|THE AMERICAN CENTURY|
June 8, 1999
DAVID GERGEN: Harry Evans, the second American century, you write in your new book that as it began, there were a number of prominent people who were pessimistic about America's prospects in that second century-- H.G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, Walt Whitman, Henry Adams.
HAROLD EVANS: It was every foreign visitor pretty well thought the democratic experiment in America was too ambitious and was bound to fail. H.G. Wells went to the White House to see Teddy Roosevelt and said, "This is an impossible experiment. Why are you bothering to try and get all these different races of people together with these ideals of freedom? And it won't work." And Teddy Roosevelt said, "The effort is worth it, the effort is worth it." And he was absolutely right. Not only foreign visitors, incidentally, but Walt Whitman and Henry Adams, all of them thought the republic would break its neck.
DAVID GERGEN: Mm-hmm.
HAROLD EVANS: And Rudyard Kipling referred to the "warring archipelago of tribes in America." Robert Louis Stevenson crossed the country by train. As he went across to the West in the train, and breakfasting and having coffee at different places with all the immigrants going to find their fortunes in the West, trains were coming back. And the people coming back stood on the platforms and shouted to the trains going West "Go back, go back!" You don't often hear that. And many of the -- for instance, the Italians went home in huge numbers. They didn't stay.
DAVID GERGEN: Harry, you've consulted, you've read widely some 5,000 books that you've looked at to prepare this book.
HAROLD EVANS: Yes.
DAVID GERGEN: How do you explain now why it turned out so differently? Why were the pessimists wrong?
HAROLD EVANS: The pessimists were wrong because somehow or other the moral engines of freedom and the aspirations in the Constitution incited people to try and achieve them. And many remarkable individuals and a number of remarkable leaders helped. Just think, in 1889, the beginning of the second hundred years of America, the vote is not held by women or by blacks or by young people. Life expectancy is around 46, 47. The general standard of production is high, but still low by today. And I think it's the story in The American Century is the story of individuals expecting and wanting to achieve the ideals. And it's very, very important, the American Constitution or the Bill of Rights, because we begin without full freedom and we end in 1989, or today, being the freest country in the world.
DAVID GERGEN: You suggest in your book that American universities don't teach the history of the -- our second century in quite the right way.
HAROLD EVANS: Well, I'm very anxious about the teaching of history in America generally. First of all, many people don't seem to realize how exciting it is and how relevant it is to freedom today. And when universities, in particular, encourage multicultural teaching of the origins of the people who have immigrated here, that's fine, but it shouldn't lead the course. What should lead the course is an appreciation of how the country, which attracted them, secured its freedoms and secured them. And if you don't know the past of America, you can't have any faith in the future. You have no road map for the future. And I'm afraid that today many of our young children don't have any clue about how this country enjoys its prosperity, how it enjoys its relative tolerance, and without appreciating the individuals who struggled to achieve that, people like Ida B. Wells or Franklin Roosevelt or many of the women-- Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinam. Without appreciating what those individuals did, you have no guide for your own individual destiny.
DAVID GERGEN: And you found that many of those individuals were not necessarily elected officials. There were elected officials who were heroic, but there were -
HAROLD EVANS: Well, many of the most important decisions in American history arise from people whose names are not known. If I said to you now Sam Shapiro, what would you say?
DAVID GERGEN: Exactly. I'd look up your index.
HAROLD EVANS: Well, Sam Shapiro is responsible for the freedom of the American press.
DAVID GERGEN: Mm-hmm.
HAROLD EVANS: A Lithuanian immigrant with a dry cleaning shop in Minnesota visited by the mob because he won't pay protection money, and they expect him to go quietly about it. But he doesn't. He protests. The legislature is so corrupt, it won't take any notice of a protest by a Lithuanian immigrant, but he starts a legal series of actions with the help of Colonel McCormack of the "Chicago Tribune" and a scurrilous newspaper in Minnesota. And finally, prior restraint is banned. That leads to the Pentagon Papers, all because of Sam Shapiro.
DAVID GERGEN: Hmm.
HAROLD EVANS: That's just one example.
DAVID GERGEN: Yeah. It was so interesting how often ideas that came up early in the period, had so much influence even in our own time. When Woodrow Wilson went to Versailles, you have this picture, among these many pictures you have in the book, of a young Ho Chi Minh listening to -- you know, essentially picking up on Wilson's 14 points.
HAROLD EVANS: Yes, that was -- it's amazing. When Wilson went to Versailles to make the world safe for democracy and was on his knees drawing a map of Yugoslavia on the principle of self- determination, all that was very well and good. But Nguyen the Patriot, was later Ho Chi Minh, could not get a place anywhere. And all he wanted then was equality of -- before the law between the French and the Vietnamese. And, of course, he later came to get much more than that. But he was -- it's very interesting. He was inspired by the American Declaration of Independence just as Aguinaldo in the Philippines was similarly inspired by the American ideals. And when they tried to get them against a relatively imperialist power, as the United States was in those instances, they didn't get them. And, of course, they finally did after a lot of bloodshed.
DAVID GERGEN: Mm-hmm. Well, now, harry, we talked about these Brits like H.G. Wells and Rudyard Kipling coming here 100 years ago and being rather pessimistic. Now, you are a native Englishman and you come here and you've got a rather different view about where we are at the end of this second century.
HAROLD EVANS: Well, at the end of the second century, I am now still a native Englishman, but now American citizen because I was inspired by the country and so well-received here. I think America has a brilliant future. I think of America now rather like England in 1835. America has a monopoly nearly of information technologies, I mean, in a way which is not comparable in Europe, just as England in 1835 had a semi-monopoly of steam. We have resources of capital just like the English had in 1835, who put a lot of their money into America. We have a brilliant heterogeneous population, very productive. But most of all, we have a belief in freedom and the free enterprise, which may enable us to solve the problems of capitalism. We've got rid of the problems of Communism, and the problems of capitalism, of course, are well known: Distribution of wealth, race, which is destiny in American politics. And I do worry a bit about race.
DAVID GERGEN: Mm-hmm.
HAROLD EVANS: I think America is going into the next century despite China, despite what was once called Japan Inc., into a brilliant period, if it can sort out its relations with Europe so that Europe and America stay together, and, of course, Kosovo is a big test of this.
DAVID GERGEN: Yes. Harry, what lessons do we learn from the British experience -- because you compare us to the height of the British period? And there was - you know, that empire faded, that greatness faded over time. What should be learned from that that would apply here in America?
HAROLD EVANS: Well, the British empire was based upon us controlling a quarter of the world's population and a quarter of the world's land surface. And of course it was based in the end on suppression. The empire was a suppressive force. America should learn it can't oppress, and it can't impose its will too readily, as we tried to do in Vietnam, for instance, or it can't impose its will too readily anywhere. Secondly, it must remain universalist. If it goes back into isolationism, just taking the British point, the British started to retreat. And if America retreats within its borders, it will be a diminished America and in the end it will be an America, which is more vulnerable to those forces it has excluded. So internationalism and maintenance of freedom and not imposing one's will too arrogantly are very crucial to the future of the United States in world affairs.
DAVID GERGEN: Harry Evans, thank you very much.
HAROLD EVANS: Thank you, David.