PIERRE SALINGER has seen a lot of history - as captain of a submarine chaser in World War II, as press secretary to President John F. Kennedy, and as ABC News's chief correspondent in Europe for the past 15 years. But he worries that too many people are forgetting the history of the last five decades - and, specifically, the invasion that liberated Western Europe in 1944.
"There has been a loss of memory about what happened in World War II," Mr. Salinger said during a Monitor interview here. In today's "fragile world," he added, the appeasement that allowed the expansion of Hitler's reich and the commitment that reversed that expansion teaches indispensable lessons.
Those lessons will be brought to mind for millions next year on the 50th anniversary of D-Day, the Normandy invasion. Central to the observance will be the Wall of Liberty, which will contain the names of as many of the 5 million American veterans of the war in Europe as possible. Salinger is chairman of the committee gathering the names of veterans and raising money for the memorial.
The Normandy anniversary comes at a poignant moment, when Europe and the United States are having to redefine their relationship after the cold war's end. Salinger recalls that on July 4, 1962, President Kennedy delivered an "extraordinary" speech calling for "a unified Europe linked to the US," a tie that would be "a backbone for the world ahead." We're in the midst of that world, Salinger says, but the "backbone" is still missing. A revised and strengthened US-Europe relationship is essential, he says,
if chaos like that in Yugoslavia and among the former Soviet republics is to be quelled. A `desperate mistake'
"We made a desperate mistake when communism collapsed - we cheered," Salinger says. "Who was around to say, `Watch out! When these thing break down, there's a potential danger.' "
Salinger vividly remembers the 3-1/2 months he spent in Yugoslavia in 1980, as Marshall Tito lay dying. He did a broadcast on the country's future in which he examined Tito's political legacy - a system of rotating presidents and party bosses from the various republics - and concluded, "It's finished." That assessment took 11 years to materialize, and meanwhile everyone's attention was drawn elsewhere.
With war raging in Bosnia, Americans and Europeans once again are groping toward a common purpose. Salinger sympathizes with the difficulty the Clinton administration has had in defining a policy toward the Balkans, since the situation there - despite widespread news coverage - is not of great concern to the average American.
By contrast, Salinger says, Europeans are "quite nervous about what's going on there." They worry about what it means for the future of European unity, he says. "But there are so many problems inside these countries - they're thinking of their own problems, too." He cites the sagging fortunes of Prime Minister John Major's government in Britain and Germany's continuing reunification agonies.
Then there's Europe's struggle toward greater unity. Salinger notes, for example, that only one country - tiny Luxembourg - has conformed to the rules regarding debt, interest, and other financial issues that will underpin the long-proposed currency union.
As Europe stumbles along, a young administration in Washington is struggling to find its own footing. Salinger says European publics - unlike their governments, which favored George Bush - were often supportive of President Clinton in last year's campaign.
But now Europeans are being swayed by some of the same stories now shaping American public opinion, he says. The Clinton "haircut" caper, for instance, was made to order for Britain's tabloid press. Global news ethics
Salinger acknowledges the parallels sometimes drawn between the Clinton and Kennedy administrations - that both represented generational change in US politics and both held up a vision for the future. But there are important differences, the former top Kennedy aide says: "We had lots of young people in the Kennedy administration too, but every one of them had at least five years' experience in Washington."
Salinger is not a knee-jerk defender of his trade, however. Another of his projects, along with the Normandy commemoration, is a proposed international conference on ethical standards in journalism. "I think media ethics are breaking down," he says. "We're in a period of manipulation of information."
An example of this, he says, was the squelching of information indicating that Iran and Syria - not Libya, as publicly proclaimed by Washington - provided support for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Scotland in 1988. The developing Gulf crisis made Washington leery of any confrontation with countries that might be allies against Iraq, Salinger says, and too many journalists were willing to let the government close the book on the Pan Am tragedy.
The ethics question also gets down to the nuts and bolts of journalistic behavior. "If you're going to cover a country, never let your way be paid by the government of the country you'll be visiting," Salinger says, indicating that he sees some broadcasters dropping that standard.
Fabricated stories are another issue. He describes the case of a well-known French news anchorman who visited Cuba and purported to have had an exclusive interview with President Fidel Castro Ruz, which later turned out to be press conference footage doctored to look like an interview. "The company defended him," Salinger says, "and he's still there.