Looking Forward – Learning from the Past

Seven decades ago, the United States emerged from World War II relatively unscathed compared to other great nations of the world. It found itself in the position to help rebuild, and in doing so it prospered. This prosperity was evident in its purchasing power. A look through the cupboards and attics of our aging population will unearth the evidence of that purchasing power. Crystal and silver tea services, porcelain and fine china, flat ware of the highest quality, and linens too lovely to ever have been used except for the most special occasions. These imported items, often the gifts associated with marriage and new life, were made in recovery zones, and helped reestablish the war-torn markets and industries vital to the lives of those fortunate to have survived a horrific war. These items also confirmed to the U.S. populace that they had fully become a great power, much like the empires that had dominated the century before.

The purchasing power and abundance of the post war era in the United States also provided a balm for hardship from which so many had suffered. The world had been either at war or suffering financial depression for over three decades when WWII ended; an entire generation felt the burden of despair lifted when the industrial and economic potential of the United States was reached post-war. The youth, those too young to have felt the full brunt of hardship, reached adulthood in the glow of economic world domination. This glow was only slightly dimmed by the threat of nuclear war, a threat that increased as they aged but did little to blunt their earning power. War machines equaled economic growth as long as the nation continued to view such development as being vital. Once that view shifted, however, the realities of over extension and taxation created an ever growing sense of waste and loss. The greatness of their youth seemed to have slipped away and in its place, only a sense of uncertainty remained. The Cold War, with all its ills, provided secure jobs and a sense of proactive security. When it ended, a new generation faced the aftermath of war. For them, the balm came in the form of a technology boom, of rapidly falling interest rates, and open borders; these changes provided the American Dream the youth had heard about, but had worried would be outside their reach.

As the twenty-first century dawned, rumblings of change and challenge emerged: first with the Y2K fears and then with the market crash following the September 11 terror. A nation which had for so many years found economic stability in military development and distant wars, once again turned to war as a means to unify and solidify a shaken populace. However, unlike during the Cold War, the United States had lost its standing as superpower. Politically, economically, and militarily – others had risen from the ashes and emerged powerful equals. No longer was the United States seen as the great protector; rather, many saw the United States as a threat to peace. Others questioned if the political system, which had weathered over two hundred years of challenge, would survive the challenges of the new century. Unlike in recent history (the last three hundred years or so) the new century had seen a return of conflict dominated by non-state actors which thereby created a longing for the seemingly stable nature of the Cold War, stable despite its harsh suppression of ethnic conflict, damaging political interference, and costly proxy wars.

This longing for the stability and prosperity of the Cold War provided fuel for the fear, anger, and desperate hope which motivated many as they voted yesterday. The new century has not secured the American Dream for its younger generation; rather, it seems to only have jeopardized it for the older generation. Conservative or liberal, the policies formed in national and state capitals seem, at best, to be bandages rather than sutures. Few anticipated a speedy recovery, but many are willing to risk experimental treatment in the hopes of a miracle cure. The nation should survive from this latest illness, and from the treatment it has chosen; however, it is unlikely that the youth, the youngest voters, will find the balm their parents and grandparents found from an economic boom. Industry, and even much of technology, has gone elsewhere. The borders of nations are closing rather than opening. Peace is threatened as much from the turmoil within as it is from without, and the economy is adversely affected by all the uncertainty. The generations who have suffered the ills and recoveries of the past may be too fatigued to calm the fears and fevers of today’s youth. There simply may be no balm.

History often times seems to be about groups of people working against or for an issue. After destructive wars, terrible depressions, or horrific epidemics, people tend to work together to bring about recovery, with special concern for the young who are always the true hope for a better future. At this time when the ills that face the world are less tangible but no less threatening, it is vital, as we look to history for the lessons taught by groups of people in the past, that we remember the work always began and ended with the individual; the individual who created the cure, who did the work, and who didn’t lose hope. Never did they wash their hands and walk away from the crisis or turn their backs on the young; rather they recognized that the young are, in reality, the key to the stability and prosperity so sought after.

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