Taking history by the hand

By

SEVERAL years ago I received this inquiry from Radcliffe College: Did I know of someone who might write an entry about my mother, Vera Micheles Dean, for the publication ``Notable American Women''? I offered to do the piece myself. Radcliffe turned down my offer, telling me that family members were not considered to be dispassionate observers. Thus forewarned, dear reader, let me try to sum up my mother's professional achievements.

As writer, editor, lecturer, and teacher, she informed Americans about the complex, and at times, dangerous world they had become part of following the post-World War I emergence of the United States as a major power. She sought to place the Soviet Union in a historical and political context, contributing to rational debate in place of hysteria.

In the final phase of her career, she stressed the need for Americans to be informed about Asia, Africa, and Latin America. These activities she under-took in her work at the Foreign Policy Association, and later, at Smith College, the University of Rochester, and New York University.

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To her work she brought special qualities. First, a phenomenal knowledge of history and literature. Strindberg, in a play of his, has a character comment on the desirability of knowing how other people think and feel. Useful advice in one's relations with family and friends. Essential advice in relations among nations.

Through the prism of history and literature, she gained special insights; for example, an understanding of Russia's deep sense of insecurity. The US, protected by oceans to the west and east, with neighbors to the north and south who pose no threat to its security, over the centuries has been able to develop in relative tranquillity, our greatest national tragedy being a self-inflicted wound - the Civil War.

Contrast this to Russia's exposed position with powerful neighbors on all sides. Russia's artistic masterpieces portray the country's vulnerability: the destruction of Moscow by the French in 1812 is described in Tolstoy's ``War and Peace''; the overthrow of Czar Boris by the Poles, in Mussorgsky's opera ``Boris Godunov''; the invasion from Asia of the Polovtsy, in the opera ``Prince Igor'' by Borodin; and the invasions of the Mongols from the east and Knights of the Teutonic Order from the west in Sergei Eisenstein's film epic ``Alexander Nevsky.'' As well they might, the tall towers around the Kremlin remind former Yugoslav diplomat Veljko Micunovic ``almost of military camps and invading hordes.''

Second, never absent from her penetrating analyses of political affairs was an understanding and sympathy for the human condition. She did not isolate intellectual considerations from impulses of the heart. The problems of people and nations, for her, were never mere abstractions.

In 1945 Mother visited wartorn Europe. This question haunted her: ``Why are you and I alive today while others - gifted, cherished, irreplaceable - are gone?'' This ``chance opportunity to keep on living,'' she believed, ``seems justifiable only if we take advantage of it to make existence livable for others.'' Mother devoted her life to making existence livable for others.

Each of these qualities is reflected in the fine lines she wrote in her book ``The Four Cornerstones of Peace'' at the time of the founding of the United Nations:

Which is reality - the smoking shambles of Hiroshima and the subhuman brutalities of Buchenwald and the Death March of Bataan, or the discussions around the green table of men and women striving to create an effective international organization? Or is reality none of these, but the quiet, undramatic efforts of people everywhere to keep body and soul together, to find solace in love and friendship, and to capture, if only for a moment, a sense of the glory and exaltation of living?

All of these, the evil and the glory, the love and the hate, are part of human experience. But we shall find no surcease, we shall betray our children, unless we continue to fight, with the same determination that we have shown on the battlefield, the forces that bring about war - poverty and disease, the frustration that springs from unemployment, the greed for power and advantage that can corrupt the healthiest nation, the fear that destroys reason. In this struggle we cannot look for unconditional surrender. It is a struggle that will go on as long as there is life on earth - but in which victory will belong to those who prevent, not to those who win, wars between nations.

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