My Childhood Recollection of America
On the TV screen in the living room of the house where my family rented a room, a major news story from America broke out. The adults around me went bonkers, reacting to the news with utter astonishment and shock. Until then, I knew very little of America other than from watching "I Love Lucy" dubbed in Korean.
My grandfather could not stop raving about America with the newspaper spread open and his jaw practically on the floor. There must be a God and he must really love those Americans, he murmured over and over. This was coming from a man who had long abandoned religion.
For days and weeks since the news broke, the buzz only grew louder. Only in our dreams would we see something like this happen in Korea, my uncle lamented. The Korean people's respect and admiration for America took a quantum leap that day.
Care to guess what the news story was? No, it was not the moon landing.
It was president Richard Nixon's resignation on August 9th, 1974.
A young boy just a couple of years into academia, I could not make much sense out of it, but the adults' reaction around me was what made this historic event pronounced and memorable.
They expressed utter shock and bewilderment, not because of what you may think. To Koreans at the time, the idea that the head of a state would step down for a misdeed which did not involve dead bodies, and that a transition of power without a single gunshot fired would follow, was simply outside of the realm of possibility.
To put this into perspective, at the time when Watergate consumed the nation here, Korea lived under a military junta who ruled with an iron fist. Two years prior to Nixon's resignation, the Korean president had revised the Constitution to completely rig the electoral system as well as the legislative body, and to outlaw free speech.
Although most Americans may see Nixon's resignation as a low point in the nation's history, to most Koreans, on the day when Nixon walked out of the White House of his own volition to the helicopter as a private citizen, America stood tall.
You may remember from your history class that even though the Constitution did not bar the sitting president from seeking a third term, George Washington declined to pursue reelection despite his enormous popularity after serving his two terms.
I am not sure if even Washington realized what a great precedent he was setting for the fledgling nation's future. The example he set became an unwritten law which endured for nearly 150 years, and nobody prior to Franklin Roosevelt sought to stay in office more than two full terms.
What Washington did, and the subsequent tradition of having every president relinquish power at the end of his last term are absolutely remarkable and unprecedented. In most parts of the world at the time of the birth of our nation, the peaceful transition of power only took place at the death of a king, but even that often faced bloody contention. You may point to England as an established democracy at the time, but the British have enjoyed the benefit of the constitutional monarchy which has stood as a symbol of continuity.
What I did not even imagine at the time was that just six years later, my family would arrive in America. Five years after that, I swore in as a new citizen of this great nation.
For that, I am deeply and eternally grateful.