Today I was reading through Dean Acheson’s autobiography, Present at the Beginning, in which he relates his experiences in the State Department during the Second World War and its aftermath. I found this passage particularly interesting and applicable to our current situation:
The period covered by this book – 1941 through 1952 – was one of great obscurity to those who lived through it. Not only was the future clouded, a common enough situation, but the present was equally clouded. We all had far more than the familiar difficulty of determining the capabilities and intentions of those who inhabit this planet with us. The significance of events was shrouded in ambiguity. We groped after interpretations of them, sometimes reversed lines of action based on earlier views, and hesitated long before grasping what now seems obvious. [pp. 3-4]
We are now faced with a situation much like that of half a century ago. A seemingly fixed world order has crumbled, new and threatening forces are emerging, and the future is obscure, filled with real and imagined perils and possibilities that terrify and excite us. It is good to remember that we have been through such times before and the towering figures who guided the nation through those distant dangers, were in their times not unlike those who lead us today. If the current leadership seems diminished in comparison with the “wise men” of old, it is simply a trick of perspective and selective memory.
It is important to understand this because it serves to inoculate us against the extremes of hope and despair fostered by our current political debates and media eccentricities. We are not living in times of unprecedented challenge, nor are we blessed or afflicted with exceptionally able or inept leadership. Our leaders today, like those of my childhood, are fine, dedicated, and competent men and women, dealing in a world of uncertainty with complex issues and situations. Much is obscure, the future is clouded, and we cannot with confidence anticipate the long-term consequences of our actions. It is always so.
Uncertainty in the face of enormous threats, though, is not an adequate argument against taking strong and decisive action. A failure to act, a retreat from responsibility, history shows us, can also have disastrous consequences. No less than the “wise men” who faced the challenges of expansionist fascism and international communism, we are called upon today to take strong action in the face of an aggressive international threat. We must hope, and there is no compelling reason to believe otherwise, that our current leadership will perform with as much integrity, wisdom, and effectiveness as did those whose memory we today celebrate.
In this regard I find two recent trends disturbing -- our tendency to exalt or alternatively to demean the past. When I was young it was all the fashion to trash the past. Reacting against an earlier tendency to apotheosize great historical figures, we gleefully set about the task of cutting them down to size. We were right to do so, much valuable work was done, but the tendency was carried too far. Eventually we made it seem that the past was little more than an unrelieved tapestry of sin and suffering. And, the diminishment of the past was accompanied by an unfortunate tendency to exaggerate the virtues of the present. This was the work of a generation confident, in their ignorance, of their own moral superiority to those who had gone before.
Of course that was nonsense – a pretension that could not indefinitely be sustained. Today the trend is running strongly in the opposite direction. Popular history is awash in hagiographic accounts of past greats, especially the “founders,” and the implication to be drawn is that the country’s current leadership is somehow lacking in comparison. That, too, is arrant nonsense. We look at Iraq and proclaim it “a mess,” but much the same judgment or worse could be laid against Washington during the Revolution, Madison’s efforts in the War of 1812, Lincoln's forces for much of the Civil War, Pershing’s expeditionary force in France, or the performance of the western Allies in WWII prior to D-Day. Wars are always a “mess.” Much the same judgment could be made regarding the domestic and economic policies of past administrations.
Whichever end of the telescope we choose to look through, whether we exalt or demean the past, our stubborn refusal to view what has gone before on its own terms and in the context of its times does great disservice to the present. If we are to understand the world in which we live and to confront the challenges of our times with any degree of wisdom, we must reject these distorting historical fantasies and come to terms with the past that was, not the past of which we dream.