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Friday, March 02, 2018

80 Years Ago

I use proquest historical newspapers frequently, and I have gotten into the  habit of looking at the New York Times front page of exactly 80 years ago.  The United States was then more than halfway through our last great crisis, the one that created the world in which we have spent our lives, and now we are in another one.  I don't think anyone could argue with that last statement now--our old order is clearly dead and a new one is struggling to emerge, just as Bill Strauss and Neil Howe suggested would happen about 25 years ago in Generations and again 21 years ago in The Fourth Turning. They are still known only to relatively few Americans despite having been proven right in their critical prediction, but it turned out to be true, all the same.

The nature of this crisis, however, is very different.  That last one, I believe, marked the climax of an heroic era in western and world history that began with the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, and that revolved around the application of science and reason to human problems, largely through the medium of national states.  Now the power of states and governments has been declining and confidence in our institutions is at a very low ebb--and with good reason.  To those of us born in the late 1940s the speed an extent of the changes we have witnessed is quite astonishing, just as it was, probably, for many of those born in the late 1860s in 1938.  As usual, a comparison of the front page of March 2, 1938 with that of March 2, 2018 highlights some of the changes that have taken place.

The first difference, one I have noted before, concerns the scope of the front page itself.  It had eight columns in 1938; it has six now.  There were 12 different stories on the front page in 1938 and there are only six today.  No one had television, a computer or a smart phone in 1938, and keeping up with the newspaper was a much bigger job then than it is now.   But people did it. 

Column 1 in 1938 featured a story on the political crisis in Austria, where intimidation from Berlin had forced the government to include Nazis among its members, and a final struggle that very shortly led to the Anschluss of Germany and Austria had begun.  The next story along the top of the paper does have a modern ring. President Roosevelt had decided to publish, and syndicate, his public papers as President--the beginning of a tradition that endures to this day, although the Government Printing Office now takes care of it--and his press secretary announced that any profits would be devoted to some public purpose, supervised by the government, rather than go in FDR's pocket.   Two other stories on the left side of the page dealt with the death of the Italian poet Gabriele d'Annunzio, who had helped inspire Fascism, and an announcement that the famous newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst was going to sell or give away about two-thirds of his fabulous art collection, valued at $15 million (easily 10 times that now), to avoid forcing his heirs to pay inheritance taxes on it.   The first story out of Washington was that Congress, over the objections of President Roosevelt, had specified that part of a new Navy bill to fund experimental weapons be set aside for a new dirigible, which FDR did not want.  It has been many years since I read in the newspaper about a comparable argument about weaponry between the President and Congress.  A second page one story dealt at length with the testimony of financier and industrialist Bernard Baruch about the state of the economy and the Administration's new efforts to break up monopolies.  Baruch's stature in 1938, I would suggest, was comparable to that of Warren Buffett today, but Buffett is not called to Washington to have serious public discussions with Congressional committees about economic policy.  Indeed it is hard to think of any area of policy that is now seriously investigated and discussed by Congress.

A story at the bottom of page 1 discussed a proposal from two Latin American nations, Colombia and the Dominican Republic, for an Inter-American league of nations responsible for the settlement of disputes.  The State Department had no comment on it as yet.  Today the State Department is largely without leadership--most second-level posts are still unfilled--and there is less interest in new international institutions.

Moving to the last three columns, another story on Congress reported a minority, Republican demand in the House Ways and Means Committee for the repeal of several relatively new taxes on business as a means of fighting the current recession.  Then as now, Republican legislators loved to claim that business could solve all our economic problems if government lifted its restrictive hand, but their philosophy was doing much less well then, when Democrats had almost a 3-1 majority in the House, than now.  Three stories, indeed, in columns 6-8 dealt with taxes on three different levels, national, state and local.  The state legislature was increasing the gasoline tax and working on other measures to encourage home mortgages and regulate savings banks.  Last but not least, New York City taxes were going up slightly, setting a new record as a percentage of assessed valuation.  The strongest impression this front page leaves with me is of a nation, state and city working very hard at governing themselves, trying to tailor economic policy for the common good, not afraid to raise more money when necessary, and filled with detailed, open public discussions of all measures which the public was accustomed to reading about.  That brings me to today.

Column 1 today also leads with a foreign story: President Putin of Russia's boast about his new missiles.  That, certainly, was a kind of story that must have frequently appeared in 1938 with respect to Hitler and Germany, and we must hope that our battles with Putin will remain largely rhetorical, political, and digital.  Then, in columns 2-3, is a story about a non-issue in 1938: our President's call to arm teachers in schools to protect against random attacks.  The enormous growth in citizen armament in the last half century is an important characteristic of our own age and it has created conflicts that remain unresolved.  Then comes the story, so typical these days, headlined, "Chaos theory in the Oval Office is Taking Its Toll."  That story is in a sense a reaction to the lead news in columns 5-6: "Trump Proclaims Tariffs on Steel and Aluminum and Stocks Sag in Reply."  Once again we have a President who prides himself on being an economic innovator, but one who, unlike FDR, disdains expertise and relies completely on his own instincts.  Those stories illustrate a big difference in our political situation.  6 years into his presidency, FDR had definitely got the nation onto a new path, and although the economy was once again in a severe recession, he and the Congress were grappling with it together.  Now we have an erratic and inexperienced President who cannot keep his staff together or give an impression of carefully considered policy, taking steps in international trade exactly opposite to those of the New Deal era and every era since, until now.

The nation is in many ways better off than it was in 1938, when unemployment had reached double digits again and poverty was much more widespread.   Today's regional war in the Middle East is much smaller in scale than the Sino-Japanese war that was raging then, there is no European analog to the Spanish Civil War, and as far as we know, no great power is about to provoke a crisis comparable to the one that Hitler was about to unleash over Czechoslovakia.  But our country's institutions, both executive and legislative, were far more focused on doing their jobs than they are now.  In many ways, one could argue, we are still living off the institutional capital that the New Deal era and the postwar decades built up--and that the Republicans are tearing down now.  And last but hardly least, the  nomination and election of Donald Trump  demonstrated the bankruptcy of the two established parties, neither of which could come up with a candidate that could stop him.  We don't know what critical foreign or domestic problem our government may now be called upon to solve, but its capacity to find solutions to a major crisis seems pretty near to an historic low.


Ed Boyle said...

The old saw goes that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Of course a Yogi Berra would slyly crack 'which past exactly'. If we just look at the 80 year cycle like the Fed, for example, then we will be worried about rising fascism, depression, trade wars. Those are very real dangers. However if we take the alternating 80 year cycle view, namely that one cycle builds up capital socially, 1780s which is then depleted by the next crisis and turns inward upon itself in 1860s then we should see that era and its newspapers as model for our judgements about what will occur. Germany for example controls Europe financially and politicallly over Brussels. So called fascists making their way into politics are fighting in all of Europe against a sclerotic nomenklatura of a consensus reality which has outlived its time. Bloggers write indepedently of this consensus elite, other media are lkke govt.. zombies of Soviet times. Taboo discussions are heard in parliaments which were practically as boring as Sunday mass. This perhaps reminds us of 1848 in Europe. An attempt at decentralization financially, politically, giving people a say in politics dominated by professional political class with a revolving door to industry and no interest in voters. So a sort of revolution is occuring, not 30s style rightwiing movement but middle class intellectual vigour is taking hold. In America the success of the post WWII system is wearing out just as constitutional system became ragged. Bretton Woods, reserve currency, international trade agreements, NATO, civil rights expansion, women and gay rights, secular consensus all reaching limits. In 1850s Westrn expansion and adoption of slavery/agriculture systm or industril/independent farmer system was main argument s well as central govt. control vs states rights, like in EU. America now has the basic argument of greater expansion abroad, as in post war Americanization of Europe, absorption into economic sphere and post cold war economic absorption of ex communist countries into WTO, NATO expansion. We seem to have hit limits there abroad with current political/military structures without active war except for skirmishes around edges. Save nuclear war, unthinkable, we are forced to turn inward. Americans argue the benefits of a neo-imperial system, protecting abroad for corporate and military production benefit, policing the world, allowing mass immigration, jobs exports, cheap chinese imports at expense of native borns, local production. Expennsive military, perpetual warfare everywhere against any enemy rearing its head in Africa, Asia, Near East does not build roads, educate children, guarantee middle class jobs, welfare. Pretending, as in Hollywood alien attack films that the USA is planet Earth and makes all decisions, 4% of population, is wearing thin. How do you lead world without a middle class, permanent civil, racial, cultural strife and always more indebted. The fundamental questoions is not the heroic 30s-40s questions of saving economy and world from evildoers(now funded by CIA so pentagon can fight them) but rather of saving ourselves from this mad urge to play superhero abroad while our wife and children starve in a dilapidated trailer park without sewage and running water overrun by stragers.

Bozon said...


Great post reprising several of your classic topics.

I just want to touch on one or two, that of the Enlightenment, and of the idea of reason as an Enlightenment ideal.

"...The nature of this crisis, however, is very different. That last one, I believe, marked the climax of an heroic era in western and world history that began with the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, and that revolved around the application of science and reason to human problems, largely through the medium of national states..." DK

By 1750 the ideal of reason, or science, frankly, within the Enlightenment, including the thinkers of 1776 here, had already been abandoned (at least by the thinkers) in favor of other, ultimately more bestial, ideas:

"Rational minds, however, or minds willing to invoke reason as the arbiter of their doubts, became fewer as the Age of Reason dissolved into an age of sentiment." Palmer, Catholics and Unbelievers, p 188.

That was already happening around 1750 to 1760, before the American Rebellion, and well before the French Revolution.

All the best

Gloucon X said...

“The nation is in many ways better off than it was in 1938...unemployment is much lower...wars are much smaller in scale today...no great power is about to provoke a crisis comparable to the one that Hitler was about to unleash…”

So then, what then is the present day great crisis that you keep referring to? Could you at least give it a title that is as easy to recall as the Great Depression, the Civil War, or World War 2? If I’m going to go around tell my friends that my History professor says we are in a crisis as great as those, I’m going to need some serious evidence aren’t I? I’m going to need to say more than I don’t like Trump’s style, or that the Republicans are going to end New Deal government programs. If they can convince the people to agree with them, that’s called democracy, not crisis.

Bozon said...

This is for Glaucon X:
I will give you a title I like, if DK is willing to post it.

It is not, however, a S & H cyclical crisis, so be aware.

I would call it
The Crisis of the Age of the Democratic Revolution
or, as he has put it, it seems to me,
The End of the Age of the Enlightenment

All the best