In the long annals of war, tales of courage, slaughter and despair dominate, but one event stands out for its example of shared humanity: the spontaneous Christmas Truce of World War I.
Starting earlier in December and culminating on Christmas Day in 1914, many allied British and French troops on one side and Germans on the other left their trenches and greeted each other on No-Man’s Land. The sudden fraternization happened on many spots along the Western Front, with soldiers swapping souvenirs, raising toasts, singing Christmas songs and playing soccer.
A 19-year-old British private, Henry Williamson, who would become an acclaimed novelist, was among those who wrote home about the experience, giddily telling his mother that he was smoking real German tobacco.
“From a German soldier. Yes a live German soldier from his own trench,” Williamson wrote. “Yesterday the British & Germans met & shook hands in the Ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs, & shook hands. Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write. Marvellous, isn’t it?”
Marvelous indeed. And if warring European soldiers could do it a century ago, surely warring American political leaders can do it today.
God knows our nation needs a truce.
As the deadly coronavirus spreads around the world and across the country, it is forcing a head-spinning upheaval to daily life and challenging not only our medical and political leaders, but also our character. The economic losses already are staggering and the social, sports and cultural disruptions are unprecedented.
This truly is a national emergency, and if we are to prevail, as President Trump insists we will, unity is essential.
Our great nation managed to forge such unity in the hardest of times before. We triumphed over the Depression, two world wars and the horrors of 9/11 because leaders put aside their personal and political differences and pulled together so they could pull the country in one direction.
Today we face a new and decidedly different test, for the coronavirus is a silent, invisible enemy that does its deadliest work among the elderly. The catastrophic potential is creating a panic at a time when our polarization is stark, and the fact that we are deep into an election cycle adds to the poisoned atmosphere.
Map of coronavirus cases in the US
Washington is the epicenter of our discontent, with relations between Trump and top Democrats resembling trench warfare. They don’t meet or speak directly, instead hurling insults like so many grenades.
That would be mistrust enough, but virtually the entire nation is infected with similar standoffs. Small communities and big cities alike are seeing partisan chasms open up between neighbors. Everybody seemingly has split with a friend or family member over dueling allegiances.
The bitterness is reaching so deeply that secession is no longer a taboo topic and there are worrisome signs that political violence is becoming acceptable.
Given that backdrop, it is not a surprise that both sides in Washington are intent on scoring points in the midst of the epidemic, even as they insist that politics must take a back seat. The situation recalls what Mark Twain said about the weather, that everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it.
It’s time to do something about our national divide. A 30-day political cease-fire is reasonable and doable. We must take a break from the hate.
A month would be a good cooling-off period to allow the public-health emergency to take its rightful place at the top of the agenda without the distraction of personal sniping, which is especially demoralizing these days. In this environment, each attack smacks of pettiness and politics-as-usual.
Partisanship has an important role in our enduring experiment with self-government, but not now. Now is the time for a united America to mobilize against a lethal scourge.
A 30-day cease-fire would allow the entire nation to focus on saving lives and preventing further disaster to the economy and jobs. There would be plenty of time later to resume the political hostilities before the November election.
Consider the new estimates from Trump’s team and others suggesting the expanding mitigation efforts around the country could put the contagion under control within eight weeks. Imagine the optimism that would flower if such progress came during the hiatus of acid-tongued attacks.
A truce could begin by Trump on one side and Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer on the other calling a halt to the name-calling and venomous criticisms. Recognizing the stakes, they would express their differences over how to combat the coronavirus in constructive terms.
Thus, instead of calling Trump incompetent and corrupt, Pelosi and Schumer could simply explain what they would do differently and why. Ditto for Trump when it comes to their ideas. Both sides should reserve Twitter for information and ideas.
An agreement would be nice, but isn’t necessary. All they need do is start behaving as Americans first and partisans second.
That shouldn’t be too hard for 30 days. They might even come to enjoy the experience of domestic tranquility.
Hopefully, there would be a trickle-down effect as well, with all of us spontaneously engaging in political truces in our homes, neighborhoods and the workplace.
Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, the Dems’ remaining presidential candidates, should also be part of a cease-fire. They can offer their ideas on dealing with the emergency and everything else that comes with the office they are seeking, but they should move the country toward shared solutions, not further divide it.
Unity has its own positive power, as Trump’s Friday press conference demonstrated. With top members of his team sharing the Rose Garden podium with CEOs of some of the nation’s largest retailers, medical diagnostic and supply companies, the pledge to expand and speed up virus-testing was compelling. Public-private partnerships are a cliché, but watching this one take shape for such a crucial mission was heartening. Patriotism brought them together in a time of need.
Not incidentally, the Dow Jones Industrial Average shot up by more than 800 points in just 30 minutes, a remarkable sign of approval.
Later, that spirit prevailed again as the White House and both political parties agreed on a substantial aid package.
That made Friday a rare day in DC, and perhaps it is the start of a national turnaround. One where elected officials and private-sector leaders work closely together for the common good.
Perhaps at the next event, Trump could build on that spirit by including Pelosi, Schumer and GOP congressional leaders. The fact that they clearly don’t like each other would make their message all the more powerful: We are Americans, and we are in this together.
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