Martin: Remembering the past, but not chained to it

They just could not bring themselves to shake hands with their former enemies.

A few weeks ago on the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, we remembered earlier reunions when some American servicemen met the Japanese pilots who had attacked them so many years earlier.

NC Bookwatch by D.G. Martin

NC Bookwatch
by D.G. Martin

Some Americans shook hands with their former enemies and exchanged memories. Others just could not do it.

We understood and respected their inability to make peace with the enemies who had done them such harm.

But understanding their feelings did not keep the rest of us from continuing to develop connections with former enemies when it can be done in our interests.

Similarly, we understand and respect the reluctance of some Americans to accept our country’s rapprochement with China and Vietnam in light of our past conflicts and unspeakable horrors. But it would have been tragic if those concerns kept us from building peaceful and mutually productive relationships with those countries. The peoples of those countries and Americans are better off because of our connections.

We should also understand and respect the views of Americans whose families have suffered from the repressive policies, past and present, of the Cuban government.

But our respect for those views should not keep us from supporting policies of engagement with Cuba that can be beneficial for the American people, in the same way such links with Japan, Vietnam and China have been better for Americans than earlier policies of separation and antagonism were.

While we must remember the past, we must not be chained to it.

President Obama’s announcement of his plan to move toward normalizing relations with Cuba creates a challenge for North Carolina politicians, especially for those who tend to oppose every Obama initiative or who sincerely oppose any concession to Cuba until it gives more political and economic freedom to its people.

First term Republican Rep. George Holding said that “instead of rewarding an oppressive regime who has failed in the past to deliver increased freedoms and real economic reform, President Obama should instead advocate for the freedom of the Cuban people before any concessions are made.”

Newly elected Rep. David Rouzer commented, “What I found appalling is the prospect of having an American embassy in Cuba. That is not a message we need to send to tyrants around the world.”

According to the Associated Press, newly elected Sen. Thom Tillis said “President Barack Obama’s decision to make sweeping changes now to American and Cuban relations is a bad idea and should have come only after more Cuban government and human rights reforms.”

But North Carolina’s other U.S. senator, Richard Burr, more seasoned than his colleagues and facing a reelection campaign, was more temperate. “Regarding what the president said on normalizing our nation’s relationship with Cuba, I will listen closely to Chairman Corker, Ranking Member Menendez, and other members of the Foreign Affairs Committee as they contemplate any legislative changes that may need to be made in response to the president’s announcement.”

Senator Bob Corker, incoming chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was even more restrained. “The new U.S. policy announced by the administration is no doubt sweeping, and as of now there is no real understanding as to what changes the Cuban government is prepared to make. We will be closely examining the implications of these major policy changes in the next Congress.”

Clearly, President Obama sees potential political gains in his Cuban policy. If the public supports the changes and Republicans stand in the way, he will show them to be chained to the past.

Sen. Burr and Sen. Corker seem to understand the risk better than their less experienced colleagues.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon (preempted this week and next by special programming) and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For information visit

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