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.