- Historic Sites
Letter From The Editor
December 1981 | Volume 33, Issue 1
Just as this issue of A MERICAN H ERITAGE was about to go to press, the President issued an extraordinary executive order: for the first time in our history, the U.S. Coast Guard was authorized to intercept on the high seas and turn back ships carrying illegal immigrants. It is too soon to tell, of course, how long this order will stand or what its impact will be, but it does serve to underscore the urgency of the current national debate over our immigration policy.
In times of stress and change, we tend to look to the past, partly for reassurance, but more important, in hopes of finding there clues to what the future holds. In order to offer some help in this, AMERICAN HERITAGE is, with this issue, reviving the series “A Look at the Record,” which makes accessible the salient historical facts about major issues: in this issue we examine immigration; soon we will deal with welfare and the draft.
As in every issue, a number of our articles have contemporary resonances: in an era of rampant inflation, it is instructive to take a look at a time when a family of five could live, albeit austerely, on five hundred dollars a year; events are not immutable and, although often we think we understand them when they occur, their significance can change with the years, as Edwin O. Reischauer, our former ambassador to Japan, reminds us in his look at the real impact of Pearl Harbor from the vantage point of its fortieth anniversary this month.
Often, how another age chose to view the past can tell us as much about that age as it can about the era being recalled. Thus the great historical clock that chimes in this holiday issue is imbued with all the enthusiasm of the 1876 Centennial and reveals a unique and eccentric record of the events that led up to it. Or even wallpaper—in the early days of the republic, it was no mere nicety to hide the plaster but a room-sized record of our native achievements and natural wonders.
And this last article also provides a comforting reminder that even in the most conspicuous home in the land, things don’t always go according to plan. When we needed to photograph several wallpaper panels in the private dining room of the White House, we contacted the curator’s office. No problem: the Reagans were about to leave for a month’s vacation in the West—plenty of time for a staff photographer to do the job. But one appointment was canceled when a parade blocked delivery of the photographer’s equipment, another fell through because electricians were rewiring the second floor, and a third attempt failed when the photographer was suddenly ordered out to California. Finally, with the Reagans’ return only hours away, we remembered Dane Penland, the able Smithsonian man who photographed the clock for us. Miraculously he had the necessary security clearance and was able—with help from William Allman of the curator’s office—to get in on the Saturday before our deadline. Thus we got the fine picture that enlivens our article, and the first family’s homecoming was not disrupted.