Authors: Jr. Seymour Morris
The best illumination comes from above, through the skylight
—Oliver Wendell Holmes
or most of the past sixteen years I have lived abroad. Living in Romania and Cyprus made me confront the wonderful question posed in 1782 by the Frenchman Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, “What, then, is the American?”
As a foreigner, I encountered considerable skepticism about American foreign policy from European and Middle Eastern businessmen and diplomats. “Oh would some power the gift give us,” said the eighteenth-century Scottish poet Robert Burns, “to see ourselves as others see us!” So in my spare time I plunged into hundreds of history books about America’s past to help me in political debate and keep the conversation going.
I found that the best way to defuse hostility and single-mindedness was to entertain my audience with little-known stories of history that suggested greater knowledge than theirs, but with humility and a broad perspective. When asked about American militarism, I countered with the many opportunities America had to take over places like Canada and Cuba—and didn’t. When people accused America of not being a democracy, I countered that the Founding Fathers never intended it to
be (really?). When told that Guantánamo was a violation of the Bill of Rights, I explained that the Bill of Rights was an evolving process. The idea of universal rights was not a legacy of our slaveholding Founding Fathers, but of Afro-Americans and civil rights workers who had battled to correct the injustices of our past, plus the feminists who had paved the way for equal rights for women (an opportunity only late in coming to many of their own countries, by the way).
More often than not, my audience would be flummoxed and not know what to say. They complained America had too much global power; I told them to relax, America has not won a long-lasting military victory since 1945 other than Korea—a stalemate—and possibly Iraq. And look at what happened to a far more powerful empire, England in the early 1900s. We all know what happened to Great Britain …
Understanding history, they would tell me, requires seeing many points of view. Excellent idea! When one foreign diplomat argued that the Indians got the raw end of the deal in the sale of Manhattan for twenty-four dollars, I offered the Native American advice to “walk a mile in the other person’s shoes.” Turn the question around and ask yourself from the buyer’s perspective, “How did the Dutch make out on the sale?” Of course nobody knew the answer. When informed that the Dutch invested huge amounts of money in an overseas base and lost it all—raising the obvious parallel of modern-day Iraq where the U.S. is facing insurmountable bills, how my European skeptics immediately agreed with that!
Then there were the hundreds of Romanian young people I met in my part-time capacity as alumni interviewer for high-school students applying to Harvard. I was intrigued at how open and receptive they were to America—in sharp contrast to their American fellow applicants who took so much for granted. It reminded me that my country, which gave me my passport, my education, and my values, is for millions of people … a dream. If America is a dream, I must learn more about it. After all, who doesn’t want to know more about something so enticing as a dream?
By knowing my history and viewing America with a sense of wonder, I engaged in many delightful debates and dinner-party conversations. Nobody could get angry when I teased them, “Did you know that … ?” Touché! It was a clever way to broaden people’s perceptions and make them less emotional and judgmental. Whenever I suggested that what’s happening in the world today is “not as simple as you think,” I would point to “history, supposedly fixed
in stone, right?” and then provide examples that proved the opposite, that even history has its massive share of inconsistencies, twists, and turns. I would even go so far as to tease people, “Suppose it never would have happened?” “Impossible!” they would say with utter and complete conviction.
Really? Two weeks before taking office in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt was attacked by a madman who sprayed the scene with bullets. Had FDR been assassinated, the next president would have been the mediocre vice president–elect, John Nance Garner. In 1930 Adolf Hitler was sitting in the front passenger seat of a car that collided with a heavy trailer truck. Had the truck braked just one second earlier, Hitler would have been dead. In 1931, while crossing Fifth Avenue in New York, an Englishman used to looking to the right looked the wrong way and was hit by a taxicab—but survived. Had Winston Churchill walked a second faster, he could have been run over. In 1963 the Secret Service in Dallas installed a protective plastic bubble over the president’s black Lincoln convertible, but it was such a beautiful day that JFK asked that it be removed so people could see him better.
Much of what history books in school tell us is dry and narrow. Take a look at your child’s high-school textbook, and groan! No wonder many kids don’t want to study. Dates, battles, presidents, and social trends are all essential building blocks, but not the stuff of day-to-day reality that one can readily relate to. “American history,” says the historian and novelist Gore Vidal, “has fallen more and more into the hands of academics” (not to mention textbook publishers and state school boards who insist on including every viewpoint to the point of blandness). One longs for an anecdote, a human-interest story, a startling revelation, an epistle of courage, a killing of the bad guys—a moral lesson (kids know the difference between good guys and bullies). To the ancient Greeks,
meant a story or a tale as much as history. For centuries before the printed word, the great epics like the
even the Bible—were told through stories over the campfire. Said Samuel Johnson (of Johnson and Boswell fame in eighteenth-century England), “Anecdotes are the gleaming toys of history.” Asked how to make history interesting to today’s schoolchildren, the historian Barbara Tuchman said simply, “Tell stories.”
A simple story can speak a thousand words. Years ago, American history came alive to me in twenty seconds. The college professor was giving a lecture
about John Adams. Apparently, Adams had a roll-top desk at his Massachusetts farm where he spent much of his time during his term in office. The desk had several cubbyholes, one for each department of government. One was marked
, etc. That, ladies and gentlemen, was how the President of the United States ran the country in those days.
From that moment on, I marveled at our nation’s history—not at what it said, but at what it didn’t say. Several years later at Harvard Business School—certainly the last place I expected to run into American history—we were told about the early days of IBM. In 1945, founder and chairman Thomas J. Watson was asked the size of the potential world computer market. His prediction?
Just five computers …
Even though the story may be apocryphal (it originated from an enemy of Watson), it was not far off the mark. In those days the early computer—the size of a room, with its ungainly wires and bulbs always breaking down—was viewed as an impractical contraption that would be useful only for academia and the military. If you consider that hard to believe, put yourself in the past and ask yourself what you would do with a room-sized box that just clanked and whirred, a machine lacking the “brains” of an operating system like Microsoft’s (far off in the future). This exercise—imagining something before it actually exists—is a very difficult effort. Consider the comment of William Lear, inventor of the Lear jet and one of America’s great entrepreneurs. In the early 1960s, when he predicted three thousand business jets would be sold by 1970 and the major aircraft companies were predicting only three hundred, Lear said:
They don’t ask the right questions. The trick is to discern the market—before there is any proof that one exists. If you had said in 1925 that we would build 9 million automobiles by 1965, some statistician would have pointed out that they would fill up every road in the United States and, lined end-to-end, would go across the country eleven times. Surveys are no good. I make surveys in my mind
Understanding our past requires imagination, using the talent of a William Lear. In business we try to use this same skill whenever we evaluate a new business deal or try to outsmart the stock market. If predicting the future requires imagination, does not “predicting” the past?
Narrow-mindedness, said William Lear, is the bane of critical thinking. Virtually every history book describing the United States in the 1890s emphasizes “the rise of American power” and the annexation of overseas territories. Viewed in the larger global perspective, however, such a view looks absolutely provincial. Not mentioned and therefore unknown to most Americans today—especially those who swallow the line about America being the only world superpower—America at the turn of the nineteenth century was a minnow compared with Great Britain, an empire that dwarfed anything America has ever achieved (or ever will). The statistics are awesome: England owned an empire covering more than a quarter of the earth’s land surface, and ruled the seas with its Royal Navy. Its navy and trading companies (Hudson’s Bay, East India, etc.) controlled a third of all world trade. Half the world’s ships flew the Union Jack. London was the world’s financial hub. The British land possessions encompassed more than 400 million people—20 percent of the world’s population—interlocked by a common language and an undersea cable network of 83,000 miles utilizing the Internet of the day, the telegraph (a British invention). So awesome was Great Britain in 1900 that the South African business magnate Sir Cecil Rhodes (of Rhodes Scholars fame) predicted the day would come when England would recolonize the United States.
When we look at the past, we look at it from the lens of the present—a straight line, if you will. In actual fact, the past was another generation or two far removed, totally different. Take, for example, the hundred-year struggle for women’s rights. Look again, carefully. When Alice Paul of the newly formed National Women’s Party proposed the Equal Rights Amendment of 1920, prohibiting discrimination in the workplace, she elicited a storm of opposition from, of all people, the League of Women Voters. Women’s groups saw the ERA as a threat to their cherished “protective labor laws” that limited excessive hours, required special facilities for women workers, and forbade the employment of women in certain physically demanding occupations. Those in support of the ERA were thousands of men, employers, and members of the political right who actually welcomed the competition of smart women in the marketplace.