In 1943, historian Carl Becker ended his long and distinguished career at Cornell with a little book with this title. Becker’s purpose was to dispel any post-war sentiment that the end of Hitler and Tojo would magically bring forth a new “world order” resplendent with peace, prosperity, and “justice for all.”
The high hopes at the end of the last war in 1919 came to a sudden and depressing close with the Senate rejection of the League of Nations, President Wilson’s monumental failure in Paris, isolationism, and Pearl Harbor. Becker hoped to avoid another repetition of history.
As a renowned historian, Becker understood how dashed hopes, particularly after a series of shocks and tragedies, could lead to even deeper feelings of despair and rejection. The First World War was often called Europe’s “suicide,” and Becker was making an effort to prevent another suicide, either of the West as a whole or of America itself.
Becker also wanted to inject a bit of “realism” into the American psyche.
The American “Dream”
Despite being conceived in revolution, the United States was born and raised on a steady diet of optimism and hope. Any “band of brothers” that could take on and defeat the world’s ranking “superpower” and forge a “new beginning” based upon the twin pillars of liberty and equality had to have some hope in itself.
The circumstances of the late eighteenth century, while not exactly propitious for greatness, contained sufficient reason to keep it alive. Pinned against the Atlantic seaboard, surrounded by European colonial boundaries, and with a tiny population (about 3 million), the young America still felt no reason to fear either its circumstance or its potential.
From the beginning, George Washington offered a path to survival for the young Republic. In his Farewell Address (1796), Washington foresaw the time when the country would be able to stand alone against the ambitions of others: “the period is not far off, when we may defy material injury from external annoyance… when belligerent nations will not lightly hazard the giving us of provocation.”
Typical of this “pioneer” spirit was the young Abraham Lincoln who reassured Americans of their invulnerability (1838):
“Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth in their military chest, with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years.”
In his 1917 address declaring war on Germany, Woodrow Wilson gave this security a political and global purpose: “for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations …and make the world itself at last free.”
In 1961, John F. Kennedy reinforced this optimism within a Cold War struggle for the future of civilization:
“The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it – and the glow from that fire can truly light the world. And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
In 1981, Ronald Reagan declared that it was “morning in America” and went on to dispose of the Communist Bloc, culminating with the stirring words in front of the Berlin Wall, “Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall” (1987).
A Dose of Realism
Today, Americans seem preoccupied with skepticism and despair of their own history and culture. With a singular and almost totally negative impression of the past and pessimistic on the present and future, the public and its attendant media “orchestra” focus on the “bad and the ugly” without reflection on what has been the “good.”
Naysayers of our current generation will point to disparities and gaps in the full picture (slavery, partial suffrage, inequalities), but such drawbacks did not deter the momentum of American greatness. Nor were such critiques necessarily American, in either location or conception, but conditions of humanity since time began.
Our culture now seems to be torn by the twin vices of skepticism that sees only the dark combined with illusions that glorify the imagined.
When Carl Becker wrote in 1943, there was danger that the national mood could well turn ugly if the post-war settlement did not live up to pre-ordained expectations. The optimism that overcame the depression and Pearl Harbor hid the danger of reversing into contempt if it should turn out to be another 1919 all over again, déjà vu.
Becker tried to remind Americans that healthy cultural/political expectations have to be grounded in reality. Optimism is a virtue that should not be replaced, but it needs to be balanced by a healthy dose of historical perspective and political realism.
In his time, the enemy was nationalism, militarism, and imperialism, all exemplified by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. They are long-gone but have been replaced by ideological enemies that have simply picked up where they left off: racism, “white” nationalism, and sexism. Today’s “war” is cultural rather than military but reflects the same vices and virtues that have occupied humanity from the beginning.
In recognizing these realities Becker observed that,
“Fortunately, there are at times a good number of people … who are more or less actively, more or less passionately, concerned with the better world of tomorrow. … That is their merit, and a great merit it is. Their chief weakness is that, living too much in the ideal world of tomorrow, they are prone to forget or ignore how inert and toughly resistant the world of today really is; so that as other men look back to a Golden Age that never existed, they too often look forward to a Golden Age that cannot in fact be created.”
In the eulogy to his slain brother, Senator Edward Kennedy reminded us of Robert’s private expression to these twin qualities inside human nature: “Some men see things as they are and say why; I dream of things that never were and say why not.” (1968).