Militants have formally declared a new Islamic state consisting of parts of Syria and Iraq. Russia, loaded with nuclear weapons and resentment, is looking menacingly at Ukraine. China is rich and restive. Israel is in upheaval over the deaths of three teens. There is no reason to believe Iran is refraining from pressing forward with nuclear-weapons research. North Korea is unpredictable and unreliable. Things are pretty bad.
Now let’s backpedal exactly 100 years. The archduke has been assassinated, Austria-Hungary is looking to Germany for support, a blank check is on offer, and before long Russia and France will have mobilized.
Maybe we should go back a century and a half. The year 1864 was one of titanic battles (Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Petersburg, Atlanta, Mobile Bay) and a vital election (the Democrats nominated the reluctant warrior, George B. McClellan).
How about only a half century? Fifty years ago this month, President Lyndon B. Johnson had just signed the landmark civil rights bill, but before long there would be riots in Harlem, three civil rights workers would be found dead in Mississippi, the Democrats would confront a rebellion at their national convention, and in a month’s time two U.S. destroyers would be attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin, or so the story would be told, precipitating increased American involvement in Vietnam.
Before the year 1964 would be out, Americans would hear two competing views of their future, one from Lyndon Johnson, en route to a 44-state landslide in the November election, and the other from Ronald Reagan, an underemployed actor-turned-activist who would give a celebrated pre-election television speech for Barry Goldwater, who would win less than 39 percent of the vote.
How do we measure the peril our nation has faced: in 1776, when it was young and idealistic; in 1812, when it was vulnerable; in 1861, when it was torn asunder; in 1917, when it waded into European affairs for the first time; in 1941, when war came to Pearl Harbor; in 1950 and 1961, when threats rumbled through Southeast Asia; in 1979, when American diplomats were held hostage by the Iranian Revolution; in 2001, when foreign terrorism crashed into our domestic life; and in 1827, 1857, 1877, 1893, 1907, 1920, 1929, 1937, 1973, 1981 and 2008 (and many more years), when economic distress endangered Americans’ well-being.
Typing all those episodes raises a secondary question: Is the human story — or the American story — simply a tale of woe, challenge piled upon challenge, danger built upon danger?
Have we ever experienced a period without threat of calamity?
The Era of Good Feelings? The first decade of the 20th century? Maybe the 1950s?
The hard times are always with us, more or less. But our heritage and values require more rather than less from us — and have given us more rather than less.
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.