Eddie Rickenbacker was America’s most decorated ace in World War I. Man of courage and faith, he shot down 26 aircraft. After that war, he raced cars, ran Eastern Airlines. During the next, he crashed in a B-17, survived 24 days on a raft. As life ebbed, he prayed for food. A seagull landed within reach, keeping him alive. Rescued, he fed gulls the rest of his life. He wrote, too – with uncanny insight.
By chance, three private letters fell into my hands – all written by Rickenbacker to a friend, all-around Christmas – one in 1944 before WWII ended, one after in 1946, one 20 years later.
The three are stunning in their clarity, empathy, love of country, and concern for the future. In the first, he worries for those in uniform. In the third, he describes the best presidential candidate.
In the second, shortly after World War II ended – he worries for America’s future. His caution is worth recalling. Rickenbacker’s foresight is arresting, words compelling – and on target.
In that second letter, written in 1946, Eddie Rickenbacker muses to a friend, glad that WWII is over, concerned about what may next happen. Relief is good, but wars cast long shadows.
The flow of Rickenbacker’s thoughts is captivating. He lays out the case, at war’s end, for thinking about what winning took. “For many years past … the main objective of our leadership … was to teach the American people … how to hate” our enemies. He concedes the need.
He continues. “On V-E Day and finally on V-J Day, the guns were silenced … Thousands have gone home … a signal for Peace, Love and Good Will toward men, but since the hate was instilled in the hearts and minds of millions … we started … to hate ourselves.”
“Republicans hate Democrats, and Democrats hate Republicans. Communists … Fascists are being hated… Employees have been taught to hate the boss, the company for which they work, and the stockholders who own it.”
“Switching the strife from the battlefields of foreign lands to the battle fields on the home front, is bringing about disorganization, industrial strife, misery and … poverty.” Poverty is material and spiritual, a sense that hardened hearts are now permissible.
“Let us … take inventory of ourselves and our pet hates as we approach the Holiday Season, with the hope that we may again recapture our respect and admiration for our fellow man …”
Rickenbacker, old ace, gets specific. With uncanny foresight, he writes: Let us “eliminate the hates from our hearts and minds, and proceed with the teachings of Christ, so that once again we may enjoy the Peace and Tranquility of the laws and liberties of this great land of ours.”
He offers wishes for a good holiday season, one that might just as well be ours. He knows what it takes to win. He has steeled his nerves, resolved to win, known lesser evils to beat greater ones.
But he is now concerned for winning peace, for long-term peace among his fellow Americans, a return to empathy, mutual identification, congeniality, respect, restored order, even admiration. He is concerned about the power of “taught hate” to diminish “this great land of ours.”
The singular question Rickenbacker poses, although not expressed, is: Can Americans unlearn taught antipathy, hatred, demonization of our fellow man? In his view, survival depends on it.
Good news: We did unlearn it with conscious effort. Bad news: We seem to have forgotten how much damage is done by teaching division, disfavoring a group, race, faith, position, or opinion, ignoring the heart’s dominion. We need to remember; Rickenbacker was right.