Too bad for them they should have been more like us

July 18, 1996|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- A characteristic problem of this generation is that it doesn't seem to understand what it was like for any other generation. Anachronism rules. Every figure from the past is held accountable for not thinking and acting as right-minded people do today.

We saw this in 1992, on the 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage, when the great navigator was excoriated as an imperialist and racist, responsible for genocide, even though imperialism, racism and genocide are concepts that were unknown in the 15th century.

The Smithsonian Institution had to revise or suppress exhibitions on the bombing of Hiroshima and on slave life at the time of the Civil War because they failed to display these matters as people want to see them today.

Shocked by Orwell

In London last week, distress was expressed in some circles at the discovery that George Orwell was an anti-Communist and had tried to keep Communists out of a secret propaganda unit run by the Foreign Office.

This came out in official papers released under the 30-year rule. In 1949 George Orwell was very ill with the tuberculosis that was soon to kill him, but he gave an official ''a list of journalists and writers who in my opinion are crypto-Communists, fellow-travelers or inclined that way, and should not be trusted.''

Orwell had seen the Soviet secret police at work in Spain during the civil war there, where he had served with a dissident left-wing brigade which Soviet agents and the Spanish Communists tried to destroy.

The official to whom he gave his list was the sister-in-law of another anti-Communist, Arthur Koestler, who had been a secret Communist agent in Germany and Spain, and subsequently had written one of the best and most influential of anti-Communist novels, ''Darkness at Noon.''

Both men had personal experience of Communist methods and excellent reason to resist Communist influence in postwar Britain, which was considerable. People in well-intentioned left-wing and liberal circles were not only grateful for Russia's immense war effort but often were still under the influence of propaganda which said that Stalin's communism was a superior version of democracy.

Orwell considered those who did think such things unsuitable for employment by a government propaganda agency, which one would think solid good sense. He was not accusing them of being Soviet spies, nor was he damaging their reputations or livelihoods.

Yet a remarkable number of people in London have said that Orwell ''betrayed'' his own side, which would presume that British socialism and Stalin were on the same side. They are also upset that Orwell ''named names,'' saying this was ''McCarthyism,'' which again betrays ignorance. Sen. Joseph McCarthy made public denunciations of people he claimed were Communists or pro-Communist, intending to destroy their reputations and careers.

Roosevelt memorial

A similar ignorance of the past is revealed in the controversy that has gone on in Washington about the new memorial for Franklin Roosevelt, being built near the Jefferson Memorial.

Should he be portrayed standing (as in London's Grosvenor Square), or in a wheelchair? FDR was crippled by poliomyelitis when he was 39 years old. Afterward he could stand if he was locked into his leg braces, but was otherwise confined to the wheelchair, and had to be helped in and out of it and lifted about.

Most of those on both sides of the argument seem convinced that the president's disability was a secret. He is supposed to have deliberately hidden it (with the connivance of the press). To display him today as he actually was is said either to be a courageous act of revisionism and service to truth, or a reductionist gesture of political correctness.

This is nonsense. I was a child when FDR was president and I knew that he had polio, and so did everyone else. Every year there was a big fund drive -- ''The March of Dimes'' -- for polio research, and he was the public patron of the March of Dimes, which was linked to his birthday.

Roosevelt sponsored the institute at Warm Springs in Georgia where they treated polio victims and did research on the disease. His visits to Warm Springs were shown in the newsreels in movie theaters, and it was there, of course, that he died.

Polio -- ''infantile paralysis'' -- was a vital issue in American homes then. People with children lived in dread of an outbreak of the disease. These usually came in the summer, and swimming pools and playgrounds would be ordered closed. People would keep their children home for fear of infection. It seemed a consolation that the president was himself a victim.

What confuses people today is that the president was not photographed in the wheelchair. He was always shown sitting, usually jauntily, but in a chair or automobile, although he sometimes stood, as when addressing Congress. He wanted to avoid images of dependence. That may be criticized by today's conventions, but it made sense politically, abroad as well as at home.

None of this, in itself, is particularly important. What does seem important is that people take so little trouble to find out what actually did happen in the past, even in the lifetimes of the living.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/18/96

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