November/December 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 8
Was history relevant to America's torments after 9/11?
Is history relevant to our recent torments? I think it is. I am not suggesting there is a precise parallel, still less of predictive value; analogies are treacherous. Pearl Harbor is a popular comparison because it represents a sneak attack on America, but understanding what drove the Japanese to unleash Kido Butai—or their surprise destruction of the Russian fleet at Port Arthur in 1904—does not much help us unravel the psychology of the suicidal fundamentalist in the first-class cabin or drain the swamp that spawned him. I don’t know enough about Japan’s Kamikaze pilots, but I suspect, again, that the circumstances and cultural attitudes are so different we might not be helped much.
When I am asked what history can tell us about how we can get through the time ahead, I think of Sir Frederic Maitland’s remark that it is very hard to remember that events long past were once in the future. The historian always has to be sensible of this, recognizing that the first task is to re-create the facts and the feel of an episode, a period, an era, the illusion of a life actually lived, so that we may more easily understand why people did what they did and why events unfolded as they did. Why was it that Neville Chamberlain thought he could deal with Hitler? Why did America stand on the sidelines so long in the thirties when the Fascist menace grew so exponentially with every year that it threatened civilization? What drove us to the excesses, as they seem now, of the McCarthy era?
The world was very dark indeed to the Americans who endured the long years of the Cold War, when mutually assured destruction threatened the planet, but so it was for the Americans of the twenties afflicted with anarchist bombings, the Americans of the thirties, when farms were turned to dust and the Great Depression got deeper and deeper. We were just as baffled by the economies of slump as we were by the enigmas of the Kremlin or as we are today by those mullahs who can so pervert Islam as to incite mass murder. A fine writer may present a new generation with a vivid reconstruction—I have just reread Norman Mailer’s Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery , and the shadow of Dallas is on every page—but however well the writer does something like that for us today, all the past dramas are in soft focus, pale things by comparison with the clear and present danger we feel with our every breath.
Every generation’s crises will inevitably loom larger, seem more menacing, more perplexing than anything that went before. A reading of history can help us keep the oppressive nature of the present in perspective. That is some comfort, I think. It cannot of course guarantee that all will be well. Dr. Pangloss has no place here. Those few who were accused of worrying too much about Hitler’s march into the Rhineland on March 7, 1936, turned out to be right; the failure of will of the leaders unwound in World War II, the greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century, and in genocide.
In this crisis of terror, I am impressed, at a historical level, by the steadiness of the people, the universal desire not to persecute every Muslim, the sense of community. It was not like that soon after the end of World War I, in 1919 and 1920. People were hysterical with fear. America itself seemed to becoming apart. President Wilson lay in the White House paralyzed by a stroke. Four million workers, one out of every five, were on strike in 1919, including the police in Boston. There were race riots in 2.5 cities; 70 blacks, some still in uniform, were lynched. Anarchist pamphlets threatened the overthrow of society. A bomb in a church in Milwaukee killed 10 in April; in May, 36 bombs were mailed from New York to prominent Americans; on September 16,1910, came the great explosion at Broad and Wall Street. The revolution never came, but neither did the police state. Good men dedicated to American values came to the fore. The Red “scare,” as we now call it, was over in a year, and the good times rolled through the twenties.
It is prudent not to assume we will emerge so quickly or so well from our present trials. We are in for a long haul, not simply to find the terrorist networks but to persuade millions in other countries to see America whole, to distinguish between the unilateralism this administration so foolishly espoused in its learning months and the enduring ideals and generosity of the nation’s spirit and its daily life. But is the task any more difficult, are the skies any darker, than they were in 1940 for Britain, or for America in 1941, when the Fascists had the world by the throat? I am cheered to recall the spirit of that history in a single phrase. Winston Churchill, addressing a joint session of Congress, asked of our enemies: “What kind of people do they think we are?”