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Letter From The Editor

June 2024
3min read

Much of the history we present in this magazine seems, as a child might say, “all over.” The stories are concluded, the dead buried. The settings tend to become variously “shrines” or restorations —although, as the venturers on our new American Heritage Society tours have been noticing, in privileged peeks beyond the velvet ropes, these monuments also change, along with our views of history. Looking through this issue, one might observe that the GI’S of other times, caricatured so deftly by Peter Copeland, have all tossed their last sloppy salute; that the polluting horses are gone at last from our cities; that the lonely, insecure little niece of Theodore Roosevelt “found romance” (as they say in the women’s magazines) in an affecting Victorian way, married her fifth cousin, and became, whatever you thought of her, a Formidable Lady. And died. It is, as the child said, all over.

Or perhaps not. Our soldiers and sailors today have new problems of discipline, morale, and drugs, and want to change their uniforms. As for the horse as an urban polluter, have you heard about the automobile? And Eleanor Roosevelt, the shy debutante who became the Social Force, did she not stir up the minorities, the “underprivileged,” and even Women’s Lib? And did she not marry the man, “that man,” who hated war, and would not send our sons into one—but did?

Separating past and present, in other words, grows complicated. Just as we were getting ready for our next issue a detailed article on the trial of John Peter Zenger in 1735, that first American landmark in the battle for the freedom of the press, the issue came up again—the very same principle—in the case of the New York Times and other newspapers that had begun publishing the now famous Pentagon Papers. With their revelations from documents of the Defense Department, the National Security Council, and other sources they traced a very different picture of our growing involvement in Vietnam than that set forth in public by several Presidents and their spokesmen. Here, for example, was President Johnson addressing the people on September 25, 1964:

“There are those who say, you ought to go north and drop bombs…. We don’t want our American boys to do the fighting for Asian boys. We don’t want to get involved in a nation with 700 million people and get tied down in a land war in Asia.”

Privately, as the Times summary of the Pentagon study revealed:

“The Johnson Administration reached a ‘general consensus’ at a White House strategy meeting on Sept. 7, 1964, that air attacks against North Vietnam would probably have to be launched, [the Pentagon study] states … ‘What prevented action for the time being was a set of tactical considerations.’ The first tactical consideration, the analyst says, was that ‘the President was in the midst of an election campaign in which he was presenting himself as the candidate of reason and restraint as opposed to the quixotic Barry Goldwater,’ who was publicly advocating full-scale bombing of North Vietnam.”

For any reader who has not been away on the moon or marooned in a mine, we scarcely need rehearse all the other secrets brought out, or the arguments about them. Nor do we need to remind the historically minded that there is nothing new to all this. Lyndon Johnson, like Franklin Roosevelt before him, was, to put it mildly, less than frank with the public—and so in their times, on the same issue of going to war, were William McKinley (who did not choose to reveal that the Spanish had already given in as he called for a declaration of war) and, for another example, James K. Polk (as he manipulated his way into war with Mexico). It did help, in these earlier cases, that we won the wars. Victory has a powerful effect on the reputations of Commanders in Chief.

Leaving aside truly genuine matters of security, which the courts in the New York Times case found were not an issue, a historian must conclude that politicians have a right to secrets, if they can keep them, and newspapers have a right to reveal them, if they can find them. It is a game, if you will, for all the moralizing. It is for this reason, foreseen by our prescient Founding Fathers, that the very first amendment to the Constitution guarantees the press a special freedom as a kind of tribune of the people to keep the government honest. Its task, to put it crudely, is to keep the outsiders informed about what the rascally insiders are doing.

The historian, whom we must assume for a moment to be an honest searcher after truth—a large assumption to be sure—cannot fully trust anyone, or else his subject would not continually be in the process of revision. He cannot keep a closed mind, like the simple patriot who cries “treason” at all who disagree with him, as indeed some have done in the case of the Times . The historian has to remember that treason is relative, that one season’s rebel is another’s loyalist, and that consistency is a rarity. Even the righteous Times not so long ago was thundering “breach of security” at two reporters, Stewart Alsop and Charles Bartlett, for their revelations in the Saturday Evening Post about what went on within the Kennedy administration during the Cuban missile crisis.

One may be permitted a fleeting smile at the way in which 1962’s “breach of security” becomes 1971’s sacred duty to history, but one must also admit that editorial writers, if anonymous, are human, and that the accumulation of disasters in our time has been enough to change anyone’s mind. To get back to our opening point, it would be comforting if any important part of history could safely be pasted into some kind of national scrapbook, labelled “The Settled Past,” and put away. But that is impossible as long as people keep records—especially if they mark them “burn this letter,” or “top secret.” That makes their reappearance as certain as that of Banquo’s ghost, and as troubling. All over? Never.

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