Ingeborg van Teeseling

America, the Whole World Is Watching

(Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash)

Once again, America has to show leadership during a crisis. And, once again, the rest of the world is watching.

 

I grew up in the Dutch city of Nijmegen. That gives me more reason than most to implore the American people to vote this year and vote well. Because the world is watching. And you are responsible for all of us. That is, of course, a task of your own choosing. You wanted to be the planet’s “City Upon a Hill,” a guiding light, a beacon of hope.

During the Second World War, you put your money where your mouth was. You were a little late in coming to the party, but when you did, we loved you for it. In my town, the idea of Americans risking their lives to liberate us from the Nazis was what kept us sane during our five years of occupation. It promised us that hell would end.

Then, on the morning of 22 February 1944, a group of U.S. Air Force pilots calling themselves the “Bungay Buckaroos” saddled up to bomb Gotha, then one of the centers of the German weapons industry. They had 177 B-24 bombers and a few dozen different escort planes at their disposal. It was cloudy, but they were fully loaded and quite a few of the flyers were on mission 25, which meant they were in line for some serious R&R on their return to their British base. The minute they got over the North Sea they came under attack, but most of them managed to make it into German territory when their commander realized that the low-hanging clouds would not make it possible to get all the way to Gotha and safely home. He instructed his men to turn around and pick what was then called a “target of opportunity”; anywhere where you could drop your bombs. Landing with unexploded cargo was dangerous, so it was considered better to offload it somewhere else. That “somewhere” was for the pilots to decide, and on that day they chose four Dutch cities, one of them mine.

At 13:28, 144 brisant bombs, each weighing 500 pounds, and 426 20-pound shrapnel shells were disposed of on the city center. They caused enormous fires and, because the water supply was also hit, many people who were buried under the rubble of buildings and still alive, were burnt to death. My father, who had escaped from a German prisoner of war camp and had walked back, was just in time to help save small children from the wreckage of their Kindergarten. Sixty years later, he would still wake up with pictures of little kids “glued” to the tarmac of the roads by the heat of the fires. 760 people died, thousands were injured.

 

I grew up in the Dutch city of Nijmegen. That gives me more reason than most to implore the American people to vote this year and vote well. Because the world is watching. And you are responsible for all of us.

 

When I was born in 1961, parts of the city were still in ruins. I am telling you this story because what happened next tells you something about our relationship with America. As you can imagine, the Germans had a field day. They produced hundreds of billboards saying things like “With friends like this, who needs enemies.”[1] The Americans weren’t helping themselves, by refusing to take responsibility, even decades afterwards. But the Dutch, despite their “pointless” losses, as the lingo of the time put it, refused to turn against the Americans.

Even after Operation Market Garden in September of 1944 added another 1,100-plus deaths to the tally in Nijmegen. Again, this was an American choice: by making the city the front line in fighting with the Germans and not evacuating civilians. Nevertheless, there are large memorials commemorating the help the Americans gave us in liberating the town. The shrine to the victims of 1944 is tiny and wasn’t built until 2000. That tells you how loyal we are and how much we want to believe that you have our best interests at heart.

I live in Australia now and I recently went to the movies to watch Aaron Sorkin’s new film The Trial of the Chicago 7. It reminded me, as Sorkin intended, of a time when America was tearing itself apart. A time, needless to say, like you are going through now. Then, it was Vietnam and civil rights and the assassinations, one very close to the other, of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. There were riots in the streets and panicked powers-that-be overstepping their boundaries in violence and abuse. At the 1968 Democratic Convention it got completely out of control, with Walter Cronkite accurately describing the country as “a police state.”

I remember, as a small child, watching the goings-on on the television we shared with our neighbors. I didn’t understand, but the fear of my parents was palpable. Here we were, at the height of yet another War, this time Cold only in name, and the great liberators of the previous two world conflicts were poisoning themselves.

“Do they understand that they are not just another country?” my mother asked of nobody in particular.

“They should let the whole world vote,” one of my father’s friends replied, and everyone nodded in agreement.

Of course, after 1968, you had Watergate and the Pentagon Papers. It showed us that, despite outward appearances, you could be trusted to make democracy work and get rid of petty would-be dictators. I want to ask you, no, I want to beg you, to do that again now. This is not just an internal matter; you’ve got our fate in your hands. And as the protesters of 1968 said then: “The whole world is watching.”

 

[1] https://www.tracesofwar.com/articles/2674/Bombardment-of-Nijmegen-February-22nd-1944.htm (see bottom page, image on the left)

 

Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating to Australia from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She is writing a book and runs Lifebooks, telling people's life stories.

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