Think for a moment, about the life arc of the Greatest Generation. While still merely boys, they marched across Europe and vanquished Nazi Germany, preserving modern civilization in the process.
Afterward, those young men returned home and achieved the normal tasks associated with coming of age: starting careers and families, buying homes and their first automobiles. But their work toward building a better world didn’t end on D-Day. The members of this generation weren’t content with merely defeating evil. They sought to build something wholly new, that was noble and good.
President John F. Kennedy came to power and articulated this desire with an eloquence that no leader has come close to since. It was to be their destiny, he said, to “undo the heavy burdens and let the oppressed go free” and build a world “where the strong are just and the weak secure.”
To that end, JFK set to work authoring a raft of measures that would fulfill his vision, on subjects ranging from civil rights to education, health care, and aid to the poor. But perhaps none of those bills was more important than Kennedy’s landmark immigration reform that ultimately became the Hart-Cellar Act of 1965.
Because of this legislation, access to immigration visas was opened up to the whole world, the peoples of Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East — all of God’s children. There was to be no nonsense about superior or inferior races. American citizenship was no longer going to be defined by skin color, but what was in your heart. Anyone who believed in freedom, equality and human rights, could come here and be our neighbor.
That one law changed history forever, just as much as the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil Rights Act, or the Declaration of Independence. Tens of millions of foreigners from non-European countries took advantage of the opportunity to leave places of poverty and terror and become Americans.
They paid their adopted nation back in spades, starting thousands of new businesses, excelling in our greatest universities, healing our sick and tending to the elderly. In the process, the U.S became the most diverse country ever, with whites set to become a minority by 2045, according to the Census Bureau.
If Adolf Hitler’s legacy was taking Europe’s best and brightest and grinding them down to skeletons in the camps, JFK gave the oppressed of this world, who would have been destined for lives that were nasty, brutal and short, a chance at excellence.
What a testament to the decency of our country. Of course, every great transformation brings out the cynics and the naysayers. Today, leading conservative pundits such as Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham treat these demographic changes as an apocalyptic threat that will permanently transform America for the worse. They say things like, “This is more change than human beings can properly digest,” “How would you feel if it happened in your neighborhood?” and, “The America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore.”
That perspective was shared by the Donald Trump administration, which pulled out all the stops to repeal the Hart-Cellar Act and limit migration. Every policy lever that could achieve these goals was pursued, no matter the level of cruelty involved, as was demonstrated most infamously by separating children from their families.
Senior officials instead expressed preference for the racist immigration system that existed pre-1965, which allocated visas almost exclusively to Europeans.
Incidentally, that policy, when it was in place, was also heralded by none other than Nazi Germany and the Ku Klux Klan.
“It was America that taught us a nation should not open its doors equally to all nations,” Hitler noted approvingly in an interview with the New York Times, just one year before launching the Third Reich.
Of course the people who look at our newfound diversity and tremble with fear must answer a simple question: Who exactly are you scared of? The Guatemalans? The Koreans? The Mexicans? The Chinese?
The whole notion is so absurd it’s not even worth considering. For we know in our bones, based on simple personal experience, that each of these groups are just as human as we are. You see the same devotion in their marriages, the dignity of their elderly, and the boundless dreams of their young. These folks simply want to work hard, fulfill their God-given potential, and live in peace with their neighbors. Those fundamental values are not the property of any one race. They are universal and represent the highest aspirations of the human heart.
While it’s true no nation has ever enacted a bill like the Hart-Cellar Act — meaning one that opened up citizenship to the world and remade demographics so quickly — there’s something very American in that. From our founding, we have been defined by the desire to go where humanity has never gone before. We stood for self-government in an era of monarchs, declared a new birth of freedom in the midst of a bloody civil war, and set our sights on the moon when the experts said it couldn’t be done.
Building a multi-racial democracy where all can thrive is simply the next chapter in this great revolution.
Lastly, America’s diversity is a healing force, in the most profound fashion. When a Muslim girl, a Black boy, an Asian and a Jew walk as friends across a city street where slaves were once sold; when a refugee from Iran studies in the library of her medical school that used to be for whites only; when an interracial couple cuddles sweetly under a tree that was the site of a lynching — this country is brought one step closer to redemption.
Through the sum of these small acts, each of them a miracle, we reconsecrate the ground beneath our feet and create life where blood was once shed. Yet at this very moment we are confronted with clever pundits and politicians who want to roll back such progress, erase the achievements of our ancestors and return to the old, brutal status quo.
Let us instead honor the Greatest Generation, and continue the work they started so grandly.
Joshua Heath is a Santa Clarita resident. “Democratic Voices” appears Tuesdays and rotates among local Democrats.