Lessons from Monet to Pinochet

Passing today's moral judgments on yesterday's actions stirs up controversy.

The past is a foreign country, novelist L.P. Hartley once said. If that's true, it's a place the United States has been visiting this week.

In Washington, a conference on Holocaust victim assets has helped revive charges that some US firms abetted Hitler's military buildup.

In Boston, the Museum of Fine Arts has discovered that a delicate Monet waterlily it's showing on loan was almost certainly stolen from its true owner in 1941 by Nazi troops.

In London, the detention of Augusto Pinochet has prodded the US to declassify more documents bearing on its old relationship with the former Chilean dictator.

Attempts by the present to pass moral judgment on past actions continue to produce controversy in the US - as they do in many nations.

Witness Chinese President Jiang Zemin's recent trip to Japan, which was overshadowed by Japanese reluctance to apologize for actions against the Chinese at the start of World War II.

A trip through history can make any nation uncomfortable, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told the assets meeting Dec 1. But that's not enough reason to avoid the journey. "None of us are mere spectators," she said. "For better or worse, we are all actors on history's stage."

Reappraisals, even agonizing ones, are far from unknown in US life.

Some of the key architects of the American involvement in Vietnam, such as former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, now admit it was a colossal mistake for the US to commit its young men and funds to that effort. For over 100 years, the nation has been trying, and sometimes failing, to come to grips with the legacy of slavery.

Witness President Truman's decision to drop atom bombs on Japan. In 1995, when the Smithsonian attempted to launch an exhibit on the Enola Gay B-29 bomber that carried out the Hiroshima mission, veterans across the US exploded at its proposed content. They felt it emphasized the suffering of the bomb's victims and the shadow of the subsequent cold war arms race, while minimizing Japanese aggression and atrocities which made A-bomb use necessary.

The Enola Gay flap points out a general dilemma for historians, says Yale University professor John Lewis Gaddis, who has written about its aftereffects. Do you use the moral framework of the present, or that of the past, when judging history?

"Our first obligation is to understand why people at the time acted as they did. Once that's done, it seems to me we should feel free to make judgments by today's standards," says Mr. Gaddis.

The recent resurgence of the past is not as divisive as was the Enola Gay exhibit. It doesn't deal with such big issues as slavery. All facts are not in.

But the new events deal with some of the more sensitive US actions of the century.

Last week The Washington Post reported that lawyers and historians are compiling evidence on behalf of ex-Nazi prisoners for possible use in class-action lawsuits against GM and Ford. The charge: US managers from the auto giants collaborated with the Nazis when their German subsidiaries were converted to war production and used slave labor to make weapons.

Declassified documents show that the head of GM foreign operations met with HItler two weeks after the Nazi invasion of Poland, for instance.

Both GM and Ford strongly deny the charges, saying their foreign factories were seized by Nazi managers. The automakers say the issue was examined thoroughly in early 1970s congressional hearings, and dismissed.

That State Department refused to add slave labor to the agenda of this week's conference on Holocaust-era victim assets, according to reports, and told the National Archives not to hold a session on slave labor records research. Furthermore, the meetings were closed to victims of Nazi art looting or their representatives, say some experts.

That charge is a sensitive one, in light of the fact that the investigators claim it is almost certain that a Monet painting at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts was stolen from French-Jewish collector Paul Rosenberg in 1941.

Museum officials are investigating the assertion, and point out that the painting is simply on loan from a French museum.

But in general the US needs to be more sensitive to the provenance of suspect pieces, say some experts.

"The lack of regulation in the American art market has contributed to the problem," says Thomas Kline, a Washington lawyer who has helped recover looted art for the descendants of some Holocaust victims.

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