General Colin Powell believes America today is similar to the one that welcomed his immigrant parents 80 years ago—a country based on openness, freedom and Democracy for its citizens and visitors.
I believe in America and I believe in our people.
Later this month, I will be participating in a ceremony at Ellis Island where I will receive copies of the ship manifest and the immigration documents that record the arrival in America of my mother, Maud Ariel McKoy, from Jamaica aboard the motor ship Turialba in 1923. My father, Luther Powell, had arrived three years earlier at the Port of Philadelphia.
They met in New York City, married, became Americans and raised a family. By their hard work and their love for this country, they enriched this nation and helped it grow and thrive. They instilled in their children and grandchildren that same love of country and a spirit of optimism.
My family’s story is a common one that has been told by millions of Americans. We are a land of immigrants: A nation that has been touched by every nation and we, in turn, touch every nation. And we are touched not just by immigrants but by the visitors who come to America and return home to tell of their experiences.
I believe that our greatest strength in dealing with the world is the openness of our society and the welcoming nature of our people. A good stay in our country is the best public diplomacy tool we have.
After 9/11 we realized that our country’s openness was also its vulnerability. We needed to protect ourselves by knowing who was coming into the country, for what purpose and to know when they left. This was entirely appropriate and reasonable. Unfortunately, to many foreigners we gave the impression that we were no longer a welcoming nation. They started to go to schools and hospitals in other countries, and frankly, they started to take their business elsewhere. We can’t allow that to happen. Our attitude has to be, we are glad you are here. We must be careful, but we must not be afraid.
As I traveled the world as secretary of state, I encountered anti-American sentiment. But I also encountered an underlying respect and affection for America. People still want to come here. Refugees who have no home at all know that America is their land of dreams. Even with added scrutiny, people line up at our embassies to apply to come here.
You see, I believe that the America of 2005 is the same America that brought Maud Ariel McKoy and Luther Powell to these shores, and so many millions of others. An America that each day gives new immigrants the same gift that my parents received. An America that lives by a Constitution that inspires freedom and democracy around the world. An America with a big, open, charitable heart that reaches out to people in need around the world. An America that sometimes seems confused and is always noisy. That noise has a name, it’s called democracy and we use it to work through our confusion.
An America that is still the beacon of light to the darkest corner of the world.
Last year I met with a group of Brazilian exchange students who had spent a few weeks in America. I asked them to tell me about their experience here. One young girl told me about the night the 12 students went to a fast food restaurant in Chicago. They ate and then realized they did not have enough money to pay the bill. They were way short. Frightened, they finally told the waitress of their problem. She went away and she came back in a little while saying, “I talked to the manager and he said, ‘It’s ok.”‘ The students were still concerned because they thought the waitress might have to pay for it out of her salary. She smiled and she said, “No, the manager said he is glad you are here in the United States. He hopes you are having a good time, he hopes you are learning all about us. He said it’s on him.”
It is a story that those young Brazilian kids have told over and over about America. That’s the America I believe in, that’s the America the world wants to believe in.
Colin Powell spent 35 years in the military, rising from ROTC in college to become a four-star general and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the first Gulf War. He has worked in the administrations of six Presidents including serving as Secretary of State from 2001 – 2005.
Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick. Edited by Ellen Silva. Photo by Nubar Alexanian.
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