The American Spirit: What Does It Mean?

A dozen years after the opening of the institution that would become The National WWII Museum, President and CEO Nick Mueller spoke to a Junior Achievement Hall of Fame banquet on “The American Spirit: What Does It Mean?”

A dozen years after the opening of the institution that would become The National WWII Museum, President and CEO Nick Mueller spoke to a Junior Achievement Hall of Fame banquet on “The American Spirit: What Does It Mean?” The talk on March 22, 2012 drew connections between the Museum’s mission and a continuing thread in our nation’s history – fierce defense of freedom and democratic institutions.

I’ve been invited to talk to you today on the subject of the American Spirit—which resonates with the core values and mission of The National World War II Museum, and, I believe, with those of JA.

We are just two institutions among hundreds of thousands in our country that seem to recognize that spirit and draw upon it for inspiration.

So what does it mean?
How do we know it exists?
And where did it come from?

While there may be many different definitions of the American Spirit, raise your hand if you think this spirit can be found in our history—and still exists today.

Let’s take a look for evidence of this American Spirit when it has manifested itself in our country’s history—motivating us collectively, and as individuals.

We don’t have to look back too far—to 9/11, 2001, when America was subject to a sneak kamikaze attack on the Twin Towers. We all remember the shock, the fear, the anger—and then the overwhelming sense of national unity.

A common sense of the American Spirit brought us together against a new enemy that attacked us with the intent of undermining our system of beliefs, our economic and democratic way of life.

We were severely tested in that moment. Coincidentally, a month later, Stephen Ambrose and I, together with our Chairman, Boysie Bollinger, were getting ready for a press conference on the Museum’s decision to establish a new Center for the Study of the American Spirit.

In this moment of national trial, Stephen and his son Hugh published an op-ed piece in The Times-Picayune. Recalling an episode from the Day after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, the piece started this way:

“On Dec. 8, 1941, a large group of Navajo Indians saddled their horses, loaded their rifles and rode off their reservation to the nearest Army recruiting center. They told the surprised recruiting officer that they were ready not just to enlist, but to start fighting that very day. Their country had been attacked. They would go to war.”

Stephen and Hugh used this incident to offer a telling illustration of the American Spirit—how it manifests itself, what it means.

These Native Americans had not been treated well by their government, by American society at large. Their culture and their language had been under attack, marginalized, discriminated against, for many years. Their opportunities in education and work were few.

But even these Navajo in their hardscrabble existence had a sense of the American ideal, the promise of individual rights, of opportunity for a good life as pursued first by our Puritan forebears, then by this country’s Founding Fathers—and as spelled out in the Bill of Rights.

In 1941 these Native Americans knew this promise, this ideal—and their country too now—was under attack. So they joined millions of other Americans to fight Japan and Germany in far-away places.

In fact, the Navajo Code Talkers became a legendary weapon in our WWII military arsenal, for they were able to speak openly over the radio in the field—confident that the enemy would never crack their language.

The Navajo reflected the common sentiment of the day: “We’re all in this together.”

And their selfless acts spoke to the enduring American Spirit, the bright connecting thread in the fabric of our Democracy.

This spirit is sometimes difficult to define or to quantify, but it holds great power—and you know it when you see it.

Our country would never have survived and prospered without this spirit.

In fact, it wouldn’t have survived its earliest days.

But where did this spirit come from? What makes it so special that Americans always feel it in moments of great crisis, challenges that test our ideals?

Walk with me briefly back in time, as I recall a few great individuals who gave birth to this country, men whose ideas and actions lit the flame of the American spirit.

George Washington was the embodiment of this spirit, without a doubt. As leader of the Continental Army, he never wavered in the face of defeat and poor supplies and rampant sniping that the cause of the American Revolution was hopeless.

He stayed the course, risking everything.

Once victory was achieved and Washington took over leadership of the new nation, he rejected suggestions that he should consolidate power and become another king.

To the contrary, Washington set the precedent that no one should serve more than two terms as president. Congress wanted to bury George Washington in the Capital Rotunda; instead, he chose Mount Vernon.

Washington’s example, his confidence, his unshakable belief in a shining future for our Republic, set the standard.

Generations later, after America entered World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had this to say, during one of his “fireside chats,” about Washington’s early leadership:

“(His) conduct in those hard times has provided the model for all Americans ever since—a model of moral stamina. He held to his course, as it had been charted in the Declaration of Independence. He and the brave men who served with him knew that no man’s life or fortune was secure without freedom and free institutions.”

Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence, the nation’s third president, also infused the American spirit with a new ideal—the notion that our citizens can achieve greater opportunity, and equality, through learning.

Jefferson, founder of the University of Virginia, a skilled diplomat who spoke five languages, inspired optimism about the influence of education in a free society.

Not long before he died, Jefferson said, “All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs—nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them.”

We are indeed blessed that American history is filled with individuals whose actions, ideals and values swelled the American Spirit—and carried it forward.

The irrepressible General Andrew Jackson did so during the War of 1812, at the Battle of New Orleans, when he created a potent fighting force out of a peculiar blend of people from different states and cultures, speaking different tongues—Creoles, Tennesseeans, Cajuns, Germans and Italians, free men and slaves.

Against seemingly impossible odds, Jackson demonstrated that men of diverse backgrounds could be brought together as AMERICANS to defend our country’s “honorable union.”

A half century after Jackson’s rag-tag army prevailed, Abraham Lincoln took the American Spirit to a new level as he held this country together during a convulsive Civil War. As that terrible struggle drew to a close, Lincoln spoke eloquently about the ideals of the Founding Fathers.

He said the brave men who fought to preserve the union had consecrated the ground at Gettysburg.

He proclaimed that it was up to the war’s survivors to show, and I quote, “increased devotion to that cause for which (others) gave their last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead should 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 face of the earth.”

In words and deeds, where do we find any comparable commitment to freedom and democracy among leaders of other nations in the 19th century?

America’s spirit, its defense of freedom in many areas—in speech, in choice of religion, in politics and in business—has made it a beacon for people around the world.

This was so in the 1700s; 1800s and 1900s; and it remains so today.

The quest for freedom and justice for all Americans has often been halting or delayed—as in the abolition of slavery, in the acknowledgement of poor treatment of Native Americans, and in the securing of full civil rights for people of color and women.

A full century after Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington D.C., saying that America had yet to fully deliver on its promise of freedom and opportunity, that African-Americans still found themselves in many ways to be exiles in their own land.

“I have a dream,” he said, “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

While it did not come easily, change did come, as Americans moved closer to the ideals of the Founding Fathers.

As the years passed, the power of our principles has gained in strength and meaning—both in our country, and around the globe.

The American Sprit can be seen, clearly, during times of national or regional crisis, or in our daily affairs, when Americans are generous, working for the common good, seeking progress. We saw it in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks, and during our region’s long, hard recovery from Hurricane Katrina.

We see it in the re-creation of New Orleans public schools and the sense of promise for what students can achieve when they have the right sort of support.

I think we would all agree that the purpose of learning is to free people. This aspiration is basic to American Spirit—we are all one, all unified, in gratitude for our freedom.

These aspirations have much in common with those embraced by Washington, by Jefferson and Lincoln and Andrew Jackson, by Martin Luther King.

At The National World War II Museum, we celebrate values that are rooted in the birth of our nation and reach forward through the generations, offering a sense of promise and hope for all of us today—and for coming generations.

World War II served as a crucible, a time of testing of our beliefs, our national spirit.

It was a time when we were unprepared, attacked and faced powerful enemies across two oceans—outnumbered 20 to 1 in military forces. And yet we came together as a nation, infused by the American Spirit, to defeat dictatorial regimes that embraced racism, genocide, and aimed to destroy our freedom and sense of unity.

This was a fight to the finish for civilization itself, and the American Spirit prevailed.

When Stephen Ambrose was conducting interviews for his great book on D-Day, he asked a veteran who survived the Normandy invasion why he had donned the uniform as a young man and joined the fight.

The old soldier thought back to the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, as he climbed aboard a Higgins boat headed for Omaha Beach, and told Steve:

“I had my life ahead of me. I knew the difference between right and wrong, and I did not want to grow up in a world in which wrong prevailed.”

Our victory in that war unleashed new forces of freedom, at home and abroad. Colonies were given independence. America’s Marshall Plan brought relief to citizens in nations that had been at war with us, and helped lay the foundations for new democratic institutions. In the post-war years, our economy boomed, the GI Bill made college education possible for millions, civil rights increased dramatically, and new opportunities were opened up to women. The good war, as it is often called, set the stage for many good changes.

One man uniquely qualified to give voice to this promising time was Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander who directed the massive Allied D-Day invasion in France and the defeat of Germany. In his farewell address as president in 1961, Eisenhower had this to say:

“We pray that peoples of all faiths, all races, all nations, may have their great human needs satisfied; that those now denied opportunity shall come to enjoy it to the full; that all who yearn for freedom may experience its spiritual blessings; that those who have freedom will understand, also, its heavy responsibilities; that all who are insensitive to the needs of others will learn charity …

“That the scourges of poverty, disease, and ignorance will be made to disappear from the earth, and that, in the goodness of time, all peoples will come to live together in a peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.”

President Eisenhower’s words offer eloquent testimony to the enduring power of the American Spirit of a half century ago. He and others of his generation spoke to the things held dear by Americans: democratic values, freedom and the Bill of Rights; volunteerism and generosity; equality of opportunity; universal education; courage; and leadership.


Nick Mueller

Gordon H. “Nick" Mueller, PhD, former historian and Vice Chancellor at the University of New Orleans, served as Founding President and CEO of The National WWII Museum. During a distinguished career at UNO, Mueller made his mark as a popular teacher, Dean and Vice Chancellor. 

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