Many are familiar with the quote “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.” The original quote from George Santayana is actually “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Regardless, both capture an important point about remembering the lessons of the past.
With each passing year, we move further and further away from whatever lessons the 20th century might have taught us, whether we’re talking about the excesses of Wall Street, the horrors of a world war, or the folly of an arms race. I thought of this recently as I was wandering in a used bookstore and came across a blurb while skimming through an old book entitled The Ordeal of Power by John Hughes about the Eisenhower administration.
For those who may be a little fuzzy on the Eisenhower years, Dwight Eisenhower served two terms as president from January 1953 until January 1960. His first term coincided with the height of McCarthyism. In the early 1950s Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy went on his anti-communist crusade. To hear McCarthy tell it, there were communists and communist sympathizers all throughout the U.S. government, under every rock and in all walks of American life.
It was a scary time as many people had their lives ruined after being accused by McCarthy of being communist or having communist affiliations. Once the charge was made, these people were “blacklisted,” meaning they lost their jobs and careers, often their friends and even their families. Once they got that stink on them, it was difficult if not impossible to get it off.
In The Ordeal of Power, Hughes wrote that McCarthy “possessed only a crude and confused conception of what he actually was about. He never devised any grand design or cunning scheme for attaining political power. To fear him as a potential dictator…was rather absurd; he lacked the steel and stamina to stay fast on any course.
“To perceive him as a fascist was equally fanciful; he knew and cared nothing of political philosophy, good or evil. Essentially, the only kind of political life that he knew and relished was a wildly flailing show of knees and elbows, knuckles and nails. Often when he caused the most spectacular hurt or harm, he had merely closed his eyes and blindly swung. He knew and understood no political tactics but the most primitive—reflex and impulse, improvisation and revenge.”
Does this sound like anyone we know today in national life? Each person will have to decide that one for themselves, but the fact that we’re a good generation removed from McCarthy with all the fear and dread he brought, a full 70 years to be exact, leads me to believe that we are making the same mistakes now that we did back then.
And not just at home. We can see where Europe is headed. The British broke away from Europe through Brexit and the Russians invaded Ukraine. Soon it might be Poland and then things will start looking as they did in the 1930s—the makings of another world war. It won’t be long before we forget the lessons of the cold war and find ourselves in an open arms race with China.
Not knowing the lessons of the past, it is easy to think that the rhetoric we hear about draining the swamp or taking the country back signifies something new, a change of direction, or progress. Yet motives matter a great deal. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” but for the sake of our children and our grandchildren, I hope we can break that chain.