History And Hope

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THIS IS A VERY INTERESTING PLACE TO WORK. TWO days after the September attacks, a group of us were standing in the hallway, listening while one of the editors explained, at length and with considerable passion, her view that President Bush could have behaved in a more statesmanlike manner during the hours after the assault. We were just outside the office of another editor, a notably quiet and hardworking fellow who, a few minutes into the diatribe, slammed shut his door with such violence that the in-boxes on the filing cabinets jumped and rattled.

He never said a word about this wholly uncharacteristic gesture but the following Monday put on my desk a photocopy of a page from Poltroons and Patriots , Glenn Tucker’s 1954 history of the War of 1812. He’d marked a passage telling of an incident on a Hudson River steamboat that Tucker felt indicated an important shift in the national mood. Washington Irving was aboard, and “learned from passengers who boarded the vessel at Poughkeepsie that the British Army had captured Washington and burned the public buildings. A man was lolling in the dark on one of the settees of the boat. Overhearing the news, he remarked rather rudely, ‘Well, I wonder what Jimmie Madison will say now?’ Irving, suddenly enraged, took a quick swing at the scoffer, caught him a glancing blow, and then gave him a lesson in the rudiments of patriotism:

“’Sir, do you seize on such a disaster only for a sneer? Let me tell you, it is not now a question about Jimmie Madison or Johnny Armstrong. The pride and honor of this nation are wounded. The country is insulted and disgraced by this barbarous success, and every loyal citizen should feel the ignominy and be eager to avenge it.’”

Remember that I was reading this at a time when the annihilating power of this recent barbarous success seemed to some to have seared away history altogether. For a while people were saying that there were no useful historical precedents, and Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times that the calamity did have its benefit: It would liberate the American citizenry from its “fetishization” of World War II.

Naturally it is in the nature of our job to hang on to history, and we were glad to see that before long the general tenor had shifted and the media were drawing steadily on the past, examining events ranging from Pearl Harbor to the Crusades (and even the War of 1812, if not the young Washington Irving). Both these responses—fleeing the past, then pursuing it—make perfect emotional sense. The present is a very tough bully; but history helps us escape his torments.

Two stories in this issue grow directly out of current troubles, and both of them are reassuring. Dennis Giangreco’s study of Special Forces not only clarifies the role these littleunderstood soldiers play but suggests, at a time when we may be needing them urgently, that it is no bad thing to be able to rely on the skills of the heirs of the men who scaled Pointe du Hoc on D-day. John Steele Gordon finds in the stock market’s current woes not the beginning of the dissolution of capitalism but business as usual—and a generally beneficent business at that.

Yet the past offers comforts beyond the instructive. The English poet Alfred Noyes wrote (about what Americans used to call a hurdy-gurdy when those raucous machines still sang their songs below tenement windows): “There’s a barrel organ caroling across a golden street, / In the City as the sun sinks low; / And the music’s not immortal; but the world has made it sweet / And fulfilled it with a twilight glow. …” And so, somehow, with the photographs that Thomas Mallon writes about on page 60. When Edward S. Miller took them, he was pursuing neither history nor beauty, but merely those rugged, homely streetcars shouldering their way through every shot. In the process of photographing them, though, Miller also recorded a civilization that is at once alien and familiar, a world of hosiery stores and cafeterias and neon cocktail glasses that was certainly not immortal but has become strangely sweet.

Spend a moment in downtown Scranton on a rainy evening five days before Christmas in 1952; and please accept it as a holiday greeting from the American Heritage staff, one that comes with our every good wish for the year ahead. It may not be an easy year, and possibly there will be times during its course when we will want to remember that even Robert E. Lee, who saw some very hard years indeed, could say, “It is history that gives us hope.”