“The New Republic” and the Pitfalls of Historical Prophecy

“The New Republic” has had its ups and downs. Not too long ago its editors were almost unique in their willingness to honestly and thoroughly set forth the arguments for opposing points of view, and in their ability to address them convincingly, although lately they’ve shown a lamentable tendency to sink to the level of the rest of the pack. In common with many American journals of opinion that have survived for any length of time, its content has run from the ridiculous to the sublime, from essays by some of the most brilliant pundits this country has produced to the excrescences of Communist ideologues during the “red period” it passed through in common with many other journals in the aftermath of the Great Depression. It was launched in the opening months of that great watershed event in modern history, the first World War, and lately I’ve been looking through some of those inaugural issues.

It’s very useful to occasionally read through a few articles in the journals and magazines of days gone by. It puts things that are happening today in perspective. Back in 1914, for example, The New Republic devoted a great deal of ink to discussion of the ramifications of the U.S. military intervention in Mexico. The first page of the third issue was entirely taken up with ruminations concerning what should be done about the U.S. troops in Vera Cruz. Today the number of us who are even aware that U.S. troops were in Vera Cruz in 1914 is vanishingly small. Will the matters that raise such passions and seem of such overwhelming importance to us today assume a similar insignificance for later generations?

Perhaps the most important thing one gains from reading old journals is a sense of humility. One finds many predictions about the future, but few of them that were accurate. The problem isn’t that the authors making those predictions were fools. The problem is that we lack the intellectual capacity to assimilate all the facts that will have a bearing on the outcome of history, and correctly connect the dots between them. We must learn to appreciate our limitations. It’s unwise to overestimate our ability to predict future events that have no historical precedent. For example, how many of us back in 1988 predicted the manner in which Communism and the Soviet Union would collapse, or when the momentous events culminating in those results would occur?

There is much to be gained from the reading of history. One learns how human beings are likely to react in given situations. Occasionally, history really does repeat itself, and, to the extent that future events fit the familiar patterns of the past, they are predictable. However, once in a while she jumps her tracks completely. World War I was such an event. Reflecting on the possible outcomes of that conflict in the second issue of The New Republic, one Simon N. Patten wrote:

Progress has ever been a ruthless crushing, whether we regard it as indistrial or view it in its political aspects. Growth has meant a centralization which eliminates the weak to the advantage of the strong. Belgium and Servia are today where hundreds of small nations have found themselves in the past. Belgium is racially and socially a part of France. Economically she is a part of Germany. One or the other fate she must in the end meet. Servia must also be either Russian or Austrian.

In fact, in the aftermath of the war, the historical context on which Mr. Patten based his assumptions ceased to exist. Serbia did not become a part of Austria because the great empire that went by that name disintegrated. She did not become a part of Russia because she, too, ceased to exist in any form recognizable from the past. Belgium is still with us, and belongs to a European Union that would have been incomprehensible to the combatants of 1914. The lesson here isn’t that Mr. Patten was a fool. I’m sure he was a very intelligent man. Nor is it that we should cease speculating about the future. However, in doing so we should recall that we are not omniscient, and that the truth isn’t always obvious.

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