Monday over Coffee: "Grit, Pluck, & Agency"

Published April 4, 2022 by Greg Funderburk

We can't guarantee success—but we can do something better. We can deserve it.
— John Adams, letter to Abigail Adams during the Revolutionary War

David McCullough is a national treasure. His presidential biographies about John Adams and Harry Truman both won Pulitzer Prizes. They were well-deserved. His more recent book about the Wright Brothers is winsome and marvelous, and his compelling story-driven accounts of the construction of the Panama Canal (The Path Between the Seas, 1978) and the Brooklyn Bridge (The Great Bridge, 1983) are fascinating page-turners. McCullough has a remarkable speaking voice, too. He narrated Ken Burns' acclaimed Civil War series, several episodes of PBS' The American Experience, and a number of other television shows, including award-winning documentaries about the Statue of Liberty, the Donner Party, and the D-Day invasion. Whether narrating, giving viral commencement speeches, or in his own brilliant writing, McCullough seems unswervingly drawn to projects and stories which uncover the unique combination of grit and pluck found historically at the core of the American identity.

In his biography of Harry Truman, writing about the Berlin Airlift, McCullough paints a vivid picture of how America's steely determination and ability to improvise in the midst of crisis coalesced in June of 1948 when the Soviet Union blockaded all ingress and egress from the city of West Berlin. "We stay in Berlin, period," President Truman said to his aides, and within two days, the United States and its allies, despite the obvious dangers involved in flying both day and night over hostile territory and a host of additional unknown hazards and escalatory risks, began shipping supplies to West Berlin by air. At the height of the undertaking, a plane was landing every 45 seconds at Berlin's airport. The colossal effort would continue in earnest well into 1949 when Josef Stalin, surprised by the resolve of the Allies and embarrassed by his own nation's failure to prevail, finally called off the blockade. All told, American and British forces flew over 250,000 sorties to the city, dropping fuel, food, and other essentials to save West Berlin as the Iron Curtain descended over the rest of Eastern Europe at the dawn of the Cold War.

In a number of speeches he's delivered, McCullough has cited the Berlin Crisis and the actions the United States took in response to it as an example of a hinge moment in history from which a higher, more philosophical lesson about life is placed on offer to us. McCullough puts it like this: seems to me that one of the truths about history that needs to be portrayed—needs to be made clear to a student or to a reader—is that nothing ever had to happen the way it happened. History could have gone off in any number of different directions in any number of different ways at any point along the way, just as your own life can.

McCullough's point is that we often view history and consider the past as being on a preordained track that has led us inevitably to where we are now, but when we fall prey to this kind of thinking, we fail to fully realize that it was human beings behaving and acting through their own agency and under their own beliefs that affected how events unfolded. What actually got us here was the will, faith, intelligence, and heroic actions of multitudes of great and good men and women who came before us, contending tirelessly in their day with the forces arrayed against them—many of which were wholly out of their control. If we let this really sink in, we might better comprehend the true measure of our own good fortune and also learn how to deploy our own freedom and agency in the face of matters both in and out of our control.

In McCullough's extensive research for his biography of John Adams, he came upon a letter Adams wrote to his wife Abigail when the outcome of the American Revolution was most in doubt—a moment in the course of history and in their personal lives when matters were terribly uncertain. Recognizing that while the ultimate outcome may rest with Providence, Adams put his finger on what remained in their own hands. With characteristic American grit and pluck, Adams wrote this to his wife: "We can't guarantee success in this war, but we can do something better. We can deserve it."

God — While perhaps there's no preordained track, I believe there is a preordained destination with You. May I discharge that which is within my power to deserve the good that You've providentially ordained. Amen.

— Greg Funderburk