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Historians Examine How 2004 Will be Remembered in History Books

December 30, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: We turn to NewsHour regulars Ellen Fitzpatrick, professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, presidential historian Michael Beschloss; and Richard Norton Smith, executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

Welcome to all three of you once more in this year.

TERENCE SMITH: Michael, when you look back at the U.S. reaction at least so far and the role that it has to play in a situation like this tsunami, this catastrophe, how do you think people will see it as they look back on 2004?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, you know, Terry, we’re the world’s only superpower right now, so everyone notices every bit of what we do or don’t do.

And you look back in history, we’ve done wonderful things, the Marshal Plan is the most obvious. After World War II, we spent billions of dollars to rebuild Europe or at least part of Europe after the devastation of World War II.

The big test here is going to be if we can help in a significant way without the kind of foreign policy imperative that there was in the late 1940s. We did the Marshal Plan out of charity, but we also did it to keep the Russians from getting deeply into Europe. People said at the time famine builds communism, unless we do something about it you might have a red Europe.

TERENCE SMITH: So Richard Norton Smith, does geo-politics often trump the charitable instinct?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, it sometimes trumps it. Ideally it complements it. It’s interesting there was this kind of unseemly dust-up earlier in the week, some people who were calling in to question the generosity of the administration.

In fact it was almost a little bit like the first hours of 9/11, remember the total chaos as all of us struggled to deal with the enormity of what was happening to us. I don’t think anyone on Sunday morning or Sunday afternoon including in those countries that have been most severely affected had any grasp of the almost biblical dimensions of this disaster.

One thing to keep in mind, because the United States has already indicated that if the early numbers will be multiplied many times over, a number of other countries have done the same, and that process will go on I suspect for a long time to come.

But remember when we’re talking about the “American response” to any disaster, we should keep in mind something that DeToqueville discovered when he visited this country in the 1830s, that it’s not just a government response, an official response, it’s a popular response.

The American people are not uniquely, but characteristically the most spontaneously generous in the world and you’re seeing that all over this country in Web sites of charitable organizations that are crashing because of the overwhelming desire on the part of ordinary people to help out.

TERENCE SMITH: Ellen Fitzpatrick when you look at the reaction so far and again this role, this special role that we have to play in a situation like this, what strikes you?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Well, one thing that’s interesting is if you think about the late 19th century when the horrible Krakatoa Earthquake occurred and the tsunami that followed, there was an article in the New York Times about two inches high indicating that the Netherlands was looking for private donations.

There was no sense in the late 19th century of the United States being a power that would be impelled to help out in a situation like that. Obviously a century and more later there’s a very different expectation. I think one of the things a disaster like this does is highlight is the discrepancy between the standards of living in this country and in other parts of the world.

When you think about the fact that FEMA earmarked about $7 billion for the Northridge California earthquake, and the initial response in America is talking about a contribution in the range of 15 million, and that of course will grow and has grown already, I think it accents the enormous impact of poverty in a weak infrastructure that turns a natural disaster into a human disaster in the poorest parts of the world.

TERENCE SMITH: Michael Beschloss, how does this compare? As Eleanor referred to Krakatoa as another incredible catastrophe, but how does this compare in history as a natural disaster?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, I think the word was Richard used was biblical, and that’s the best way to describe it. One thing that’s frustrating to us historians is that really before much of the 19th century, the kind of records that we would want to be able to compare something like this, we don’t have.

One thing that makes this so momentous is that in real time at the moment, we find out the kind of numbers that we’re talking about, the horrible things that we saw earlier in this program, you know, before relatively recently those were the kind of things that you only read about much later in a newspaper or even in a book.

TERENCE SMITH: Richard, you felt that, I sensed, that any criticism of the administration as being slow off the mark was itself premature?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I think it’s premature. I can tell you this, criticism of the Swedish government, for example, for its response, it said there may be a thousand Swedes who have been lost in this disaster, there’s much harsher criticism, perhaps more deserved of governments in Thailand and elsewhere around South Asia because there was no early warning system in place in the Indian Ocean, unlike in the Pacific.

So the fact is, first of all, this terrible thing happened on Christmas Day, our government was all but shut down, you know, this is not a good week in the year to get a hold of a lot of people. And almost overnight, a response is being put together, is growing rapidly, unfortunately it’s being outpaced by the growth of the enormity of the disaster itself.

One quick historical anecdote: Sometimes an individual act of generosity will trump geo politics. Back in 1970 there was a terrible earthquake in Peru, and Pat Nixon was deeply affected by the numbers, 50,000 people dead, 800,000 people homeless, and she said she wanted to do something, and so the president got on the phone and he said first of all the government of Peru which was hostile to the United States at that point, would they even receive the first lady.

A week later she was in Lima with Air Force One with nine tons of supplies. She and the first lady of Peru went into the affected area, they spent five hours walking through the rubble, it was an extraordinary personal manifestation of American concern.

TERENCE SMITH: Ellen Fitzpatrick, broaden it out a little for us, if you will. Take a look at the year 2004. How do you think it will be remembered? Will it be the tsunami that occurred at the end of it or something completely different?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I think certainly this has been just a most horrific natural disaster. And I think we should also think about it in the context of the ongoing war in Iraq. This is an event that’s going to require an international coordination of effort.

And whatever the merits of the criticism of the United States, the briskness with which it was leveled I think reflects some of the hostility that we’re seeing internationally to the United States, and remembering as well that these are Muslim areas of the world, and there have been Islamic separatist movements within them. And the destabilization that occurs certainly accents the centrality of this tragedy.

In the broader context of the year as a whole, I think the ongoing war in Iraq is the other major news story, as historians look back to this time in the early 20th century, we’re living in an age of contradiction, of enormous advancement in so many ways, and yet if you just think about information technology, the digital age, and yet one of the things we see in our new information technology on the Internet are beheadings, a medieval, horrible forms of torture.

So the modernity and barbarism, alas, I think coincide in the year 2004.

TERENCE SMITH: Michael what about for you, what stands out or is likely to stand out as people look back on the year?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think a lot of what was just said relates to something that’s central and that is the reelection of George Bush, not just the fact that he got reelected, and that was a feat, this was someone who had, as Ellen was suggesting had been fighting a war that was pretty unpopular this year, and also had views that were in many cases very controversial, despite that became the first Republican president to have both Houses of Congress be reelected since Theodore Roosevelt in 1904.

It’s not a small thing to do. But above and beyond that what was he trying to do? He’s trying to change the way that we Americans relate to the world in a fundamental way, as he would say, he would say that we’re trying to use a moment in which we are the world’s only superpower to make this a more peaceful and democratic world.

One of the ways that he did it was to declare and fight the war on terrorism, another way was to fight the war against Iraq. Oddly enough, this tsunami provides another opportunity to show the way a nation uses power when it’s in this kind of dominant position, helping nations and people in those nations who have been badly hurt.

TERENCE SMITH: Richard, what’s your view?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, I think Michael is absolutely right about the historical significance of this election. We really won’t know until 2005 what 2004 actually meant.

I mean, on the domestic front this is a president who thinks as big as he does, for better or worse, on the global stage. He is trying nothing less than to redefine conservatism, which for most of the last 100 years has been defined as resistance to change. Very rarely was it seen as an agent of change, or a force for reform.

Yet this president is talking about reforming Social Security, tax reform in a major way, and it will be fascinating to see as 2005 unfolds because he really has only about a year before, to the dismay of our viewers, people like us will be sitting around talking about off-year elections in 2006.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: They can’t wait Richard.

TERENCE SMITH: Ellen, is there anything in the cultural or attitudinal field that strikes you as significant in the year 2004, and I mean beyond the Red Sox.

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: The Red Sox are a very important story up here in New England and elsewhere. And culturally actually the removal of the curse of the bambino has left us all reeling and uncertain about how to proceed in the world and of course the New England Patriots victory in the Super Bowl. So it’s been a momentous year up here in dreary winter time New England.

I guess more seriously, I don’t mean to be unduly negative, I think sometimes about our own culture as in some ways resembling the generation living after the First World War in which we’ve seen just such enormous strides in our times, and such enormous progress in the advance of civilization, and yet we also see, you know, the horrors of our world, whether through these natural disasters or through the terrible violence.

And there is a way in which I think it impacts all of us, seeing this as we do, on the news, cable news making it available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the immediacy of it.

Thinking of those people pleading for their lives on those tapes we saw out of Iraq, it’s just a kind of burden that’s imposed on the human spirit, never mind the tragedy endured by these families.

And I do wonder if in some ways we will be seen as a lost generation that was really dealing with both enormous progress and also these terrible tragedies.

TERENCE SMITH: All right. Ellen, Richard, Michael, thank you all three very much; The time unfortunately is slipping away like the year.