Militants have formally declared a new Islamic state consisting of parts of Syria and Iraq. Russia, loaded with nuclear weapons and resentment, is looking menacingly at Ukraine. China is rich and restive. Israel is in upheaval over the deaths of three teens. There is no reason to believe Iran is refraining from pressing forward with nuclear-weapons research. North Korea is unpredictable and unreliable. Things are pretty bad.
Now let’s backpedal exactly 100 years. The archduke has been assassinated, Austria-Hungary is looking to Germany for support, a blank check is on offer and before long Russia and France will have mobilized. Things are really bad.
Maybe we should go back a century and a half. The year 1864 was one of titanic battles (Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Petersburg, Atlanta, Mobile Bay) and a vital election (the Democrats nominated the reluctant warrior, George B. McClellan). Things are catastrophic.
How about only a half-century? Fifty years ago this week, Lyndon B. Johnson had just signed the landmark civil-rights bill, but before long there would be riots in Harlem, three civil-rights workers would be found dead in Mississippi, the Democrats would confront a rebellion at their national convention and in a month’s time two U.S. destroyers would be attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin, or so the story would be told, precipitating increased American involvement in Vietnam. Things are bad and getting worse.
Before the year 1964 would be out, Americans would hear two competing views of their future, one from Lyndon Johnson, en route to a 44-state landslide in the November election, and the other from Ronald Reagan, an underemployed actor-turned-activist who would give a celebrated pre-election television speech for Barry Goldwater, who would win less than 39 percent of the vote.
“From Johnson in the East, [Americans] heard prophecies of a coming era that looked like God’s kingdom on Earth, arriving shortly,” Jonathan Darman writes in “Landslide,” a forthcoming retrospective on the year 1964. “From Reagan in the West, they’d heard of the potential for calamity and the extinguishing of freedom, coming soon. Both visions could not stand. Here was the beginning of a great drama.”
All of this raises questions we might contemplate on this long holiday weekend, anchored on the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and its proclamation of American freedom:
How do we measure the peril our nation has faced — in 1776, when it was young and idealistic; in 1812, when it was vulnerable; in 1861, when it was torn asunder; in 1917, when it waded into European affairs for the first time; in 1941, when war came to Pearl Harbor; in 1950 and 1961, when threats rumbled through Southeast Asia; in 1979, when American diplomats were held hostage by the Iranian Revolution; in 2001, when foreign terrorism crashed into our domestic life; and in 1827, 1857, 1877, 1893, 1907, 1920, 1929, 1937, 1973, 1981 and 2008 (and many more years), when economic distress endangered Americans’ well-being.
The very act of typing all those episodes raises a secondary question: Is the human story — or the American story — simply a tale of woe, challenge piled upon challenge, danger built upon danger?
On weekends like this, when we contemplate our national narrative, we sometimes wonder whether we ever have experienced a period without threat of calamity. The Era of Good Feelings? The first decade of the 20th century? Maybe the 1950s?
That Fifties decade was a period of unusual conformity (unless you count the green shoots, or more precisely the black shoots, of both rock music and the civil-rights movement, or read the work of Jack Kerouac, J.D. Salinger and Allen Ginsburg). It was a period of peace (unless you count the Korean War and the challenges of the Suez Crisis and the Hungarian revolution). It was a period of domestic tranquility (unless you leaned to the left and encountered the McCarthy purges or were black and wanted to attend Little Rock Central High). It was a period of prosperity (unless you worried that the economy was warped by the Cold War, stifled by the absence of women in workplaces outside the home or threatened with inflation).
All the current half-century retrospectives of the decade that followed, the 1960s, carry overtures of deep peril. In the 1960 campaign, both John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon spoke of the decade ahead as a dangerous period of change and challenge, and both sowed worries about America’s ability to compete with the Soviets, maintain our freedoms and sow prosperity. In the 1984 election, 30 years ago, both Ronald Reagan and former Vice President Walter F. Mondale spoke of the hazards of the period and warned they were competing in the most vital election of the period. (In fact, the election of 1980 was far more consequential.)
So on this Independence weekend, the sober lesson might be that crises are always with us. There are very few periods of serenity, and the promise of “domestic tranquility” in the Constitution was a chimera, promised and yearned for, yet illusory, maybe impossible.
But on this holiday weekend should we take that as a gloomy lesson to be swallowed or should we be inspired by the nation’s ability to confront crisis, to continue to believe in its founding principles and to work — as generations of American fighting men and women and civil rights activists have done, as some of our national leaders have done, as most of our citizens have done — to build a nation worthy of its promise, especially that original Fourth of July promise: to recognize that all of us were created equal and entitled to a chance for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
Yes, we live in a perilous time. It is more perilous than that of the 1950s, perhaps, though a Cold War raged. It is less perilous than that of the 1940s, when a hot war raged, testing humankind’s most cherished values. The survival of our country is less uncertain than it was during the Civil War or during World War II, but our liberties are more uncertain than in the 1960s and 1970s.
The hard times are always with us, more or less. But above all, this weekend, and this recitation of all the woes we have confronted, should remind us that our heritage and values require more rather than less from us — and have given us more rather than less.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1890).