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'Sail on, O Ship of State' — even in these turbulent seas

'Sail on, O Ship of State' — even in these turbulent seas
© Getty Images

Recently, I attended the christening of the USS John F. Kennedy, the name it will take when launched as the newest aircraft carrier in the American fleet. Although I grew up boating on the Ohio River, this event at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia clearly represented an upgrade in my naval experience. A crystal clear December day, with an invigorating breeze off the James River, created a stunning setting for the massive carrier whose deck covers five acres. The floating city will transport 5,000 officers and sailors on missions of war and peace.  

It seemed especially meaningful, in these fraught partisan times, that the new JFK is part of the Gerald R. Ford class of aircraft carriers. Two members of the “Greatest Generation,” Ford, a mid-western Republican, and Kennedy, a New England Democrat, were World War II Navy veterans of the South Pacific when they won their House of Representative seats in 1948 and 1946, respectively.

As Caroline Kennedy, the carrier’s sponsor, rose to give remarks, she copied her father’s inaugural gesture. On that frigid Jan. 20, 1961, a young and vibrant JFK removed his topcoat to deliver a memorable Cold War address. Ms. Kennedy, the former ambassador to Japan, observed that 78 years ago this month the Imperial Japanese Navy launched its devastating attack on Pearl Harbor, decimating American forces there. The infamous attack prompted her dad and uncle, Joseph Kennedy Jr., to enlist in the U.S. Navy.

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Two years later, John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE would nearly lose his life when a Japanese destroyer collided with the PT boat he skippered in the Solomon Islands. His brother, a Navy aviator, would perish when his plane exploded on a secret mission to bomb Nazi gun emplacements on the French coast.  

But Ambassador Kennedy delivered a message of peace and reconciliation, noting that her most memorable experience as the U.S. representative to our former enemy was visiting with the widow of the destroyer captain who almost killed her father and took the lives of two of his crew members. She reported that her father had corresponded with Lt. Cmdr. Kohei Hanami throughout the post-war era. His widow’s most prized possession was a portrait of JFK, signed to her husband by then-Sen. Kennedy, with the inscription, “Late enemy and present friend.”

As Ambassador Kennedy spoke, and then performed the ritual breaking of a champagne bottle on the bow of the carrier named for her father, the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem refrain crossed my mind: “Sail on, O Ship of State.”  

An admittedly nationalistic verse, composed in 1849 by the abolitionist and pro-Union poet as the country careened toward civil war, it still captures the aspirations of our democratic republic.  President Franklin Roosevelt hand wrote the opening stanza to Winston Churchill to bolster the British prime minister as he faced Hitler’s onslaught. In turn, Churchill recited Longfellow’s stirring language in a 1941 speech before a joint session of Congress. He predicted, with indomitable Churchillian optimism, that the United States, led by FDR, would assist the beleaguered United Kingdom in eventually vanquishing the Nazi menace.

With our nation now riven by polarization and impeachment, the Longfellow poem offers a metaphor for us to contemplate as we evaluate the status of our constitutional order: 

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Fear not each sudden sound and shock, 
'Tis of the wave and not the rock; 
'Tis but the flapping of the sail, 
And not a rent made by the gale!

Has our ship of state hit a wave or a rock or a gale?  If the latter, can we survive the roiling seas and stormy winds to chart a safer course?

With political opponents labeled as enemies by the most rabid partisans on both sides of the aisle, it seems especially instructive to remember JFK’s inscription to the Japanese commander who nearly took his life in the South Pacific. If Kennedy could declare a former mortal enemy a friend so soon after the deadly battles of a world war, and his daughter serve as ambassador to that nation, which she notes could not be a closer U.S. ally, can we reconcile with those at home who may differ with us on ideology and public policy?  

Longfellow’s florid style may ring hollow in our 21st century Tweetocracy (although his overuse of exclamation marks has been revived!), but his concern for the endurance of the American constitutional experiment is no less applicable today than in the antebellum era, when the poet fretted:

Humanity with all its fears,
With all the hopes of future years, 
Is hanging breathless on thy fate!

Barbara A. Perry is Presidential Studies director and Gerald L. Baliles Professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. Follow her on Twitter @BarbaraPerryUVA.