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Colorizing History

August 2, 1995



PHILOSOPHER George Santayana is mostly remembered for his famous aphorism about forgetting: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

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That's all very well. But what history should we remember?

American historian Samuel Eliot Morison once complained sarcastically that too many were trivializing history, ''writing about the origins of the Portuguese cook stove!''

Today, the great naval historian of World War II would find a different batch of historians to question: not trivializers, but revisionists repainting the huge canvas of history's biggest, most costly war - like Ted Turner colorizing old movies.

What should we make of these revisionist historians?

Some of them have suggested that Winston Churchill took Britain and the world on the wrong course in opposing Hitler. Others are now asserting that Harry Truman's intelligence aides knew Japan was ready to capitulate and that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was both vindictive and unnecessary. These separate apostasies imply that millions of people were sacrificed in vain; that the Third Reich would not have clamped an iron rule on Europe; and/or that the age of nuclear war need never have arrived.

There is more than a passing resemblance in this rewrite of World War II to revisionist historizing in the 1950s that the cold war need never have started. Its thesis: President Truman aborted the chance to continue the World War II alliance with Stalin and to prevent the Iron Curtain that Churchill both named and helped cause.

No serious historian any longer credits this cold war revisionism. Revelations about Stalin's opportunism and deadly will to extend his power have long since scotched its credibility. So did the iron rule of his successors over their post-World War II empire.

But what about today's revisionism? What about the new views of Churchill, Chamberlain, and Hitler in Europe, and Truman and the Japanese leaders at the end of the Pacific War?

Anyone who has ever visited a concentration camp site in Germany or Poland, atrocity site in Bataan or Nanking, or ground zero in Hiroshima knows these are not abstract questions. By and large the new revisionist historians deserve respect for diligence but not for analysis. They have not Oliver Stone-ized history for big screen conspiracy effect. But their analysis does suffer from a flaw. Their supposed scientific method smacks of the hubris the French ascribe to college graduates: that they know everything but nothing else.

The nothing else in this case is a feel for the reality of the times throughout the 1930s and 1940s: The bleakness that settled over Europe after Hitler's troops swallowed Czechoslovakia, then Poland within months after the Munich Pact was supposed to preserve peace. The failures of successive plots against Hitler. Random buzz-bomb attacks on British cities, and the threat of worse to come. The kamikaze behavior of Japanese troops on Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Preparations for last-ditch defense on the Japanese mainland.

To remember the civilian dead in the winners' firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo and the losers' of Coventry and London is as important as this week's solemn remembrance of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The Santayana lesson of not repeating history is better served by strengthening and redesigning the peacekeeping institutions - political and economic - that grew out of World War II than in redesigning the history of its beginning and its end.

That means, above all:

r Being on constant, vigorous alert to prevent the spread of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

r Being much more active than today's rudderless big powers have been about improving UN and regional organization conflict-prevention and peacekeeping.

r Doing more to halt the again rising trend toward warring on civilians.

Wars are essentially irrational. How can it be rational to fight to the death over some economic, territorial, or ethnic matter while still trying to apply Queensberry rules of behavior? But the record of the World War II casualties mentioned above - as well as all the mass killings by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot - demands that leaders be willing to face the irrational in order to avoid it. That means being willing to confront tyrants with credible threats of retaliation if all attempts at negotiation and systems of collective peacekeeping fail.

It is this last point that is most difficult. But it is also the Santayana lesson that revisionists often miss.

We can construct a more peaceful global society in the face of pessimism. Bloody labor-management strife was endemic not too many decades ago. But we learned. Laws mandating cooling-off periods, mediators, and contract adherence changed that climate. That should be the goal, also, on the global scene.