The English journalist has spent more than a decade preparing a book on this country’s role in the most eventful hundred years since the race began. He liked what he found enough to become an American himself.
Evans likes to refer to The American Century as “history for browsers.” There are searching essays at the start of each chapter, but most of the book consists of tiropage spreads concerning particular people or events.
These are driven by pictures culled by Gail Buckland, the book’s photographic historian, from archives and collections around the United States. Buckland, an associate professor at New York City’s Cooper Union, has been the curator of many photographic exhibitions, including the New-York Historical Society’s “Shanties to Skyscrapers” and the Statue of Liberty’s centennial, “Visions of Liberty.” The author of eight books of photography and history, including Travelers in Ancient Lands, Fox Talbot and the Invention of Photography , and, with Cecil Beaton, The Magic Image, Buckland has produced hundreds of images that have rarely, if ever, been published before. A selection accompanies this interview.
Harold Evans has dreamed of writing a book about American history since 1956, when he first visited the United States on a Harkness Commonwealth Fund fellowship designed to let European journalists see the real America.
“I looked for it in forty states,” he writes. “I bought an old Plymouth, and made my bed in the back of it, and I crossed the country coast-to-coast and north-to-south. In Mississippi and North Carolina I interviewed both the leaders of the new civil rights movement and the heads of the racist White Citizens Councils. In Fort Sill, Oklahoma, I spent an afternoon with the last surviving Apache to have ridden with Geronimo. I worked for Adlai Stevenson’s presidential campaign but found myself cheering when I went to a small airport and saw Ike grin and wave to the crowd from the steps of his plane.”
Evans returned to the United Kingdom and a distinguished career in journalism. He served for fourteen years as the crusading editor of the London Sunday Times , was editor of the daily London Times , and wrote eight books, including Good Times, Bad Times , before moving across the Atlantic in 1984. On coming back to this side of the ocean, he founded Condé Nast Traveler magazine and worked for seven years as president and publisher of Random House. He has edited the works of Colin Powell, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Paul Nitze, and Zbigniew Brzezinski and has never surrendered the idea of writing his own history of the American Republic.
The result, after twelve years of painstaking research, is The American Century , to be published by Alfred A. Knopf this fall. The book traces what is in fact the second American century, from the centennial of the Constitution, in 1889, to its bicentennial—which happened to coincide with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. It covers an astonishingly crowded hour of American life, a heroic epoch in which the United States rose to global primacy and confronted the gravest dilemmas of its own democracy. Modeled after such works as Roger Butterfield’s The American Past and Stefan Lorant’s The Glorious Burden, The American Century contains more than nine hundred photographs, political cartoons, and drawings, but unlike the other works it also has a serious historical text of more than three hundred thousand words.
“My experiences in 1956 gave me an enduring fascination with the idea of America and its unceasing struggle to achieve its ideals,” Evans writes. It’s a fascination that continues, and he has himself become an American citizen. He is currently vice-chairman and editor of the New York Daily News, The Atlantic Monthly, U.S. News & World Report , and Fast Company , and he resides in New York City with his children, George and Isabel, and his wife, Tina Brown, who recently resigned the editorship of The New Yorker to start her own media company with Miramax.
“The greatest accomplishment was simply holding the country together during a time of absolutely seismic change.”
Why is this the American Century?
It is the second hundred years of America as a going concern, and you could also say it has been the American Century in terms of setting the style of the world in everything from jeans to movies to market capitalism. But it is really the American Century by the power of an idea—the idea of freedom. At the beginning of the century the number of free democratic nations in the world was very limited. Now, at the end of the century, democracy is ascendant around the globe, and America has played the major part in making that happen. It has been the exemplar of freedom and—particularly in the second half of the century—has actively led the struggles against the evil, coercive regimes of Nazism and Communism. For all its faults the United States has sustained Western civilization by acts of courage, generosity, and vision unparalleled in the history of man.
You would consider that to be, then, the greatest accomplishment of the American Century?
Well, the greatest accomplishment was simply holding the country together during a time of absolutely seismic change and holding it together around the idea of freedom. I’m thinking especially of FDR’s keeping the nation together under the Constitution during the Great Depression, but simply to absorb such a vast population, from all around the globe, was an incredible accomplishment.
And then I would say yes, the liberation of the world—not only through a strong military defense but also through the sort of patient resolve exemplified by the Marshall Plan. Not only to help former allies but also to revivify such former enemies as Japan and Germany is unprecedented. Now, that’s been called self-interested, but maybe self-enlightened would be a better term. If you could get other nations to act in this sort of self-interested manner, human history would be a much brighter affair.
If those are the greatest accomplishments, what have been the greatest failures?
Race. Tremendous strides have been made, but the fact that it is still such a contentious issue has been the failure. Then there’s conservation. Teddy Roosevelt would be horrified to see what we’re still doing to our natural resources.
In governing ourselves, I think it’s significant that, as much as Americans like to talk about local control, so many state and local governments are still so corrupt and uninspired. People seem unable to focus on them, and that brings up a basic theme. For America to work, Americans have to participate. If they don’t pay attention, they’re going to get screwed.
You know, in Lawrence Goodwyn’s history The Populist Moment , there’s a great description of these Populist farmers out on the Texas prairie who worked and organized and educated themselves so they could break out of the clutches of the merchants and bankers. And at this one particular harvest sale it worked—at least for a time—and they got five cents more on the dollar, and they were so happy that they were driving their wagons back home, whooping it up and waving these blue flags in celebration. I would like to roll more wagons.
The whole fight of the Populists, of course, was against a government and a party system they felt had been hopelessly corrupted by what they liked to call the money power. We’re still having the same debate today.
Yes, we’re still debating many of the same things, like the role of America as a world power. To take another case, I nearly went blind reading the Senate debates of 1898, almost exactly a hundred years ago, over whether the United States should acquire the Philippines. What was to be the nature of American imperialism? What was America’s role in the world to be? The measure to acquire the only sizable overseas acquisition we’ve ever had passed by only one vote. The arguments bear rereading.
It’s as if these were the permanent questions of democracy—at least of American democracy.
All you have to do is look at Woodrow Wilson, who refused to recognize the Huerta dictatorship in Mexico over moral principles and then agonized over going into World War I. These are still the problems at the heart of our foreign-policy making. How far do you pursue human rights and idealism? How far do you pursue a more narrow self-interest? Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan were still trying to resolve that some seventy years later, in El Salvador and Nicaragua. We agonize over it today, when we wonder if we should intervene in Bosnia or Haiti or Rwanda.
Is there ever a fixed set of principles?
Well, we do come to an enduring suspicion that secrecy is almost always the handmaiden of disaster. Deception can very quickly become self-deception. It clearly happened with Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara in Vietnam.
In fairness, I think the questions are always hard, but now they’re harder than ever: Would you let your son go fight to put the emir of Kuwait back on his throne? To keep the peace in Bosnia? I would have to say yes, because I think it’s worth keeping the peace and worth preserving the United Nations. America must be involved in the world. But there is a price to be paid for that. I take very much to heart Colin Powell’s remark that the State Department doesn’t have to count the body bags.
Out of the whole enormous cast, do you have a favorite character from the American Century?
Well, Martin Luther King, Jr., is incandescent. Al Smith, with the courage he had in 1928 to go down to the South and make speeches in the teeth of people who hated him for being a Catholic. Robert Moses, of the SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], coming back to his headquarters for registering voters in Mississippi after it had been firebombed and still having the courage to sleep there that night.
A personal favorite would be P. D. East, who edited the tiny Petal Paper in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Here was a middle-aged Southern businessman running a local paper dependent on local trade and goodwill. He had no particular liberal impulses or any desire to be a racial crusader, but he found to his surprise that he just could not go along with his neighbors and customers in rebelling against the Supreme Court after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling on school segregation, in 1954. He felt the law of the land should be respected, period. He had no big resources, but he did have the weapon of humor. He turned the Petal Paper into a sheet satirizing the racists. It ruined his business. He had more subscribers in big cities than in his small hometown. But he would not give up. When I went to see him in 1956, he was wonderfully cheerful about a firebomb that had been thrown into his house the night before. Tremendous, unexpected courage in one individual trying to make a difference.
That brings up a running theme of the century, which is the fight for free speech.
Yes, it has been a constant struggle, but out of it our society emerges on a higher plane. Justice Murray Gurfein put it best in the Pentagon Papers case, when he said that a nation’s security is not only on the ramparts but in the values of a free society. Often the struggle is in the most unlikely places.
Take, for instance, the Watergate scandal. It had its beginnings in Nixon’s attempts to suppress the Pentagon Papers. The Pentagon Papers case in turn had its roots in Near v. Minnesota , the case of a violently anti-Semitic paper that the Minnesota legislature tried to suppress in 1927 for saying that certain politicians were involved with gangsters. The Supreme Court allowed it to keep publishing. It was really a terrible paper, a rag, but nonetheless the case laid the foundation for unprecedented freedom of expression. It made possible the publication of the Pentagon Papers, from which the country got to see just how we got into Vietnam. It made possible Sullivan v. The New York Times , in which an Alabama official tried to use a state libel law to silence civil rights protesters who had taken out an ad. All from that one noxious newspaper, which almost no one would have missed if it had dropped into a hole in the ground.
One is impressed by what a complicated thing democracy is, by how much participation and interaction it requires.
Certainly, and for long periods of our history, of course, many people were excluded from that participation. Indians, women, and blacks in particular. And now I think there is a strong argument to be made that we have gone down the wrong track by trying to rectify past injustices through the ascendancy of group rights and minority-preference programs.
The tensions between order and liberty, between opportunity and social justice will always be there, but that’s freedom, that’s normal. If this century has taught us anything, it is that we are not going to reach some Utopia on earth. The important thing is that the framework is there: the American framework that still promises freedom to everyone and not just to an elite or a particular class or caste. The fascinating thing is how the promise of freedom, just a little bit of freedom, always leads to a hell of a lot of freedom. Gorbachev always underestimated what freedom would be to Eastern Europe. It didn’t lead to a modified form of communism. You can’t modify totalitarianism any more than you can boil water without making steam. It led to a completely free society.
Freedom is indivisible then.
That’s right. Just look at the wave after wave of liberation movements that have swept over America during the past hundred years, all of them laying claim to the basic rights and privileges promised in the Constitution. You start with the Populists, at the turn of the century, and then you move on to the Progressives, the New Deal, the civil rights movement, women’s rights, Native American rights, gay rights. Whatever the group, freedom is always asserted in terms of one’s basic rights as an American citizen, and the remarkable thing is that it is usually won by the people themselves.
This was particularly true in the case of civil rights. There were plenty of people who saw the evils of racism in America in a theoretical way—white liberals, very perceptive academics, some politicians. They would debate what the best way would be to liberate African-Americans, through the white South itself or through Northern intervention. Even as great a writer as William Faulkner, who knew the evils of the Jim Crow South, thought that it would change only when whites became more enlightened. In the end the freedom was won by blacks themselves, through their enduring belief in freedom and their incredible individual courage.
Phrases such as individual courage aren’t heard that often from historians anymore. That brings up the old question, Is history made by impersonal demographic forces or by individuals? Or is this a false dichotomy?
There are great forces, certainly, but you can’t ignore the importance of individuals throughout. And not just great men. There were so many vital contributions made by Americans you may never have heard of. For instance, the student Freedom Riders or the four young men who sat down one day at a Woolworth’s counter in Greensboro, North Carolina—Blair and McCain 100 and Richmond and McNeil. Or Moses Wright, the sixty-four-year-old tenant farmer who had lived all his life under Jim Crow and was willing to stand up and identify the men who had killed Emmett Till, even under threat of death.
Then there’s the heroism of the Americans who risked their lives to find the cure for yellow fever down in Cuba and Panama: Walter Reed, who really gave his life to it, and the doctors James Carroll and Jesse Lazear. Or Pvt. John R. Kissinger, a regular soldier who was paralyzed after volunteering for the medical experiments but whom Congress refused even to give a pension to for years. Men you don’t normally read about in the history books, although they have been critically important. I wish more were known about them, particularly in the schools. One of the reasons we’ve done this book is to try to give younger people and newer immigrants a sense of the greatness of the people who created this free society they are inheriting.
You also celebrate some great reformers and dissidents who have been largely dismissed or trivialized over the years.
I think it’s tremendously difficult to dissent in this country. Despite all the openness and the guarantees in the Constitution, the paradox is that there is a very strong desire for conformity—stronger than in Europe. So I say thank God for the dissidents—people like Emma Goldman, whom frankly I used to think of as just some violent anarchist who didn’t contribute anything. In fact she contributed a great deal just by extending the boundaries of free expression, and she was savagely treated for it. She said some foolish things, but she was very courageous in standing up for women’s rights and workers, and she saw through the Soviet Union right from the start.
Or Florence Kelley, the great Chicago settlement-house reformer, who was really a very important figure but is nearly forgotten today. Her very anonymity, I think, speaks to how necessary it is to keep reassessing our history.
Another example is Paul Robeson, the great black singer and actor and activist for civil rights decades before Martin Luther King. He was naive about the Soviet Union, I know, but he gave up everything—his career, even his passport—to fight for what he believed in. He was kept a virtual prisoner in his own country. He was always a hero in my household, by the way, because when he came to England in 1949, he walked the whole length of the train platform to shake the grimy hand of my father, who happened to be driving the train. I know it sounds simple and affected today, but he really had a great concern for working people and was willing to put everything on the line for what he believed in.
To return to great men, do you have a favorite President or Presidents?
FDR of course is monumental. Teddy Roosevelt is irresistible. I think Reagan deserves some credit for finishing off the Soviet Union and for setting what the diplomat Jack Matlock called a four-point agenda—arms reduction, withdrawal from Third World countries, respect for human rights, and lifting the Iron Curtain—though I think he did miss an opportunity on arms control in the end. Nixon, though he was a badly flawed man, accomplished some worthwhile things in opening up China, fostering detente, and preserving the environment.
Is there any common thread? Any particular key to presidential character?
I would say the key is a moral vision, a sense of guardianship of the people, if you will. Both Roosevelts had it; Truman had it; Eisenhower had it. A recognition that the people means all the people and not just those economic groups or interest groups that happen to support you.
Besides that, I would say the key is also a capacity to communicate, since so much of the job is about communication, and an ability to concentrate on the large things rather than worry about who’s on the White House tennis court, as Carter supposedly did. And then I think a President has to believe that all things are possible. This country requires it.
Many Americans today, I think, would be hard-pressed to name anyone who could fill that job description. Why?
It is almost impossible now to find the best people in America to serve in public office, and it’s not a situation that will improve in the immediate future unless something is done. The main problem is money; you hear again and again from good people who are bowing out of politics that it has turned into one long, continuous fund-raiser.
If I could make one change, it would be real campaign-finance reform. A second would be a change in the way the media cover politicians—all this irrelevant, prurient interest, often without very high standards or fact checking.
The Presidency in this century seems to have become quite a burden.
It really has, when you consider that four Presidents—McKinley, Harding, FDR, JFK-didn’t make it out alive. Another one, Wilson, barely did. Hoover and Lyndon Johnson and possibly Carter came out all but broken in spirit. Nixon resigned. Five of the last eleven Presidents have been shot at: FDR, Truman, Kennedy, Ford, and Reagan.
Of course, the power of the Presidency has grown astoundingly. At the beginning of the century there was hardly anybody in the White House. The President would answer his own telephone. He would walk into the street with perhaps one Secret Service agent. And then we have a photograph of the end of Arcadia: Warren Harding joins Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and John Burroughs on their annual tented nature trip, and Harding for the first time has along a Secret Service man with a radio—the harbinger of the man with the nuclear codes in a football.
It does seem to be the century of tragic Presidents. Does one stand out?
I’m fascinated most of all by Woodrow Wilson and his—how can I put it?—self-defeating idealism. A man of enormous gifts and eloquence, made weak by time and fate. Then there’s Herbert Hoover, the great engineer. A man of great principle and integrity, a humanitarian, who ran famine relief so well in Belgium and Russia and who even started some of the antidotes to the Great Depression, but too late.
How about a villain? In or out of the Oval Office?
The obvious one is Nixon, though of course he did the most damage of all to himself. The other obvious ones are Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn, and before that A. Mitchell Palmer, with their assaults on innocent people. And J. Edgar Hoover. And Breckinridge Eong, in the State Department, trying to downplay the Holocaust during World War II. Yet most of the people we cover are really too complicated to be dismissed simply as villains.
You’ve worked with some outstanding Americans yourself over the past couple of decades. Whom did you find the most interesting?
Interesting being the key word, I would have to say Richard Nixon. For the most admirable, I would say Colin Powell. But Nixon was a bewilderment to himself as well as to the rest of us, a dark, tormented man but a statesman with an original strategic vision and brilliant insights. Every time I met him he would surprise me with different perspectives: his views on Woodrow Wilson’s moralism, a dissection of Republican candidates, a reassessment of Eisenhower’s decision not to try to capture Berlin. And always there was the faint, tantalizing possibility that he would ruminate on his own downfall. That’s certainly the sort of thing that makes a man interesting.
Do you have a favorite era?
Oh, the Roaring Twenties. Despite the contempt of the intellectuals for America at that time—despite the very real corruption and the complacency—there was a tremendous ferment, of literature, of culture, and of freedom. There was a great surge in levels of general education, and the winning of woman suffrage, and the rise of women in general. The proliferation of books, and music, and new magazines. At the same time, all the characters of the period seem painted in particularly gaudy colors. Al Smith in politics, Capone and George Remus in gangland, Tex Guinan, even Coolidge—they’re all fascinating.
Do you have a favorite historian?
Oh, there are so many of them. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., of course; John Kenneth Galbraith in economics; Allen Weinstein and Michael Beschloss on the Cold War; Barbara Tuchman on the outbreak of the First World War; and Doris Kearns Goodwin on Lyndon Johnson. Taylor Branch is inspiring, in his books on King and the civil rights movement. From a more radical perspective, there’s Nell Irvin Painter, and Lawrence Goodwyn on the Populists. William Manchester is a wonderful storyteller. Stephen Ambrose is a delight. Recently I’ve very much enjoyed reading Jack Matlock and David Remnick on the fall of the Russian empire.
Then there are the figures themselves. Political autobiography is inevitably self-serving, but I’ve had great insights from reading Paul Nitze, Nixon, Kissinger, and Dean Acheson.
Again and again we see how a book has made a crucial difference in America. Can it still?
It is a splendid tradition, and it speaks again to the absolute need for free speech. You have Rachel Carson and Silent Spring , Gunnar Myrdal with An American Dilemma on race, Michael Harrington with The Other America on poverty, all the different things Ralph Nader has written on consumer safety, Jane Jacobs on cities. Then, in journalism, of course, you have Woodward and Bernstein and the rest of the Watergate reporting, and back in the Progressive Era you have the muckrakers. And even before that you have the Populists ingeniously organizing speakers’ bureaus, simply sending people out to sell their fellow farmers on very complex ideas about economics. And later, in yet another medium, you have Edward R. Murrow reporting over the radio from London and then his television documentaries on migrant workers and exposing McCarthy.
Is it still possible? To change American society through a book, I mean? Or for that matter, a television show?
Oh, yes. I think the intellectual life of the country is still very strong. Certainly there is a sort of intellectual corruption that can come from having so much of the media controlled by these giant entities. But overall it’s still very strong, and I think that all the contentiousness in academia, even when it’s sometimes over silly things, shows that people still care.
By writing history, you are venturing into what has become one of the most contentious realms.
Well, it’s actually a great time to be writing history because there is so much openness. Everything is open to debate, including whether history itself is over, which I believe is decidedly not the case.
What has surprised you most in this constant debate, this reassessment of the American past?
What has always struck me most is how close the past is in this country. For instance, one of the first things in our book is how Geronimo was finally arrested. When I first came over, forty years ago, I drove up to a little house in a town in Oklahoma, and there was this man bent double trying to push an ancient Model T Ford out of the mud. His name was Jason Betzinez, and he was the last living Apache to have ridden with Geronimo. He was ninety-odd years old and had recently broken his back, and there he was pushing his Model T. I have my snapshot of him in the book.
That’s the incredible thing, that you can just reach out with your hand and touch so much of this nation’s history. We have an extraordinary picture from a man named Walter Karliner who runs a shop up in Connecticut. As a boy he was one of the German Jewish refugees on the transatlantic journey of the liner St. Louis that became known as the voyage of the damned. The ship was supposed to take him and his family to Cuba, but it got all the way to Havana only to be turned away, and Congress and the Roosevelt administration would not give the passengers asylum. Eventually European countries took them in, but most of the passengers still died in the Holocaust. Walter and his brother made it out and later became American citizens, but all the rest of his family—his mother, his father, both his sisters—perished in the camps. He very kindly provided us with this heartbreaking picture of himself and his sister Ruth, smiling on the deck of the liner, full of hope about the promise of America. That’s how close our history is.
“That’s the incredible thing, that you can just reach out with your hand and touch so much of this nation’s history.”
Young as this nation is, are our democratic institutions in danger of atrophying? For better or worse, hasn’t the executive branch generally dominated the legislative in this century?
I think the change in the Presidency is emblematic of the vast increase in federal power, which is clearly something many Americans regret. Yet to some degree this was inevitable, considering the pace at which the world has moved in this century and the natural presidential advantage in foreign affairs.
Congress’s role in this century has become less to initiate and more to serve as a brake on runaway presidential power. But this function is still very vital. When it gave up its war-making powers after World War II, the result was disaster in Vietnam. Congress also failed to take up the slack very quickly in the McCarthy period, when President Eisenhower was less than forthcoming in confronting the threat to civil liberties, though of course some brave people in Congress and in the press did eventually stand up.
It seems now that Congress has also largely abdicated its role as a deliberative body.
It’s very sad to go into the Senate today and see how no one’s there, how the senators are just speaking for the cameras on C-SPAN. It’s enough to make one wonder whether we’re ready for a dramatic change in the way the country is run, perhaps with instant r»f»rendums, but then you see how that sort of thing has come to plague California over the past twenty years. The referendum and the initiative are classic Populist solutions, but they can be very easily manipulated today. I prefer Edmund Burke’s idea that you elect representatives not simply to do what you want but to use their best judgment.
Another recent nostrum has been term limits.
I’m personally against them because I think the outrageously bad incumbent can be removed at the polls and the average incumbent, with his knowledge and experience, is of value.
Would you apply that to the Presidency as well?
I would not have a limit on the Presidency. It both undermines the ability of Presidents to get things done and makes them less accountable.
How about the third branch of the federal government, the Supreme Court? You might say it has been the Century of the Court as well as of the Presidency.
At the turn of the century the Court was a highly reactionary body with a pronounced political bias, usually in favor of property rights over human rights. Then it began to change, in part because Presidents started to make better appointments to it but also because it came to serve as a sort of national arbiter, as a lightning rod for issues that the rest of government and society found too hot to handle. You see this with the Warren and the Burger courts in particular, in civil rights and civil liberties. One man, one vote; abortion. It has been a very important role, but the question does arise of how far this can go and how much we are just pushing unpleasant questions over to the justices.
As an immigrant yourself, what did you expect to find about America and how did it live up to your expectations?
When I was a boy growing up in England, my image of America was one of cornucopia and gigantism—a fat, flamboyant, adventurous country. You have to remember, this was wartime England. My mother did all the washing by hand. We were on rations—one egg a week. We had no electric kitchen. To make toast, we held the bread over a coal fire.
America was an abundance of material things, but it was also the voice of Roosevelt coming over the radio during the worst days of the war. Churchill offered hope, Roosevelt certainty. America the invincible. My God, could I ever come over and take a look?
And you did.
And I did. I came here in 1956. The first apartment I stayed in, on West Twenty-third Street, was with a friend of a friend named Herb, who made coat hangers for Seventh Avenue and had a system that piped Bach into the apartment all day. It really did seem to be the pinnacle of civilization. Later, on the road for months, I was awed by the distance and space, by the muscle of the country.
Now that you’ve had a longer look, what has impressed you—or dismayed you—the most?
Well, I am an American by choice, but I am passionately British at the same time. As an expatriate you always find things not to like in your new country. For me it’s the dehumanizing architecture, the monotony of the strips and shopping malls. But I am also seduced by the eagerness of commerce. I like it that people scurry around trying to meet your needs. When you order breakfast from room service or buy something, the American habit is always to ask, “What else? What else?” No wonder the country throbs with activity.
At the same time, I find it enormously liberating to live in a country where you can be who you are and what you have accomplished instead of being immediately typed by where you were educated or what caste you are from. You know, my grandfather was actually illiterate, something I’ve always been reluctant to talk about. But over here it’s almost a badge of honor to have risen farther. Here you can make yourself over more than anyplace else in the world.
Yes, I sometimes think that the stupidest thing ever said was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line that American lives have no second act.
Absolutely. Third, fourth, and fifth acts are more like it. You see again and again how people reinvent themselves. Nixon, over and over. FDR, going from a rather effete, dandified young man to this robust figure after his polio. Or the transforming courage of someone like Rachel Carson, a quiet academic sort who wrote some very good books about the sea and then sat down at her typewriter and started this whole crusade to save the environment. It’s really very brave in the end. Here she is, a middle-aged woman, dying prematurely of cancer, wearing a wig because her hair is falling out from the treatment, knowing that this book, Silent Spring , is going to be her last, but writing it for the sake of the future.
We have an amazing photo by a Pvt. Igor Belousovitch that is the very first glimpse of the Russians that American troops had at the end of World War II. Everyone knows the picture of the Americans and Russians shaking hands at the bridge at Torgau on the Elbe, but in fact that wasn’t the first photograph. The real first photograph lay for more than forty years in Private Belousovitch’s drawer, and we tracked him down. He took a photograph of the Russian cavalry just coming over the horizon while he was on patrol.
The amazing thing is that the private who took this photograph—this unique and historic photograph—spoke Russian. His mother and father had fled the Bolshevik Revolution; otherwise he might have been a Russian riding a cavalry horse toward the Americans. Now there’s a second act.
You don’t hesitate to criticize the United States when you think it’s necessary, but you’re also very ready to celebrate its triumphs.
Yes, well, when it works, it works marvelously well. The optimism of this country is infectious. I have come to understand in America that the impossible just takes a little longer.
At the same time, there are these terrible paroxysms of unreasoning popular feeling, like the McCarthy period or when Japanese-Americans were interned at the beginning of World War II. Then, just as one is in despair, a sort of intellectual 7th Cavalry comes to the rescue. Just as you have social Darwinism and laissez-faire sweeping the universities at the turn of the century, over the hill come people like Lester Ward and John Dewey and the rest of the pragmatists. Just when the country seems sunk in despair and out of ideas during the Great Depression, along comes Roosevelt’s New Deal and then the GI Bill—a tremendous period of innovation that transformed the whole society.
Will the cavalry always show up in time? Will the twenty-first century be the American Century as well?
Back at the beginning of the twentieth century, a lot of people who were very despondent, particularly foreign visitors like H. G. Wells and Rudyard Kipling and expatriates like Henry James, wondered how it could possibly succeed, this diverse, tumultuous mob united not by any tribal connections but only by the idea of America.
The interesting thing is that the anxiety is still there: the anxiety that newer Americans, the newer immigrants, will not share a sense of national identity, that the United States will no longer be a unified country but only a set of multicultural blocs. It is really the same challenge, the main challenge of America that places it at the center of human events: Can we get past the age-old divisions, the racial and ethnic feuds, and stay one nation, united around the eternal ideals of human rights, and liberties, and freedom of speech? My answer is yes.