Keeping the Republic: How I’ll be observing this Independence Day

Fourth of July fireworks in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Suzanne Sigona)

This post was written by VVMF President and CEO Jim Knotts

There’s a famous story — apocryphal, maybe — about the birth of the U.S. Constitution. As Benjamin Franklin was leaving Independence Hall after the 1787 Constitutional Convention, someone asked him what kind of government had been designed by the framers. “A republic,” Franklin replied, “if you can keep it.”

On Saturday, July 4, we will celebrate the birth of our nation for the 244th time. Like any birthday, the occasion is more than just an observance of the historical event — it’s a cumulative commemoration of every birthday since. In its full richness of accomplishments, failures and triumphs, each Independence Day confirms that we’ve managed to keep the republic for another year. 

Stories of service and sacrifice during the Vietnam War remind me of this generation’s efforts to keep the republic during the single most contentious period of our nation’s history during the 20th century. I thought I’d share a few of the stories I will reflect on this Independence Day:

  • In the pre-dawn hours of July 4, 1967, on top of Nong Son Mountain, a battalion of U.S. troops suffered a surprise nighttime attack by 200-300 NVA troops. In the battle that ensued, an 18-year-old machine gunner named Melvin Newlin died while saving his battalion from being overrun. PFC Newlin earned the Medal of Honor for his actions, and he is memorialized on Panel 23E, Line 5 of The Wall. The full story of his heroic actions is published here.
  • On that same day, U.S. Marines from the amphibious assault ship Okinawa were collecting the bodies of some 86 Marines killed near Con Thien in “the single worst disaster to befall a Marine Corps rifle company during the Vietnam War.” They had died in an NVA ambush during Operation Buffalo, which you can read about in this first-person account published in The New York Times. [Caution: it’s not an easy read.]
  • In the summer of 1968, a Gallup survey found that American sentiment about the war in Vietnam — which by that time had claimed the lives of nearly 12,000 service members — was evenly split going into summer, but it wouldn’t stay that way for long. Independence Day 1968 produced an uneasy mixture of celebrations and protests from coast to coast, as examined in this article published in Smithsonian Magazine.
  • This Saturday night (and likely before), people across the country will celebrate by shooting off  fireworks. But for veterans with PTSD, like Ronald Whitcomb, the explosions can be a torment. Fortunately, to limit the impact on neighbors who might be suffering, this excellent piece from the CBS affiliate in my hometown takes a closer look at the issue and offers some useful tips.

The single thread running through these stories — of service, sacrifice, and dissent — is our shared notion of a concept called America. She has never been perfect, but she’ll always be worth fighting for – not only by those in uniform but also among ourselves as we strive always to make her even better. As Ronald Reagan once said: 

“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”

I believe America’s best days are always just ahead, and only a relentless, collective effort will get her there.  So on this birthday, we can reflect on our accomplishments, our failures and our triumphs – and the service and sacrifice of those who came before us and those still serving our “experiment in democracy.”

On behalf of all the board members, staff, and volunteers at VVMF, I wish you and yours a very happy Independence Day.