- Historic Sites
History Still Matters
A distinguished journalist and former presidential adviser says that to find the meaning of any news story, we must dig for its roots in the past
December 1985 | Volume 37, Issue 1
But I interviewed another man for the same documentary—a little Sicilian immigrant to America named Frank Capra. Frank Capra is famed for gentle, humorous movies like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which ordinary folks and apple-pie virtue win out. Capra was a celebrated Hollywood director when Franklin Roosevelt and Gen. George Marshall drafted him during the war to answer the powerful propaganda films of Fritz Hippler and Adolf Hitler—Nazi films that were stunning the world into thinking the German Wehrmacht was invincible. So Frank Capra came to Washington in 1942, and he set out to make films that would explain to American boys—and to people all over the world—why we had to fight.
Capra was in his early nineties when I interviewed him for my series. When he came to New York, he brought along a portfolio of pictures. He had gone into the propaganda business reluctantly. He had believed so fiercely in an open society that he had doubts that propaganda was a legitimate tool for democratic purposes. But he did his job, he made the films, and when America won the war, he returned to Hollywood. Not until the end of the war, however, had he fully understood why his work truly was justified. Those photographs under his arm showed the liberation by American soldiers of Nazi death camps like Dachau and Buchenwald. Capra had kept them all this time to remind himself of what had really been at stake in that war—the bestiality, the horrors, the tyranny, and the racism of the Third Reich. I looked at those pictures Frank Capra brought with him that day. I remembered the cool certainty of Fritz Hippler as he said that Adolf Hitler’s only mistake was in losing the war, and I thought of what a close call it has been for civilization in our time.
The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr warned us in the 1940s that the devil was back.
Such horrors help to explain what has happened to history as a concept and discipline in the twentieth century. My associate Bernard Weisberger, who served as chief consultant to my series, points out that around 1900 both academic and best-selling popular historians in America looked upon history as a current whose force you could measure and whose direction you could chart. That historical force appeared to be taking us to glorious destinations. Some historians “proved,” as it were, that Galileo, Luther, Columbus, and Newton had all unwittingly been working together, weaving the design of progress—blazing a path for Washington and Jefferson and Franklin, and also for Bell, Edison, Andrew Carnegie, Commodore Vanderbilt, Admiral Dewey, and Teddy Roosevelt. Only a few pessimists like Mark Twain and Henry Adams doubted that we were getting better all the time. For most, history as either art or science showed how all the pieces fit nicely together in a pattern of improving civilization.
But then came the grim reaper. Fully 1,100,000 men died in a single battle in World War I. After the Somme and Verdun, after Lenin and Stalin and Mussolini, after Hitler and the Holocaust—after all the major- and minor-league tyrants and mass murderers of our time—the neatly constructed edifice of optimistic purpose, order, and law lay in shambles.
The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr warned us in the 1940s that the devil was back. We’d seen him in the Sportspalast and Red Square; in the death camps and the gulags; in the rubble of the cities. And the barbarians—they weren’t out there somewhere on the steppes or in the jungle, waiting to be transformed by the advancing wave of civilization. No, we’d seen them in uniform, chanting slogans, burning books, herding people into barbwire enclosures and the stultifying cattle cars in Europe. One way or another, evil was right here at the very core of our century, right in the center of the modern world’s amazing web of sophistication and technology that promised so many blessings.
Maybe Henry Adams had been right after all, when he said that modern men and women were gripped by forces that simply flung them around as if they had grabbed a live wire. The marvels of this century would prove awesome, but so would the miseries. By mid-century, when the explosion of the bomb and the reality of the death camps pressed in upon us, it seemed a dark age had come again. America lost her innocence and her exceptionalism. Vietnam raised deep and disturbing questions about the link between means and ends: “We had to destroy this village,” said the major standing in the ruins, “we had to destroy this village in order to save it.” We lost the war. We lost control of the economy. And we lost faith in our ability, despite the best of intentions, to work through government to make things better. A cloud hung over the seat of government. Kennedy: elected and assassinated. Johnson: elected and discredited. Nixon: elected and disgraced. Ford: appointed and defeated. Carter: elected and defeated.
Not only had our optimism staggered beneath all this. The sheer velocity of change toppled all the familiar landmarks. And the speed of change constantly accelerated, so that the Second World War and the 1940s now appear as remote as the First World War, the 1920s and 1930s. When I asked a student recently when the Selma March took place, he thought a minute and said, “I believe that was in the Peloponnesian Wars, wasn’t it?”