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Historical Perspectives

October 29, 2001 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: For those thoughts we turn to five NewsHour regulars. Four historian/authors: Michael Beschloss, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Richard Norton Smith, and Roger Wilkins, and journalist/author Haynes Johnson. Welcome back to you all. As we’ve explored earlier on the show tonight, there are real questions about how this war on terrorism is going, both abroad and here at home. Richard, beginning with you, are we, do you think, as a nation in the state of mind we need to be to wage this war?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, you know, that’s an interesting question. In some ways obviously demonstrably we’re not. I mean if you look at what’s happened, the tragic loss of the postal workers in the last couple weeks, the threat caused by anthrax, the obsessive coverage one might argue that the media have given to that. But in a larger sense, I think if the question is are we psychologically prepared because of the transforming events of September 11th to accept significant changes in how we live our lives and to commit ourselves to what the President has said is a different kind of war– a war that is not going to end in three weeks or because of three weeks of bombing– then I think the question is yes, we are.

MARGARET WARNER: Doris, do you think we are?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think the problem is we understand that it’s going to be a long war but it’s hard for us to participate in that war in 1001 ways the way we could in World War II. You could have hundreds of thousands joining the armed forces. They could go to the factories to make sure to get those ships, tanks, and weapons built. They could have victory gardens. They could feel not simply as we’re being told: Go back to your ordinary lives. It’s harder now. We don’t have a draft in the same way we did although there’s some indication I’d like to believe that that younger generation will want to participate. My own youngest son who just graduated from Harvard this June has joined the military. He wants that three-year commitment. He wants to be part of what this is all about instead of just going to work for a year and going to law school, he wants to be part of this. And I suspect there will be a lot of others like that as well. But somehow you just keep wishing that the government would challenge us. Maybe we need a Manhattan Project for this antibiotics vaccine production. We were able to get cargo ships down from 365 days in World War II to one day by the middle with that kind of collective enterprise. And I think we need to be mobilized, our spirit, our productivity, much more than we were.

MARGARET WARNER: Haynes, you’ve been out traveling on a book tour. How do you find the state of Americans sort of psychologically?

HAYNES JOHNSON: It’s the most extraordinary time I’ve ever seen, Margaret. On the surface everything is wonderful. It looks just placid. It’s been a great fall. I’ve been all over the country back and forth crisscrossing it. People seem dressed well — placid, enjoying life. But then you talk to any single person anywhere at any age at any point and you get this disconnect. All of a sudden something comes out, this great apprehension. I don’t agree with Richard that we’re committed to something. We know our world has changed.

MARGARET WARNER: I’m sorry — you do or don’t agree with Richard?

HAYNES JOHNSON: I don’t agree with Richard, no, I don’t. I don’t agree with Richard that we are committed to something. We know it’s changed. We don’t know where it’s going. This is… There is a realization of a long term here — the apprehension, the fear, the nervousness, looking over your shoulder. People talk about their children, their jobs, their careers. They don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t mean to say they’re fearful or running into the streets and all that. But there is deep, deep apprehension just beneath the surface, and it makes the job of leadership very tough to mobilize, as Doris said, to reach the country with something that we can do. That’s what no one knows, what are we supposed to do exactly? That hasn’t come through yet. I think it’s very important.

MARGARET WARNER: Michael, what’s your sense of this, whether Americans, one, are really committed; and two, whether they have a clear sense of what they’re committed to, what they’re signing up for?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, I don’t think we’re going to have a problem feeling involved in this war because there was a remarkable statement the other day by Vice President Cheney. He said that this could be a war in which we have more casualties domestically than we have abroad, implying that there will be further terrorist attacks of the kind that we heard a warning about from the Attorney General just earlier this evening. If that happens, you’re not going to have people feeling that they’re disconnected from this war because unlike World War II, this is something that could be really in every street. And the result is that as that happens, the good side is that in case anyone needs to be reminded why we should be patient about a victory in Afghanistan, if it takes a while or anything else we’re doing, we’re going to be constantly reminded either by those events or by simply fear that unless we do this, unless we’re patient, our lives could be very much poorer and this could be a very different country.

MARGARET WARNER: Roger?

ROGER WILKINS: Well, this is so different from World War II that I think we’re not really in a war mood. When we got into World War II, we knew how powerful and how effective the Nazi war machine was. We had proof positive of how determined and how resourceful the Japanese were. We knew we were in it for the long haul. We don’t know what the long haul is here — maybe today, maybe tomorrow, maybe next week. In the meantime, what are we called upon to do? It seems to me that one of the things we’re called upon to do is to take care of the country; that is, to think really clearly about what it is that we value as a nation. What makes us think that this is worth fighting for? And then go and make it stronger. People who flew planes into those two tall buildings really expect this democracy to implode the way those two tall buildings imploded. Democracy, you know, is perishable. We know that. You’ve got to take care of it in order to make it endure. So it seems to me the challenge to us is to find ways now to make the democracy stronger, to protect the rights that we cherish, and to show our commitment that way until there’s some other way that we can fight this war.

MARGARET WARNER: Richard, Haynes said he didn’t agree with you that Americans knew what they were committed to. So, respond to that. What do you think Americans think they’re committing to?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I think there is so much that is improvised about this war, about this threat. I think you’ve seen that in the last few weeks in the government’s effort– not all of it effective by any means– scrambling to deal with this unprecedented threat — but also frankly in the last few days scrambling to deal with the media coverage of the threat. That is a very significant element that did not exist in World War II. I mean, Doris is absolutely right about the enormous mobilization of resources and spirit that took place in that war. But I think she would also concede– because she knows this much better than the rest of us– that the first weeks after Pearl Harbor were chaotic. It was a period of many setbacks. It was a terribly difficult period. If it was being broadcast 24 hours a day on cable news, I’m not sure what the impact would be. I saw one cable anchor last week begin his sprint by asking rhetorically one presumes weather the postal workers had been killed by the CDC. I mean, this weekend we’re hearing the word quagmire used. Now, everyone on this panel knows that is a word freighted with emotional and cultural significance arising out of the Vietnam War. It is not only patience that we need in this war; it is perspective. And when people talk about a quagmire after a three-week bombing campaign, it suggests if nothing else they lack perspective.

MARGARET WARNER: Doris, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said today he thought the American public was more patient than the media or the elites. Do you think that’s true?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think so far they have shown a certain patience. I think the problem as Richard just said is that it took 11 months in World War II before we had any real victory. It wasn’t until the invasion of North Africa in November. There was a lot of grumbling and griping. It’s important to remember that. In fact the Democrats lost a lot of seats in the Senate and the House in November in part because coffee rationing had gone into effect right before the midterm elections and it was five days before the invasion of North Africa and people were being told they could only have one coffee a day. That seemed monumental. In the midst of that grumbling and griping there were things that the people could do. They didn’t feel they were passively being asked to just lead an ordinary life. So I think that the challenge for this administration is not simply to ask us for patience, not simply to ask us to go back to our ordinary lives but to figure out creatively how to mobilize the best talent, the best creativity, the best energy and the best business leadership, the best pharmaceutical leadership in teams perhaps working across country lines, working across antitrust concerns so that we’re really in a war spirit at home. And then we’ll feel that we’re fighting back in a way that I’m not sure we feel we’re doing here. We just feel we’re trying to protect ourselves. We have got to do more than that and take the forward step.

MARGARET WARNER: Haynes, you said earlier you thought this was going to be very hard for political leadership. Do you agree with Doris that that’s part of what the political leadership should be doing now, trying to find a way in a very overt way to get more Americans involved personally in some way?

HAYNES JOHNSON: Yes, I do. And I think there’s a great….

MARGARET WARNER: If so, how?

HAYNES JOHNSON: There’s a great opportunity here because the climate I’ve described and what my friends are talking about, everybody knows what we’re involved in. It’s different from anything we’ve had before. And we are going into a period that we don’t know where it’s going to go or how long it’s going to last or what we are asked to do. And our leaders have to tell us in what way we can contribute to right now every day and give some kind of commitment to the country’s good will and good future. That’s what we need to do. That is not happening at the moment. But the climate is there. Believe me. There is everybody, the seriousness of purpose, the anger, the fear, the frustration, all of that is a complex of emotions such as I’ve not seen before but it’s not broken in spirit.

MARGARET WARNER: Roger, there is a lot of polling data supporting what Haynes is saying about Americans, for instance, their faith in key institutions is up, in their political institutions. You have more young people suddenly saying I want to join the Foreign Service or the CIA or the National Security Agency. How do you think that can e channeled? Do you think that we might see a greater involvement of Americans in kind of the public sphere than we’ve seen in recent decades?

ROGER WILKINS: I would hope so. I think in the last decade there was an awful lot of self-involvement. Young people who I saw– whether teaching them or speaking to them around the country– really were turned inward toward what’s for me next and how can I get my pile? This is really the first time that this generation has been challenged to do something for the larger community. But I see young people… I see young blacks, for example, who haven’t quite changed gears. There was one who was quoted in the Washington Post this morning being very reluctant about the war and saying, well, you know, they called Nelson Mandela a terrorist and he got a lot of applause. To put Nelson Mandela, whom I know, into the same category with these guys who kill indiscriminately is an outrage. I know the fellow who said it. I mean people who are having that kind of reluctance really are people who misread American history. They forget that blacks have participated wholeheartedly in every war we’ve had from the Revolution on and from every battle from Lexington and Concorde on. And this is a war that is indiscriminately against us and anybody who is standing next to us. The ground zero is not a segregated ground. It’s not just an American ground. So I think that with the appropriate leadership that Haynes is talking about and that Richard is talking about, I think the President has a very tough task.

MARGARET WARNER: Michael?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: You know, Woodrow Wilson once said that it’s only once in a generation that you can lift the people above material things. The tragedy is that in this country you sometimes need a crisis, God forbid. And the horrible thing is we’re all as a people about to go through what I’m afraid is going to be in many ways a horrible ordeal — the only silver lining is maybe it will connect us to history and larger purposes. That’s been really the best in America if you look back over two centuries.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean our ability to rise to the occasion?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Absolutely — and think of ourselves, you know, as Roger was saying, not just of ourselves. As a child, when I was a kid, I can remember being told don’t eat the snow because the Russians have put radioactivity in it. I remember being terrified by the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s a horrible thing for a small child but in the same way it’s probably one reason why I got interested in history and politics and in a larger world. Maybe that will affect children now.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thank you all five very much.