The American Century

Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Harold Evans
Title: “The American Century”
Recorded: 11/18/98

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And in a New Yorker review recently, Sean Wilentz perhaps put best what as an erstwhile American historian I would like to report on today’s guest’s truly wonderful new volume of Americana, a brilliantly interpreted and breathtakingly handsome illustrated history of what, like master journalist Henry Luce before him, he calls “The American Century”.

Wilentz predicts that of all the similarly titled books and television specials and editorials and OpEd pieces that are bound to surface here at the Millennium, what he calls my guest’s “expertly argued and splendidly illustrated work of American history … may well be the only one that will endure. Books often surprise, but rarely this happily”.

Of course it was the late great historian Charles A. Beard who noted that all recorded history is an “act of faith” and perhaps I am so taken with this intellectually as well as visually stunning Alfred A. Knopf volume because I share so much of its British-born author’s reading of the American past. His act of faith, his points of view, if you will.

Professionally a journalist, in London Harold Evans was for many years editor of The Times and the Sunday Times. In America, Mr. Evans became President and Publisher at Random House. Is now Editorial Director and Vice Chairman of U.S. News and World Report, The New York Daily News, the Atlantic Monthly.

Now, about the idea of an American Century, my guest writes that, “it is an intriguing commentary on style that the material pleasures of Americans, their movies, their hamburgers and colas, their slang and their clothes — became”, as Henry Luce before him put it, “the only things that every community from Zanzibar to Hamburg recognizes in common.” But Evans goes on to note that: “None of this adds up to a decisive claim on the century. The glory of a people does not lie in their economic indexes, their actuarial tables or even the fame of the designer jeans: It lies in their idealism, in the use they make of their resources, in the kind of people they become amid the temptations of pride and greed”.

But if that’s so, I would begin today by asking Mr. Evans just how easily does our glory lie?

EVANS: Easily in the sense of you accepted too readily. I think American don’t fully appreciate what they’ve achieved. And I think they, certainly don’t, as a general mass, realize quite how free they are by comparison with the rest of the world. And I think it’s very, very important that they know how it was achieved. The individuals who helped to make it. The ideals. And the failures, too. Because unless a country knows its past, it cannot even begin to think about its future.

HEFFNER: When you talk about freedom … is that the singular quality, if not the only quality that you would put first?

EVANS: Well, I think freedom is the overarching … obviously Americans I think are, individually and communally generous, expansive and enterprising. And it’s not a chicken and egg situation. I think all of those things flourish in an atmosphere of freedom. And when you don’t have freedom … freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of travel, freedom from arbitrary arrest all these other things, the human personality withers. And we’ve seen this. Look what happens to art in the totalitarian societies, whether they be left wing or right wing totalitarian societies, it withers. Creativity does not flourish in an atmosphere of repression.

HEFFNER: And yet you conclude with the notion that capitalism defeated communism. The question for the next century is whether capitalism can triumph over its own contradictions. What are those contradictions?

EVANS: Well … you keep putting the finger on the pivotal points in the book, Richard. The major contradiction, of course, is that the American economy … allowing individual liberty to create wealth … also tolerates the largest gap between the rich and the poor in the industrialized world. And the interventionists, who began with Teddy Roosevelt and then came Franklin Roosevelt, want to redress that balance. Certainly Franklin Roosevelt did. And always in the dilemma that if you redress it by restricting economic enterprise and freedom, you might actually “throw out the baby with the bath water”. And this tension is a permanent feature of the American landscape and it’s still unresolved because it’s quite clear that the economic freedom isn’t completely pure and perfect. The kind of unregulated capitalism that we’ve just seen collapse in the Soviet Union was what America had in 1889. We’ve gone beyond that, we’ve regulated capitalism … “welfare capitalism” it’s called now. But at the end of the day we still have this large gap between the rich and the poor, we still have the Blacks in the ghettos getting a lousy education, we still have the corruption of politics by money. So how do we resolve these final things without limiting freedom too much? And I think that is such a fascinating exercise.

HEFFNER: You say, “fascinating”, and “exercise” … do you mean much more than that.

EVANS: Ah well, it’s an experiment in a sense. It’s never been tried before. And you’re right, I’m using words … I’m kind of downgrading … it’s very dramatic … It’s more than an interesting exercise. And its not only dramatic and important for the Americans, it’s important for the whole world because the American standard of welfare capitalism and freedom … market economics is now the universal standard, with collapses, of course, in what was once thought to be the next dominant power … Japan, Inc. And the Soviet … Russia … I keep saying the Soviet Union. Shows you how old I am … I mean you’ve got to be at least 35 to remember the Soviet Union. [Smiling voice] And so the experiment here is of prime importance for everybody. For instance, when I was an editor in England, every time I went to court and argued against the restrictive British press laws on things like compensation for Thalidomide children or the way a manufacturer should not be allowed to ransack the environment, I was always being challenged by saying but look at the terrible consequences of freedom in America … trial by newspaper.

HEFFNER: And your response?

EVANS: And my response was … “yes … they have not reached perfection yet, but they’re better than we are because they recognize a public interest in freedom and the British courts didn’t do that.”

HEFFNER: You say “the public interest in freedom”. No question …

EVANS: Right.

HEFFNER: … in your book is a celebration …


HEFFNER: … of that theme. But I detect running through it, and that’s what I meant about sharing …


HEFFNER: … your act of faith. I detect running through it something that’s less than a celebration, or at least a profound concern.

EVANS: Well, you’re right. You’re absolutely right. I mean take the situation about the … 1889, Rudyard Kipling comes to the United States and he says, “this country cannot survive” … you’ve got hundreds of thousands of immigrants coming who don’t speak the language, or who have relationships elsewhere, it will break up into an epic archipelago warring tribes. And everybody pretty well thought that at the time, that America couldn’t survive. In 1998 the immigration is much more diverse, it’s from the Third World, many people don’t speak English, of course. They know nothing of the history of America, so it would be entirely possible to worry exactly as they did in 1889, and say the dis-United States is the future of America, with concentrations of political ethnic groups, gerrymandered districts and minority preference programs, and all that kind of thing, which will make the country divide against itself. Now, it’s because I’m now an American and because I tell myself what the American character is, that I end up optimistic. But if I was a European, I’d be more pessimistic.

HEFFNER: But you quote Arthur Schlesinger and you seem to quote him with approval, and his deep concerns about the same Kiplingesque worry.

EVANS: I think those concerns are real. The one thing which worries me and since some people watching may be connected to universities, I think it’s important and interesting to look at where people come from and the background of a Ukrainian, or an Indian or a Korean or a Japanese, that the idea which is common in some places academia that you should study the origins of ethnic minorities before you study the United States is, I think, a total fallacy. Because unless there had been the struggles of the American people, unless there had been the Constitution and the ideals, there wouldn’t have a been a country for the huddled masses to come to, with its open arms. So it’s very important that the 20 million people here who are not born in America, and many of those who were, understand the origin of their freedoms, the struggles of the individuals to achieve them and what the essential nature of these freedoms is.

HEFFNER: Do you think we’re doing an adequate job in teaching those items, those principals to ourselves?

EVANS: No we’re not.

HEFFNER: Not just to those who come in.

EVANS: Well, what do you think. Well, I don’t think so. I think … I mean … my children go to excellent schools, but the general impression I get is it’s a great deal of confusion in the setting of academic programs about what you should do about multi-culturalism. Robert Hughes’ book The Culture of Complaint, and so there isn’t this … now … I would like there to be a clear definition that the American civilization began, like it or lump it, with Greek and Roman philosophers and maybe even Christianity, and the British and French philosophers enlightenment, and the Founding Fathers and the Constitutional debates, and you’ve got to keep your eye on those things all the time. And I regret the that the teaching of history is apparently not sufficiently exciting to awaken the imagination of many young people.

HEFFNER: Well, you know I don’t want to go on and on and on about how magnificent this book, but why not. But it seems to me that reading it, looking at it, holding it, feeling it, touching those pictures conveys so much that is exciting and I think the job you’ve done there is absolutely wonderful in convincing us that here is a story that we should well absorb and it is one of those fingertip …

EVANS: You’re right.

HEFFNER: … experiences.

EVANS: You’re right. I mean if I look at the picture of Ida B. Wells, the Black journalist in Memphis, Tennessee, whose newspaper was burned down when she started to expose the fact that lynching was a product of economic competition, not social rivalry, and she finally has a boycott of the trolley buses and gets lynching stopped for twenty years. When I just look at her face, it’s an inspiration to me. Or look at the dead eyes of Saco and Vanzetti and realize the turmoil and torment for America behind them. And you’re right, there’s a tactile sense to history, through the photographs.

HEFFNER: Do you think that you have every right to anticipate that this book will sell and sell wildly. It should. How do you, how do you make that stand up against the increasing … what I perceive of and I think you do, increasing failure to know our history. And the fact that this will come as a revelation to many people. We’re not a very historic-minded people any more.

EVANS: You’re not. But you should be and because … I really feel prescient about this. When I learned English history at school, I became very patriotic and understanding of England and I still am enormously fond of England. And I think unless you know where you come from in the sense of the nation’s identity, the nation’s ideas, I don’t see how you can guide a clear path. I think however, I feel kind of encouraged. I was at a school in New York last night and many parents are coming up and buying the book for their children. I mean, I’d like to give it all away myself, if I could afford it. And my own kids, 12 and 8 want me to read the book to them. Some parts maybe a little difficult, I have to act out some parts. And some parts may be a little frightening. I don’t know whether you would agree whether I should show them the pictures of lynching or victims of the war. Should that … is it too frightening for them all …


EVANS: Or is it reality, yeah?

HEFFNER: It’s a reality that is so great because as I tell my students until … well, I guess until into the forties, and I tell them, I would every year read the toting up of lynchings that had taken place in this country. And I believe it was the New York Post that each year on December 31st would give you a box score of the lynchings that had taken place. And I say I know that as a young man, and I’m not talking about the pre-Lincoln …


HEFFNER: … period.

EVANS: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: … we’re talking about this close century.

EVANS: In the first year after World War I, 71 Black men in uniform were lynched. Isn’t that staggering? Beat in your box score, that’s a pretty high score for one year.

HEFFNER: Now, when you say that, why is this book a celebration?

EVANS: [Laughter] Well, because we’re never going to get some kind of perfect society. The Utopias are dead. The Utopias of the totalitarian left and right … and this is a live and vibrant democracy which has come through many of those ordeals … we don’t have lynchings in the United States now, though we’ve had recently the most terrible crime similar to lynching. So it’s important to know we’ve emerged from various nightmares. And nightmarish … Cheney and Goodman in Mississippi. But it’s a celebration because out of them we’ve emerged a better people. The American sense of dignity and justice is deeper and more deeply embedded because you know … we have seen extremism and we know that its face is a nasty face. And once you’ve seen that visage and recoiled from it like Dorian Gray, I think that’s a lesson you never forget.

HEFFNER: Now I must ask you, as a journalist, what is your evaluation, in this century that goes for you from 1889 to 1989, about … ‘86, ‘89 … that kind of century. What is your evaluation of the role that the press has played in this country? Your profession.

EVANS: I think a good one. With some blemishes. I mean too much intrusion into our privacy. Occasional fabrication. But if you look back over the whole century and look back at 1902 the muckrakers exposing bad meat, exploitation of children, corrupt cities. If you look back at what the foreign correspondents did to arouse and tell American about the nature of Fascism, they did a better job than the government did. Some of those reporters. If you look back on some of the reporters in Vietnam, David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Ward Just, they told us the truth and dramatized it in a way that’s become very vivid to people. I think the American press for all the faults, emerges extremely well and has made a magnificent contribution. That’s one of theses of the book … they’ve actually, I think, justified the freedom they enjoy… although I am highly critical of many of the recent commercials.

HEFFNER: You know you ask about showing some of the war pictures, some of the atrocity pictures to your children, to young children generally, and I was thinking of your evaluation of the speech that Lyndon Johnson made, I guess it was the day after he withdrew from the Presidential race …


HEFFNER: … in 1968 and he went to a meeting of the National Association of Broadcasters and said “you have to watch out, be careful because I wonder what we could have done as a people by way of pursuing the Second World War had we, at that time, had nightly television pictures — we didn’t have television then — but had we of the body bag after body bag after body bag, the grim pictures of our tentative, temporary defeats. “ And I wonder whether you feel that that has to be factored into the way journalists cover the national process.

EVANS: Well, you’re right. I mean great care was taken in World War II not to have pictures of American dead bodies on beaches. And great care was taken in the photographs in the book to conceal the terrible burns of the British victims of German bombing because they thought it would lower morale. I think that’s a legitimate anxiety. And it’s really … on this knife edge point, I believe in openness in documentation believing that people are mature enough. But I can see the anxiety, I’m not insensible to it. And there are some things I think I would not. I would never , for instance … as a test of violence in a photograph … publish some identifiable individual, and so which cause distress to the families and so on, something like that.

HEFFNER: But of course, in World War II they weren’t identifiable, they were just a grim statement of the grim realities of war.

EVANS: Well, I don’t think you can hide that, really. I think the people will mature with our help. And if they’re not, if they can’t stand the war, if they can’t tolerate it. This maybe referring to the Vietnam syndrome perhaps there’s something … let’s put it this way … if the ideals and the sense of commitment are not strong enough to override the anxiety and discomfort of seeing bad images, perhaps there’s something wrong in the equation. As there was in Vietnam. What was disturbing about Vietnam was that those body bags and that suffering and the visuals that one began to see didn’t square with the commitment. And the commitment was a false one … not a false one, it was a mistaken one.

HEFFNER: But of course, the question that Johnson raised in ‘68 …

EVANS: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … was whether we might not have … have had our ability to pursue the war, the Second World War … seriously undermined.

EVANS: I don’t think so. Why I would question … and LB, of course, as you know, lied about Vietnam all the time. And I think that the commitment both against the Japanese and against the Germans was so powerful that the shock of those images could have been overborne by the sense of commitment, by the vision of creating a better world. And its a most idealistic thing the United States did in that war.

HEFFNER: The American Century … the next one … an American century?

EVANS: Well I thought I … I might do a book for children, or I might do … or this next book? Or this next century?

HEFFNER: No, no, I mean the next century.

EVANS: Ah, the next century. I think the next century, excuse me, America will still have a predominant role, but it won’t be, I think, the single super-power dominating the world. Because of the European power block will grow and then there will emerge in Asia … around probably China, but maybe not, another great configuration of power. A regional block. There’s two or three regional blocks, who will be, I think, still enormously influenced, if not dominated by the United States. For three reasons. One is this is still the most powerful country, economically and militarily. Two, the system of information within the Untied States is more complex and rich than any other country in the world, which means that that power is going to continue. Three, the capital structure is more rich and pro-rich then any other country in the world. And then fourthly, I’ve thought of giving you a fourth reason … is that the American dedication to freedom is a very tremendous impulse, a driving impulse. And many people want to be associated with that. The best alliances are those of a like-minded vision. And I think people will still look to America in the 21st century for that vision.

HEFFNER: Your second point, I think, was information.


HEFFNER: Do you mean entertainment?

EVANS: That wasn’t … [laughter] … no, there was obviously a great blurring of the two which was what you imply. I accept that and agree with it. But nonetheless the amount of solid, worthwhile information through the newspapers, through television, through the magazines, through the Internet, through this, that, the other is absolutely incredible. Apart from the fact that you’ve got the freest country in the world so far as information … there’s no, no country compares to America in its access to official information. No other. No country in the world gives the journalist, rightly or wrongly, now the most unpopular figure on the landscape because of the terrible things that they’ve done recently that degree of respect. That’s really because of the Clinton affair, and the press has over-reached.

HEFFNER: And the impact of entertainment itself?

EVANS: And the impact of entertainment … well, by and large, American entertainment is sought after around the world. It’s intrusion … I think it was a bad day when television news became a profit center. And so then news had to become an entertainment. And I think that’s … I don’t think the news is as good as it was.

HEFFNER: I remember so well in the years when I was at the networks, losing, losing, losing. And you’re right, it was a wonderful thing.

EVANS: And I think it helped the whole network and it gave it a prestige. Just think of the prestige … which network were you with?

HEFFNER: I was with CBS, NBC and ABC.

EVANS: So, well I don’t … I could speak to all three of them. But particularly, let’s think of CBS’ reputation at the time of Bill Paley, who actually said that … and it’s going to be a bad day, Paley said …


EVANS: The reputation was terrific … and Walter Cronkite and Ed Murrow and those people. And the anchors now are extremely intelligent and good, but I think television as a whole has suffered from the dilution.

HEFFNER: Why is it, why has entertainment … American entertainment had such an impact upon the world outside. What, what’s the quality of it?

EVANS: Imagination and daring. You’ve brought … you know the Jewish people who came here and founded Hollywood basically came with cosmopolitan ideas. America’s open to ideas. The capital, as I’ve mentioned is here and a heterogeneous population. And one where … it’s the easiest country in the world for ability to come out of the undergrowth and to flourish and flower. So you’ve got some 26 year old screenwriter earning $500,00 to $1,000,000, and because he’s a genius and good luck to him.

HEFFNER: Yes, but, but what is the genius? What is it that appeals so to the world outside. Obviously we have the psychology of the mutt … who was it … Lord Bryce said that about TR? What is it? What gives us that?

EVANS: What is … what is this kernel in the entertainment which makes it so universally popular?

EVANS: Well, you’ve tested it out in a very large market here, I suppose. That may be one thing. And it’s always been an American quality of showmanship. I mean no other country in the world would have celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Statute of Liberty by have a thousand Elvis impersonators. I mean and candle shows and fireworks and, and the office of President here … there’s a large amount of show in it, too. So there’s an element of showmanship all ways round, throughout the American psychology.

HEFFNER: You touched on the only hole I found in this whole beautiful book. Because you didn’t mention at the same time that David Wolper was putting on …

EVANS: Hmmmm?

HEFFNER: … that David Wolper was putting on the grant celebration at the Statue of Liberty …

EVANS: I did mention it, yeah.

HEFFNER: No … well, but that at the same time we were doing a conference, the thesis of which was that we could add cerebration to celebration. And of course, I didn’t expect you to pick it up. But I missed it. We have a minute left. Your anticipation, again, of the future is that we’re not going to play the same dominant role.

EVANS: I think the culture will still predominate. America has a gift for that. But I think that the infusions from Europe, whether it be the Spice Girls, or the Beatles, will continue. There’s a wonderful new film coming called “Shakespeare In Love”, which was written by Tom Stoppard, produced, I think, by an American film company, and I think we’ll see a lot more creative liaisons like that. Because the Old World has a lot to offer. I don’t think my love affair with America means I can’t cast a flirtatious eye elsewhere.

HEFFNER: And you’re going to … in 30 seconds … you’re really going to move on to a children’s book?

EVANS: Well, I think that would be marvelous if kids growing up could appreciate the rich complexity, the drama that their mothers and fathers and their grandfathers went through so that the kids today can enjoy what they do enjoy … prosperity, largely, but also freedom.

HEFFNER: Mr. Evans I think this has been a great experience talking to you. But reading “The American Century” even more so. Forgive me. Thank you so much for joining me today.

EVANS: Thank you for such a stimulating discussion.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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