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History Still Matters

July 2024
10min read

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

I am fascinated by what I see in the rearview mirror of experience. The future, being a mystery, excites, but the past instructs. When I was a student at the University of Texas, one of the favorite campus legends concerned a professor of anthropology, whose great power was in bringing the past alive through his brilliant lectures on the ascent of the human species. Once, when he had been holding forth on a certain phase of evolution, a student in the rear of the room raised his hand and said, “Professor, I just don’t see what difference it would have made if my great-great-great grandfather had been an ape.” And the professor shot back: “It would have made a significant difference to your great-great-great grandmother.”

So the past matters. In the words of the historian Christopher Lasch, “All of us, both as individuals and as a people, are shaped by past events more than we can fully understand. … Trapped in a past not of their making, most people cannot afford the illusion that tradition counts for nothing, even if much of their energy goes into a struggle against it.”

Lyndon B. Johnson learned this. “No one,” he said, “ever arrives in the White House with an agenda all his own. He finds the blackboard already covered with the unfinished work of others.”

No journalist dare ignore the view in the rearview mirror. Every story I cover as a journalist is the consequence of events often unremembered but always inescapable. Finding the story means digging for the root.

Try covering Poland without taking account of the centuries-old hostility between Russians, Poles, and Germans: the extraordinary role of the Catholic Church in the most Catholic nation in Europe; the partition of Poland in the late eighteenth century; the subsequent struggle for independence; Poland’s terrible experience in the Second World War; and the circumstances in which a Communist regime was imposed on the Polish people at its end.

Only through the rearview mirror does the Middle East appear in sharp relief. The crisis there today stems from the ancient claim both Jews and Arabs make to the same small piece of territory, and the passion of Zionism is given its driving force by the historical memory of anti-Semitism culminating in the genocide of World War II.

In South Africa the claim of the black majority to self-determination is opposed by the descendants of the white Dutch Calvinist settlers, who have defended their position and traditions against Africans and British alike for two hundred years. We have to take that into account; just as, in our own nation, we must understand how the racial travail of modern times results from the slave trade that brought Africans to work on Southern plantations.

As my friend, the historian Alan Bullock, once explained, even nuclear weapons, most surely wrought from the flesh and bone of our century, cannot be considered without a due regard for history. Although they are a totally new element that has transformed the nature of warfare, the framework within which they are deployed is inherited from the past. National states developed international relations, which continue to be dominated by competition, suspicion, and rivalry. No amount of well-meaning rhetoric about the need for international control and disarmament has so far succeeded in removing the fear created by this combination of something entirely new with something as old as the practice of power politics. Thus, when the Russians look into their rearview mirrors, they see mushroom clouds rising above Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and they tell themselves that only one nation has ever used the bomb in war—and it wasn’t them.

Americans have never lingered long looking backward. We’re a people of the future. The horizon compels our gaze, not landmarks littering the past. As my mother said often to me, “Be sure your headlights are brighter than your tail-lights.” But something is always bumping me from behind, trying to get my attention.

A journalist is licensed to explain things he himself does not understand. This includes the past. We journalists are literally amateurs, lovers of all things— the old stuff up there in the attic too. This led me to undertake for public television a series on our immediate past called “A Walk Through the 20th Century.” So it was that I came to appreciate the power of television to help us discover, as Thomas Carlyle said, that “the past is a world, and not a void of grey haze.”

Consider just one of the documentaries in that series. This particular one looked at the propaganda battle of World War II. Now, propaganda is as old as the sorcery and pageantry by which ancient emperors awed their subjects—as old as missionaries and the Declaration of Independence. But in the hands of the twentieth-century super-state, propaganda has become a fearful means for a zealous few to manipulate the minds of millions. One of the people I interviewed for this film is a man named Fritz Hippler. He was eighty-two years old when we located him in Germany in 1981. As a young man during the war he served as a chief of Adolf Hitler’s film ministry. He lives today in the shadow of Hitler’s old retreat, the Eagle’s Nest near Berchtesgaden. He is tall, healthy—and unrepentant. In a chilling interview, Fritz Hippler told of how he tried to reach the soul of the masses through appalling propaganda films like The Eternal Jew, which planted the seeds of justification for genocide. Listening to him, I found it hard to believe that evil could wear so placid a face and fester behind eyes so serene.

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?”

No wonder, then, that many people now began to argue that we no longer had a usable past, that if there are lessons to be learned from history, they have no application in these swiftly altered conditions. Looking to the past for guidance, it was said, can only inhibit the capacity to first detect the emerging characteristics of the future and then to find new ways of dealing with them. As Carl Schorske wrote in his account of Vienna at the turn of the century, “The modern mind has been growing indifferent to history because history, conceived as a continuous nourishing tradition, has become useless to it.”

The lack of historical continuity and communication between the generations is, to me, one of the most disquieting features of our time. What is happening today, this very minute, seems to be our sole criterion for judgment and action. And all of our yesterdays have little relevance.

Not long ago, after giving a speech, I was asked, “Mr. Moyers, who was this fellow Churchill?” Driving back to New York that evening I thought of the little girl who said to her mother, “Momma, you know that vase that’s been in this family for generations?”

“Yes, why?”

“Well, this generation just dropped it.”

You can stop history after all. Just by dropping it.

What difference does it make? You’ll find the answer in George Orwell’s novel 1984—about life in a totalitarian society, where the state controls everyone and everything, including the minds of its citizens. (Actually, they’re not citizens any longer, they’re subjects.) The power of despotism rests, of course, on the police, but it also depends upon a complete rejection of the past—its rejection, abolition, and manipulation. Big Brother banishes history to the memory hole, where all facts inconvenient to the state, or the party, disappear. “The past,” writes Orwell, “is whatever the records and the memories agree upon. And since the Party is in full control of all records, and in equally full control of the minds of its members, it follows that the past is whatever the state chooses to make it.” Six means eighteen, two plus two equals five, war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength. The past, you see, is indispensable to memory. Without it, people are at the mercy of the rulers, because there is nothing against which to measure what they are told today.

Lincoln knew the power of memory to shape a people’s continuity and character.

In the words of 1984’s doomed hero, Winston Smith, “History has stopped.” Now, if history can be erased in the totalitarian society by design, it can be eroded by ignorance in a free society. I worry that my own business—broadcasting news—helps to make this an anxious age of agitated amnesiacs.

Czeslaw Milosz, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1980, said in his acceptance speech, “Our planet that gets smaller every year, with its fantastic proliferation of mass media, is witnessing a process that escapes definition, characterized by a refusal to remember.”

Abraham Lincoln would have been appalled by that refusal to remember. He knew the power of memory to shape the continuity and character of a people. In his first inaugural address he talked about “the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land. …” Those words define something especially human, a power of transmitting experience through generations of time. They connect us emotionally and spiritually to the human beings who came before and who will follow. They are the ties that bind. They do even more than that—they make us an alert people. Mark Twain wrote that a cat, once it had sat on a hot stove, would never do it again, but neither would it sit on a cold stove. We human beings are different. We can count and weigh and sort our experiences and the reflections they prompt and we can share them with others. History ceases to be a row of bare facts waiting to be memorized by schoolchildren. No longer does it stand like an old picket fence in our backyard, slowly and silently rotting away. It becomes a real world, inhabited by “villains and heroes and regular folk passing this way on swift journeys.”

In his short story “The Shore and the Sea,” James Thurber tells of the lemmings, those strange little rodents of the Nordic countries, who are accused of such suicidal propensities that periodically they stampede by the thousands into the sea. The mass frenzy begins when, viewing the sunset on the ocean, “a single excited lemming” starts the exodus by crying fire and running toward the sea. “The world is coming to an end!” he shouts. And as the hurrying hundreds turn into thousands, the reasons for their headlong flight increases by leaps and bounds and hops and skips and jumps: others begin to cry that the devil has come in a red chariot; still others that the world is on fire. The panic increases, the rumors multiply, and pandemonium prevails as the lemmings by the thousands leap into the sea and disappear beneath the waves, some crying, “We are saved!” and some, “We are lost!” An old scholarly lemming watches the futile self-destruction of the mob, tears up all that he has written about the species, and starts all over again. The moral, according to Thurber, is this: “All men should strive to learn before they die what they are running from, and to, and why.”

This, too, is the moral of history. It teaches us to take a deep breath and count to ten.

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