On Oct.23, 1942, my 23-year-old American uncle, Rob Cox, entered combat as part of a British regiment fighting for their lives and the future of Western civilization in the desert wastes of Egypt. The epic 12-day contest engaged the tanks and guns and men of two towering military leaders, German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and British General Bernard Montgomery. The Battle of El Alamein would be remembered as a great British victory; indeed, one of Britain’s very few after the calamitous defeats—in Greece, Singapore, Burma, North Africa—that had followed the hair’s-breadth win of the Battle of Britain. “Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat,” Winston Churchill would recall with characteristic hyperbole.
Six months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor forced his own country into the war, Rob had pledged allegiance with four American friends to the colonel in chief of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, who happened to be His Majesty the king, George VI. The Corps’ origin in pre-revolutionary America, along with helpful diplomatic connections, ultimately would enable 18 young Americans to become KRRC officers. At a time when Britain was desperate to see American troops on the battlefield, their presence on English parade grounds carried great symbolic weight, and the British press celebrated them.
Why would an American citizen, a young man who was proud of his country and believed wholeheartedly in the reigning historical narrative of exalted aims and advancing progress, sign over his life to a foreign army?
In the summer of 1942, Rob himself addressed this question in a letter to his mother. During 22 months overseas in the British army, he wrote her long, descriptive letters all but weekly, sometimes more. But this one he never mailed. It arrived home from Tunisia with his few possessions in the spring of 1943, several months after an Axis sniper killed him. I can’t help thinking of it as I consider the ever more ungenerous immigration policies of our current president and the racist hatreds they stoke.
My uncle’s wartime president, by contrast, was a master at evoking hopeful idealism. The statement of war goals agreed to by President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill at their first meeting in August 1941 cited self-determination, social welfare, free trade, and disarmament, among others. Seven months earlier, in his famous “Four Freedoms” speech in January, FDR invoked freedom of speech and worship, freedom from fear and want not for America first but “anywhere in the world.” Our highest aspirations encompassed all people everywhere.
Resting and waiting in a vast tent city near Cape Town, South Africa, my uncle Rob composed his own statement of purpose. He called it his “credo.” At that point, he was about half way done with the two-month, 13,000-mile sea voyage from Glasgow to Suez that Nazi domination of the Mediterranean required for a British troop ship to reach Egypt.
“I have thought infrequently of writing this letter and each time shied from it,” Rob began. “First because it is like all the sentimental heroics which prevent clear thought and, second, that I’m quite sure I shan’t be killed…”
Then he thanked his mother. My grandfather died of cancer when Rob was 10, and she had raised her seven children alone in Plainfield, New Jersey, and Vermont. “On the other hand, I think you would like a last word if anything did happen, a letter to tell you what I hope you already know—how glad a time you have given me.”
He understood that the task he had set himself was somewhat presumptuous. “I am not complacent,” he explained. “I have known little deeply and I would know it all deeply.” But his brush with war, albeit still mostly from a distance, made him feel more knowing than his American peers. “Although I am not very old or wise I have at least touched the greater part of human experience,” he wrote. A feeling had evolved that he would one day be a writer.
“I do not need to tell you why I came,” he continued. “I doubt if I could tell you fully.” Still tentative, he referenced his older brother, whom he called Billy but history remembers as the Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, with whom he had discussed the decision to volunteer.
“Billy said… that as far as he could see there were four reasons for going: nothing better to do; adventure; curiosity; and belief. I came for all four. But mostly for shame. I was ashamed of America. I love America, and I could not sit mediocre while America was being attacked.”
It sounds simple enough. Someone hits you; you hit back. But the attack that so riled my uncle as he sat thinking, suspended between peace and war, was not of a physical kind. It was not the places and people, the buildings and the bodies of the nation he loved that he felt compelled to defend. He was talking about defending the American ideal, the idea of America. Amidst the clamor of today’s fearsome headlines, the notion resonates profoundly.
“For America is not just a place between two oceans,” he wrote. “America is a faith and because it is a faith must be dynamic or perish.” Nearly 8,000 miles from home, his thoughts cohered around the Statue of Liberty and the words carved into its base. Do you know what is written there? he asked his mother rhetorically, then confessed he’d forgotten. But on he went. “I will write what I would put there. ‘Send me your oppressed, for I will give them freedom. Send me your despised for here they shall be ennobled.’” Then he reaffirmed his faith in that vision: “One day the dream will be fact.”
Nowadays my uncle’s noble dream seems more distant than ever. Rereading his words, I feel my own kind of shame at the current movement to renounce it. My uncle’s faith was rooted in a belief in human dignity. Admittedly, the United States in 1942 also was falling short of the dream, denying entry to Jewish refugees from Hitler’s terror and interning Japanese citizens in concentration camps. But to admit our shortfalls does not require us to renounce the higher goal.
At the end of his letter, Rob invited his mother to share his joy at having joined the fight for human freedom. “A child who loves a ball throws it in the air. A miser reveling in his gold clutches a handful and holding it aloft lets it stream gleaming downward in the sunlight. Even thus, I who love life, know that my life is worth nothing if not worth risking.”
Knowing how my uncle’s wartime adventure ended, I find joy too far a reach, and I doubt seriously that my grandmother could have embraced it either, although times were different then. But I find great joy in his generous vision. To one courageous, curious 23-year-old soon to struggle 2,500 miles across North Africa to his death, every American was an avatar of democracy, and eager to share it with a suffering world. Like Lady Liberty herself, anchored ultimately in the muck of the seafloor, America still can serve as the beacon of a better world. Not just materially better off—a better place for some to take a shot at wealth—but richer in human dignity and hope, not for America first, but for everyone, anywhere.