Many of us have only dim memories from early childhood. One day stands out clearly in my mind, however. I was nearing my sixth birthday. It was an April morning in 1965. I went next door, as I did virtually every day back then, and asked if little Marjorie, the girl there my age, could play.

I knew right away something was different. Her grandmother answered the door with a red, tear-stained face and said that, no, it wasn't a good time to play. Marjorie's daddy, a pilot, had gone missing in action in Vietnam.

It's been said that America is really more of an idea than it is a traditional nation. People come here from all over because of that idea, and because of what it could mean for them and their children. But it's an idea with a price, and it seems no generation can pay it fully. Each has its own installment come due.

That's rather ironic, actually, considering Veterans Day, observed today, grew out of a celebration a lot of people thought would signal the end of all wars.

All you have to do is peruse the newspapers of Nov. 11, 1918, to catch the spirit of those times. World War I had been the war to end all wars, and a lot of people held fast to that notion. People in Salt Lake City were no different. Despite worries about the deadly Spanish influenza, thousands took to the streets in a boisterous, spontaneous demonstration. Anyone wearing a uniform was automatically hoisted high by the throngs and subject to all sorts of adorations.

This newspaper, known then as the Deseret Evening News, said the armistice marked the "birthday of world-wide freedom."

"The eleventh day of the eleventh month, signalized this year by the signed surrender of the last of the earth's great autocracies, will have in the years to come a broad and beneficent meaning more far-reaching than any other political event in history."

Then my editorial-writing predecessors added this prediction: "After the bitternesses of this horrid war shall have passed away ... those who now feel themselves defeated and humiliated will bless the hand that smote them, for they will see that instead of striking them to their hurt, it broke their chains and enabled them to become free members in the brotherhood of mankind."

Was this idealistic? Or was it naive? Whichever, the sentiment neatly encapsules a common thread of hope that is uniquely American. You don't have to twist too many words in the sentence to begin hearing echoes of Bush administration officials predicting how Iraqis would throng the streets to thank their American liberators.

Unfortunately, a stark difference exists between the feelings of average people, who may indeed be grateful for liberation, and the feelings of those who see opportunities for power that can come through fomenting fears, hatreds and nationalism.

My predecessors didn't foresee how Germany's humiliation would give rise to Hitler, any more than today's administration seemed able to see how terrorists and others would try to disrupt efforts to establish a free government in Iraq. They couldn't see how so many others would be lured by power to form new autocracies, and how that all-too-human trait one day would lead to the sadness I found on my neighbor's doorstep on that morning in 1965.

Through the miracle of the Internet, I was able to find Marjorie again while writing this column. She told me she is a wife and mother of three, living a happy life and enjoying a successful career of her own. Like so many of us, she is a beneficiary of that unique American idea that exacts such a high price. Her father's remains, however, have never been found.

My intent isn't to pass judgment on foreign policy decisions or whether certain wars were necessary. It is rather to address the power of the American idea that sets this day apart. Is it idealistic and naive, or is it noble and heroic? The best answer may be this: Imagine a world in which it does not exist.

Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret Morning News editorial page. E-mail: