Talk about mixed emotions. And a mixed cast of historical figures great and small to choose from. There’s Harry Truman, the sudden president of the United States who at first wasn’t sure of what he should want, all the way to the relentless and remorseless Joe Stalin, who knew just what he wanted and usually got it if nobody stopped him. There was The Last Great Frenchman, Charles de Gaulle, and the first great freedom-fighter Emilio Aguinaldo, champion of Philippine independence since memory ran not to the contrary.
Everybody wanted to get into this act and most did. One day we were saluting our fighting Russian allies, and the next discovering that they were largely a figment of party-lining Hollywood fellow-travelers. No, you didn’t have to look left, right or straight ahead without stumbling into history.
Now it is history that stumbles over us as our chief executive and excuse maker visits Hiroshima. Ah, Hiroshima Mon Amour! and we sit there staring at the skeletal remains of an old movie theater in Hiroshima that has embedded itself in the world’s memory like a pebble in a shoe. We feel it at every step. But blithe as ever, we read the headline in the morning paper and go on, as if we were observing an historical anniversary instead of feeling its historical presence.
But there are still some survivors of a generation that once lived from headline to headline, NEWS FLASH to NEWS FLASH, and EXTRY! to EXTRY! And can still hear the teletype machine announce each one with a ring.
How the world has changed and how it hasn’t. Not that our president has noticed. Even remembering, he forgets. “He will not revisit the decision to use the atomic bomb at the end of World War II,” the all too imitable Ben Rhodes announced in his current role as White House adviser. Instead, said Mr. Rhodes, the president will offer a “forward-looking vision” of a world without any nuclear arms.
That must be the same vision of a very different president, a great one named Ronald Reagan. Naturally he was ridiculed for even daring to bring up the idea. But the current president seems allergic to greatness or any whiff of it. Perhaps he understands that great ideas come with great risks attached, and prefers his visions risk-free.
The whole world now has been debating the decision to drop the Bomb on Japan for some seven decades now, yet our president remains as neutral as the Swedes or Swiss did in those war-torn years, cheering one side on and then the other as the bloody tides of war ebbed and flowed.
Santayana said that who those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. And his prophecy has been fulfilled more than once. But will we ever learn enough to avoid the end?
Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is [email protected].com.