Earlier this week, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar celebrated the Trump administration for its treatment of immigrant children it has separated from their parents. “We have nothing to hide about how we operate these facilities,” said Azar on CNN. “It is one of the great acts of American generosity and charity, what we are doing for these unaccompanied kids.”
This magnanimous claim raises an obvious question: What are the other great acts of American generosity?
Of course, we know that the U.S. treatment of Native Americans has been extraordinarily generous. They were literally asking for it since before there was an America: The seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for most of the 17th century was an Indian saying, “Come over and help us.”
So as President Andrew Jackson explained to Congress in 1829 when making the case for the Indian Removal Act, “Toward the aborigines of the country no one can indulge a more friendly feeling than myself. … Rightly considered, the policy of the General Government toward the red man is not only liberal, but generous.” The passage of the act the next year generously allowed the Cherokee to experience the Trail of Tears.
Sixty years later, in “The Winning of the West,” future President Teddy Roosevelt remained impressed by this example of American generosity. “In [our] treaties,” he wrote, “we have been more than just to the Indians; we have been abundantly generous. … No other conquering and colonizing nation has ever treated the original savage owners of the soil with such generosity as has the United States.”
Slavery, too, was an act of generosity. As Thomas Roderick Dew, who went on to become president of William & Mary College, put it in the famed 1832 treatise, “The Pro-Slavery Argument,” slaveowners were among the “most generous” Americans. Moreover, a slaveholder’s son, precisely because he witnessed his father enslaving others, “acquires a greater generosity and elevation of soul, and embraces for the sphere of his generous actions a much wider field.”
The Vietnam War was another high point in U.S. generosity. David Lawrence, then editor of U.S. News & World Report, proclaimed in 1966 that “what the United States is doing in Vietnam is the most significant example of philanthropy extended by one people to another that we have witnessed in our times.”
More recently, we generously helped three prisoners at Guantánamo Bay kill themselves. “The manipulative detainees,” wrote Michelle Malkin soon afterward, “reportedly used the generous civil liberties protections we gave them to plot their suicide pact.”
So we clearly have a long history about which to volubly praise ourselves. But we should be modest enough to realize that we have never matched the moral heights of the most generous man in history: Adolf Hitler.
Just before the German invasion of Poland in 1939, the British ambassador to Germany wrote home to explain how frustrated Hitler was that he was not receiving credit for his generosity:
Herr Hitler replied that he would be willing to negotiate, if there was a Polish Government which was prepared to be reasonable. … He expatiated on misdoings of the Poles, referred to his generous offer of March last, said that it could not be repeated.
We shouldn’t feel too bad about the Poles’ ingratitude, however. Hitler had an advantage, because he was leading the Germans, who are naturally generous to a fault. Joseph Goebbels explained this in a generous 1941 article, titled “The Jews Are Guilty!“:
If we Germans have a fateful flaw in our national character, it is forgetfulness. This failing speaks well of our human decency and generosity, but not always for our political wisdom or intelligence. We think everyone else is as good natured as we are.
At this point, all we can do is pray that someday we will find it in our hearts to be as generous as 1940s-era Germans. Overall, we’re still a long way from that achievement, but certainly there seem to be some pioneers among us right now who are getting close.