The year was 1942; Croswell Bowen was returning to wartime New York. From the ferry’s deck he watched as the Statue of Liberty grew small and blurry in the morning mist. He pondered what he had seen. He had huddled in foxholes as Rommel’s bombs rained down on Tobruk; had lain in stretcher lines and hospital beds alongside soldiers of many nations. What would give all that suffering meaning?
Bowen’s travels in Syria and Lebanon; in Palestine; in Egypt and Libya had given him a new faith in America’s conceptions of freedom and the dignity of man. He shared the hope of Henry Wallace, then FDR’s Vice President, who declared that “the century of the common man” had dawned. “We Americans have an opportunity, a fine chance to fulfill this responsibility, to give these things in which we believe to the world” Bowen would write. He covered the U.N.’s formation with hopeful attention.
America’s gifts would have to be given “with great understanding, tact and love,” he wrote. But as the harsh realities of the Cold War emerged and it became difficult to distinguish US foreign policy from the very imperialism Wallace had disavowed, “understanding, tact and love” seemed to fall by the wayside. Bowen’s hopes for international government and world peace diminished. He died in 1971 without witnessing the fall of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War, or an America engaged in combat with yet a new, 21st century enemy.
I believe Croswell Bowen, my father, would have been heartened by the UN’s decision last week to recognize Palestine as a nonmember observer state, and by the Arab Springs breaking out in many of the very countries he had visited. Whether we are closer to world peace now than in 1942, only time will tell. Perhaps, though, if we must send Americans into harm’s way, we might consider welcoming them home not merely by thanking them for their service. How much better it would be if we could offer them the healing gift of a truly moral purpose for their service, one that demonstrates great understanding, tact and love.
Betsy Connor Bowen’s edition of Croswell Bowen’s WWII memoir Back From Tobruk has just been published by Potomac Books. A biography is scheduled to appear in 2014 from the same publisher.