Fall 2009 | Volume 59, Issue 3
Lovers of Honor
We don’t hear the word “honor” used much these days; it may seem a quaint and old-fashioned notion in some circles, gone the way of dueling, cavalry charges, and trench warfare. Americans were skeptical about President Nixon’s plea for “peace with honor” in Vietnam, since we seemed neither willing to fight to win nor end the sacrifice if it was not worth the cost. Was honor merely a public façade, a dangerous narcissism?
James Bowman, a scholar and former American editor of The Times Literary Supplement, recently wrote a thoughtful book entitled Honor: A History in which he notes that honor has virtually disappeared “from the working vocabularies of English and other European languages.” Mr. Bowman laments we are living in “a post-honor society,” with no widely accepted notion of honor against which a given person can be measured.
But “honor” appears repeatedly in stories about the Americans who built this country, stories that have appeared over the last 60 years in American Heritage, including in this issue. Our long-time Contributing Editor, Douglas Brinkley, has written a piece about Teddy Roosevelt courageously leading his men through the Spanish-American War in Cuba. While TR may have lived out a boyhood fantasy of becoming a war hero, he showed true grit in quitting a prestigious political job to lead his men into action, with real risk from Spanish guns, malaria and yellow fever. As president, he would honor his men on the tenth anniversary of the Rough Riders’ storming of San Juan Hill by creating 45 new national forests.
Our frequent contributor, Tom Fleming, one of the finest historians of the Revolutionary War era, writes in this issue how George Washington let honor trump the tug of his heart in resisting entanglement with the married Sally Fairfax. Had he not acted on his honor, America might well have been a different place today.
One of our favorite writers, Bernard Weisberger, who wrote his first article for American Heritage in August 1955 and went on to become an associate editor here in the 1970s, writes a fascinating piece about his contribution to the World-War-II effort as a translator of decoded secret Japanese messages. Although he never mentions the word honor, the quiet and courageous shouldering of responsibility by Bernie and other Americans of “the greatest generation” made the difference in that most significant of conflicts.
The term “honor” has never been easy to define, but I think you’ll know it when you read about it here in these pages. The title of this column comes from The Republic, in which Plato wrote that “There are three classes of men—lovers of wisdom, lovers of honor, lovers of gain.” We celebrate the “lovers of honor” in this magazine who have done so much to make our nation what it is today. We could do worse than reintroduce the word “honor” into our lexicon—and speak about it to our children and grandchildren.
They can learn much from the past.
We invite you to Email Editor .
Edwin S. Grosvenor, Editor-in-Chief