Reading, Writing And History


We do see things from the moralist’s viewpoint. It is an unhandy sort of arrangement, from the practical standpoint, for it can involve us in conflicts which we might otherwise avoid—of which the most costly are the conflicts with our own spirit, which was the essence of the Civil War. Perhaps the historian’s greatest responsibility, in America, is to weigh the advantages against the losses and see what the whole business has amounted to.

A Simpler Era

Things were easier, once, when the world was a little less complex and when that blind Samson, man, had not yet placed his hands on the pillars of the temple, with a leverage under his feet which would enable one contraction of his muscles to bring the roof down about his ears. For slightly more than a century Americans have been deeply concerned about Hungary’s despairing effort to win a little freedom for its people. The Hungarian revolt of 1848–49 aroused enormous sympathy in this country, and the sympathy was boldly outspoken; the one of 1956 aroused equal sympathy, but this time the sympathy was tempered by a great deal of caution. One false move, nowadays, could drive the pillars apart and bring the roof down, and we are forever aware of it.

In any case, Andor Klay brings up a forgotten bit of American history in a book called Daring Diplomacy , which tells how the America of a century ago, not bothered greatly by the pale cast of thought, invited the Austrian empire to make something, if it dared, out of American sympathy for Hungarian revolutionists.

When Louis Kossuth’s rebellion was put down by the Austrians (with the essential help of Russian troops) a Hungarian freedom-fighter named Martin Koszta fled from his homeland, filed the first papers which showed his intention to become an American citizen, and then took temporary refuge in Turkey. In 1853 agents of the Austrian government kidnapped him and put him in the brig of an Austrian man-ofwar in Smyrna harbor; he would be taken back to Austria and there, inevitably, he would be executed. The rulers of the Austrian empire then were nearly as ruthless and vicious as any present-day totalitarian state; the only difference was that they did not quite have modern efficiency.

Daring Diplomacy: The Case of the First American Ultimatum, by Andor Klay. The University of Minnesota Press. 240 pp. $5.

In any case, Koszta’s arrest raised a storm. Among those who were hit by it were the American consul in Smyrna, Edward S. Offley, and the skipper of an American warship which just happened to visit Smyrna at the time, Captain Duncan Nathaniel Ingraham. These two concluded that although Koszta was not actually a full-fledged American citizen he was a freedom-loving human being who was about to be railroaded off to execution; as such, with his flimsy claim on American legal protection, he had an ironclad claim on the American conscience, and they set out to rescue him.

They did it in the simplest way imaginable—by the open threat to use unlimited force. After much posturing, negotiating, and parading, Koszta was at last turned loose. The government in Washington sustained its ardent agents in Smyrna, America’s willingness to intervene on behalf of a fighter for freedom was duly emphasized, and the doughty Captain Ingraham received a handsome medal by vote of the United States Congress. When he returned to this country he found himself a national hero … and in 1861, when the country broke apart, he followed his state (he came from South Carolina), took a commission in the Confederate Navy and helped General Beauregard in the bombardment of Fort Sumter.

All of which proves nothing much, probably—except that it was, on the whole, simpler and easier for America in 1853 to take a firm stand in favor of freedom for Hungary than it was in 1956, even though the issues were much the same. Conscience could operate then without taking counsel of its fears. Today it cannot; or, at least, does not—will not. And somehow the Koszta-Offley-Ingraham incident makes refreshing reading right now.


The stakes, really, are always just about the same. In the end they come down to a national willingness (or lack of it) to put everything on the line for the sake of something believed in. The price is always high; in our own Civil War it went almost beyond enurance, but there are times when men take the risk.

There was, for instance, the Battle of Gettysburg—one of the frightful incidents in the war which, as Mr. Craven has remarked, might not have happened if the democratic process had not collapsed under the weight of overcharged emotions. Gettysburg has been described many times, but the story somehow is always fresh, and a good retelling is provided in Edward J. Stackpole’s They Met at Gettysburg.