing of President George H.W. Bush focus as much on the passing of a president as on the passing of the Greatest Generation. Despite facing the grim reality of combat in WWII and the seemingly unending threat of nuclear annihilation from an adversarial superpower, this shrinking group of exceptional Americans managed to build the United States into the greatest economic powerhouse in world history. These men and women are subjects worthy of perhaps only Homer’s pen.
The U.S. Naval Institute posted an interview with Bush about his narrow escape after being shot down in the Pacific. When asked how he felt about surviving when other men on his mission were tortured, killed and cannibalized by Japanese soldiers on the nearby island of Chichi Jima, Bush stated, “You always ask that ‘why me?’ I asked that when my daughter, innocent little beautiful Robin came down with leukemia…and why us? Why this little girl? And so I think it’s understandable that you ask that question. I did back then…The Lord acts in mysterious ways. Just accept that. You pray about it. You get on with your life.”
Late in his presidency, on a visit to Japan, Bush stated “I will do my level best as President of the United States to preserve and strengthen the important relationship between Japan and my country. It has a lot to do with world peace. It has a lot to do with world economic stability. It has a lot to do with two great economic and democratic countries working together, setting an example for other countries around the world.”
To make that shift post-war, from barely escaping torture and cannibalization to extolling the United States’ relationship with Japan, is truly a remarkable feat, and one that many in President Bush’s generation achieved. Our history should not be taken for granted. The savagery of WWII did not have to lead to economic prosperity and strong alliances. For those achievements and countless others, the world owes our late president and his peers a debt of gratitude.
Godspeed, Mr. President.