Good morning, it’s Friday, March 26, 2021, the day of the week when I reprise a quotation meant to be uplifting or educational. Today’s comes from the 44th president of the United States, with an assist from a little-known American schoolteacher who wrote a poem that was reprised seven years ago today in a military cemetery in Europe.
Poetry is a fitting theme today. Robert Frost was born on this date in 1874; on March 26, 1892, Walt Whitman went to his final rest. I’ll cue up the scene for Barack Obama in a moment. First, I’d point you to RCP’s front page, which presents our poll averages, videos, breaking news stories, and aggregated opinion pieces spanning the political spectrum. We also offer original material from our own reporters, columnists, and contributors:
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John McCrae was a surgeon in a Canadian artillery unit in 1915 and was running an army field hospital when a mortally wounded lieutenant named Alexis Helmer was brought in during the Second Battle of Ypres. Helmer had been a student of McCrae’s in Montreal and the physician was moved in his grief to write a poem about the fallen. “In Flanders Fields” was published that same year in a London magazine.
McCrae was promoted during the war to lieutenant colonel, but he did not survive the war either. His verses live on, however, although they have had different meanings to ensuing generations. In only three stanzas, McCrae managed to write a poem that is both a lament of the wasted lives of war, and a call to arms. The first stanza sets the scene, the second mourns the fallen, and the third urges others to carry the torch of freedom forward. It was this last sentiment that was referenced on March 26, 2014, by President Obama as he placed a wreath at Flanders Field American Cemetery and Memorial in Belgium.
The U.S. president was preceded at the podium by Belgian King Philippe and Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo. Both leaders expressed gratitude for the Americans who fought side by side with Belgium and the other allies. The king, whose great-grandfather had resisted the Kaiser’s ultimatum, also invoked the words of Woodrow Wilson: “There is a price which is too great to pay for peace, and that price can be put in one word. One cannot pay the price of self-respect.”
“We are gathered today to remember the millions of soldiers and civilians who died during the First World War in Belgium and in the rest of Europe,” added the prime minister, “and, especially, to remember the Americans who lost their lives in our cities and our countryside. On behalf of Belgium, I will honor their memory and thank them and their families for their terrible sacrifice. … We will never forget.”
When it was his turn to speak, President Obama was equally gracious. Near the end of his brief remarks, the president recited the third stanza of John McCrae’s famous poem.
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Obama continued: “What is lesser known is that three years after he wrote those words — and thousands of miles away — an American schoolteacher named Moina Michael read McCrae’s poem. And she was so moved that she wrote a response:
Oh! you who sleep in “Flanders Fields,”
Sleep sweet — to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.
“We can say we caught the torch,” Obama said, as if addressing the fallen heroes buried there. “We kept the faith.”
And that’s our quote of the week.
Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics