This op-ed written by Joe Nocera in Saturday’s New York Times speaks volumes about who America is now and who we were after WWII when a young Army combat engineer named Harold Burson covered the Nuremberg trials for the American Forces Network. Nocera writes of Burson’s coverage:

There was another aspect to Harold’s scripts, one I found quite endearing. They have an earnest, idealistic quality that reminds you just how full of hope America was after World War II. Though we had fought a brutal war, we were determined to act generously to the vanquished. That even applied to the Nazi brass who had committed reprehensible crimes against humanity. “G.I.’s have one stock question,” reads Burson’s very first script. “Why can’t we just take them out and shoot ’em? We know they’re guilty.”

Again and again, Burson’s scripts try to answer that question. Because “the guilt of the German leaders should be carefully documented.” Because “we of the four nations are devoted to law and order.” Because “our system is not lynch law. We will dispense punishment as the evidence demands.” Led by the Americans, the Allies were insistent that the Nazi defendants be treated fairly; Burson’s pride in that ethos shines through on every page. This postwar idealism was one of the Greatest Generation’s finest qualities. Today’s cynical, divided country sorely misses it.

I have often thought that major reasons for American leadership in the 20th century can be distilled to the combination of the strength of our military, our clear reluctance to use it until forced, and the sheer generosity of spirit exercised against our mortal enemies in the Marshall Plan to rebuild Germany and Japan.

It is revealing in this story that the deeply human desire to exact revenge wasn’t really any different in the time of the “Greatest Generation” as it is now. And it is equally revealing that our leaders resisted its call, insisting – those human impulses notwithstanding – that the trials would be fair. It is, of course, the very reason these many years later that the Nuremberg trials hold the clear power of having been correct moral action in the eyes of the world. Some defendants were acquitted, some hanged. But the evidence was steadfastly and tediously heard.

The fair treatment isn’t about them, it’s about who we are.

Contrast that to actions taken firmly in the spirit of the human call to exact revenge, never mind whatever the facts say. The Iraq War comes to mind and I would argue that it alone has lost America much stature in the world.

Never mind how we are treating each other these days.

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Photo credit: Marion Ross

(Thanks to Florence for the link)