by Christopher Datta
When I was a young man in the 1970s two friends and I went on a student tour of Europe. We landed in Luxembourg on New Year’s Eve and checked into a pension that catered to students. It was run by, what to me at the time, was an elderly woman (today I am probably 20 years older than she was at the time). My friends and I went out on the town to celebrate the New Year, and got back to the pension at about 1 am.
The owner was up and waiting for us, and I thought we were going to get chewed out for staying up so late and forcing her to keep the doors open. Instead, she smiled at us and waved us into her dining room, where she opened a very nice bottle of white wine and then poured all of us a glass. This was certainly not the level of service I was expecting. I think we were paying $5 a night to stay there.
She asked us to hold up our glasses for a toast, and she said, “Thank you for saving me.”
We were stunned. I said, “Saving you?”
“Yes,” she answered, “I was in a Nazi labor camp and American GIs liberated me, fed me, gave me medical attention, and saved my life. I will always be grateful.”
“But,” I objected, “we didn’t save you. That was our fathers.”
“Yes,” she said, “but you are your fathers’ sons. I will not forget, as long as I live.”
Later, as we toured Germany, we went to a bar one evening where a group of elderly German war veterans bought us beers. We thanked them and asked the reason for the generosity. “Because,” one answered, “after the war we expected harsh treatment at the hands of you Americans. Instead, a GI started a business with me. I owe my success to that man. I shall never forget it.”
What transpired on that trip inspired me to join the United States Department of State as a Foreign Service Officer. I was proud to serve both Republican and Democratic administrations, and proud of my work in helping to end two wars in Africa and helping to capture two war criminals over the course of my career.
I was a Public Diplomacy Officer, a spokesman for America in foreign countries, a job in which I was constantly countering Soviet and Chinese disinformation. What made my job easy was that the Soviets and Chinese lied, about everything, and all the time. They had little to no credibility. By contrast, the core of my job was to tell the truth, always. Where the United States had made mistakes, I admitted to them. But because of that, what I said was believed, and my defense of America was effective.
I sent countless young up-and-coming leaders to the United States on two to four-week education programs to give these future leaders experience with American society and culture. It cemented lasting friendships and an appreciation for America’s leadership role in the world. We were trusted and admired.
Today, so much of that has been lost. The constant lies, the denigration of our allies and the praise for oppressive regimes, our abandonment of support for human rights, and the appalling corrosion of the rule of law in our own country has damaged our standing in the international community.
Making America great again in the world will take years, if not decades, of hard work to undo the damage. It will not be easy to convince people once again that we are the country our fathers and mothers made those many years ago, when people embraced us for the heroes our parents were.
Christopher Datta is a retired Foreign Service Officer, He is the author of three novels and a memoir, Guardians of the Grail: A Life of Diplomacy on the Edge.