The Breakfast Table

World War II Syndrome

Dear James,

Would that I were ferreting out ex-Reds here at the Hoover, at least that would involve reading documents in English. No, alas, I am ruining my eyesight squinting at yellowed bits of paper and faded microfilms, working on the history of concentration camps in Russia. All of which makes me wonder how anybody is ever going to write the history of 1999, much of which appears to be taking place in cyberspace. What will Ph.D. students do for evidence? Or is there some secret mega-high-tech archive where every e-mail ever sent gets preserved for future generations?

World War II does indeed loom large in the American psyche, more so than ever now that the much-lauded World War II generation is moving on. One recent week I counted an amazing number of World War II-linked stories in the press: Swiss banks being sued by former Jewish clients, a Belorussian war criminal on trial in England, a fuss over whether the Japanese did or did not apologize to the Chinese, etc. A historian here told me last week that he thought it was to do with the end of the Vietnam syndrome: Conveniently skipping the last, “bad” war, we dwell upon the more distant “good” war, the war for justice and democracy.

As I obviously don’t have to remind you, though (I can see your history is better than mine: I’m genuinely impressed that you can quote William Howard Taft’s secretary of state), not everything about World War II was quite as we remember it. For one, we didn’t fight it to save the Jews, and when we could have saved the Jews we didn’t. Nor did the war end in a liberated Europe: For those in unpronounceable countries farther east, there was nearly half a century of Soviet occupation to go, thanks mostly to decisions made by the American president.

Which leads me back to wondering (if historians do manage to find some documents to base their work on) how the war in Kosovo will be remembered. “Good” or “Bad”? Evidence of American generosity, desire to promote democracy, etc.; or evidence of American naiveté? I suppose it depends on how it finishes. I can imagine a scenario–say Milosevic gets hit by a stray bomb, the Russians step in to make peace (thereby making them feel included again), Kosovo refugees return–in which none of the foreign-policy floundering you mention is remembered. Clinton is a hero, and 1999 is written up in the next millennium as “the beginning of the Pax Americana.”

I can also imagine the opposite, total Balkan breakdown described as “the beginning of the Era of Chaos and Disillusion.”

I won’t ask you which outcome you think more likely, since I’ve found that as a journalist, the world’s most irritating assignment is to be asked to predict what will happen next. When the editor says, “I think we need to move this story forward” is when I want to drop out and write history, as in “I think we need to move this story backward.”

What do they tell speechwriters to do?

Back to my illegible documents.