living history

A few summers ago, I stumbled upon a garage sale about a block away from my summer place in New Jersey. An old couple was about to renovate their home for the first time in 50-some-odd years and needed to get rid of the mathoms, newspapers, magazines &c that were lying around their home.
There were stacks and stacks of Life magazines, in their living room, dating from the late 30s to the late 60s/early 70s. So naturally, as a history buff, I went nuts.
Now, being a teenager I only had about $100 or so to spend. After some haggling, I managed to get like 67 or so issues out of ’em, mostly from the 30s and 40s, though I wanted to buy the lot (there were perhaps a thousand magazines there).

While I’ve never looked through all of them – a few are falling apart and wouldn’t dare touch them – I’ve read a few of the features; they’re very interesting since they’re from the WWII and post-War years. One of the more amazing ones was a report from the famous Bretton Woods conference, detailing the economic and political system that we have lived in for the past half-century and more. (It had a good run.)
More than a few had WWII-era pinups on their cover; as cultural artifacts, the advertising is just as impressive as the articles themselves, if not moreso.

The great thing about all this is that, more than any book or novel or even film, it conveys to us that the past was not just a figment of our imagination: it actually HAPPENED, and that – that’s a wonderful feeling.

The other day, I revisited one of the issues from mid-1942, and decided to read the letters section for the first time. The first thing you notice is that “Wow. People [or, at least, readers of American news-magazines] really were smarter and more articulate 70 years ago.”

But one string of letters in particular struck me. They were letters of praise for an article in an earlier magazine about the Vichy government of Marshal Petain, with a somewhat forgiving bent. The readers praised Petain for capitulating to the Nazis and sparing France from certain massacre and bloodshed; one of them went so far as to call him a patriot.

We now know how this story ended. Vichy France was liberated, and France has a particular legacy of creating a ‘resistance’ myth, centered around the figure of DeGaulle. Petain was tried and executed for high treason, and this is usually how he is remembered in the popular narrative: to this day, the derogatory term “pétainisme” is sometimes used to describe certain reactionary policies.

Then it struck me: what if Petain were not prosecuted, tried, and executed? What if the French got together and decided to grant him amnesty, as Germany and Austria did for more than a fair amount of their top officials?

Perhaps Marshal Petain would still be viewed as the realist that saved France from massive slaughter and certain doom. That the state, empowered by the people, stepped in, made his status as a traitor official and irrevocable, an immutable part of the historical record.

This outcome was far from certain in 1942, when a substantial amount of readers and a major American newsmagazine – and the press was in the tank for America and Britain at the time – was forgiving, deferential, and approving of a person who ultimately was deemed a traitor of the worst kind.

History doesn’t just happen. It has to be produced, and within a certain timeframe, it is alive, and can be changed in one direction or another. We are living in this timeframe; in fact, we always are, for some story or another. But the window for one in particular is closing fast.

The parallel between Petain and today’s traitors – Jay Bybee, John Yoo, Dick Cheney, and the rest of the Americans who constructed and perpetuated the torture regime over the past decade – is striking. Now, the actions of this sorry lot doesn’t quite measure up to that of Petain – I’m sure the argument can be made that he did spare the lives of millions of his countrymen.

Authorizing torture, however, is scarcely less of a capitulation than Petain’s. While America is not now living under control of her enemies, she has certainly adopted some of their enemies tactics, and deviated from the values upon which she was founded. That the enormous tragedy of this situation has not even made a dent into the American psyche at large is demoralizing and depressing, to put it mildly.


History is only alive for a certain amount of time. It is incumbent upon us to show ourselves, the world, and our legions of descendants that we do not tolerate evil, that we hold ourselves to the highest moral standards, that we are different from those who seek to divide us and destroy us. I am not sure that we will be able to do this without trying – and hopefully, convicting – the proponents and perpetrators of the policy of torture in federal court.

I am quite sure, however, that this will never happen. Sigh.


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