David M. Kennedy

It’s Been Dark Before, Part II

VTR Date: December 6, 2001

Guest: Kennedy, David M.


Host: Richard D. HeffnerGuest: David M. Kennedy
Title: “It’s Been Dark Before” Part II
VTR: 12/6/2001

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND, and this is the second of my programs with David M. Kennedy, the distinguished Professor of American History at Stanford University whose wonderfully provocative Oxford University Press book “Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945” won the Pulitzer Prize for History. Now, I’ve titled today’s program like the first “It’s Been Dark Before” because that’s what The New York Times titled my guest’s insightful article about the effect on Americans of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, and the Pentagon in Washington. In it, Professor Kennedy cautioned that adrift in a sea of troubles the United States seems in danger of becoming…from its own historical identity. And I want to talk more with him today about what that historical identity is, has been, may become. Professor Kennedy, in our first program, you talked importantly about the question of power in America, and were willing to go way way back centuries in our history to this matter of our, not distain, our fear of power, particularly focused in the hands of government. We’re taping today in December, 2001, and maybe the programs won’t be seen until December, 2002. But now, what would you have to say about our concern about power particularly vested in the hands of the national government, and the suggestions that the President and the Attorney General have made about the nature of trials that will be held in the area of terrorism?

KENNEDY: Well, I think our national conversation about the nature of power and our degree of comfort, or discomfort with it is, in fact, centuries old. The American Revolution begins in response to the attempts of the British Empire to impose a greater degree of control over the commercial and political activities of the Colonies. So we were born as a nation, you might say, in a great suspicion of power, and this has been a characteristic of our society ever since. I think particularly in the last two or three decades, at least since the era of the Ronald Reagan presidency in the 1980s and forward from there, we’ve been living through a generational moment in American history when our fear of governmental power has been ever more strongly expressed. One of the effects, it seems to me, of the September 11th attacks in New York and Washington has been to swing that pendulum back a little bit in terms of our willingness now to recognize that in a moment of crisis like this there is an arguably large role for government to play. So the rehabilitation of the notion of the legitimacy of federal government power, I think, is one of the consequences of the September 11th events. On the other hand, as you just mentioned, one of the manifestations of federal power that we’re now confronted with are these rather moves to sidestep or go around the traditional judiciary system and to try suspected terrorists in military tribunals and detain people without habeas corpus for long periods of time without the right to legal counsel or to compromise their access to legal counsel by taping recordings between counsel and defendant. These are all…at the end of the day, all of these represent encroachments of federal centralized power on the liberties of the individual citizens and inhabitants of the United States. For the moment, we’re talking here in December, 2001, at the moment there seems to be an uneasy perhaps begrudging acquiescence of the American public in these measures. We also see a certain push-back, a certain skepticism of the legitimacy of this and the need for it, and the beginnings of a defense against these measures on the grounds of the protection of civil liberties. How this will play out is anybody’s guess but it’s an agonizing situation that we’re in. And one understands both sides of the argument. That’s what makes it difficult. Of course we want to protect our national security in the face of an unprecedented crisis. Yes, it may be necessary to adopt some unorthodox means to that end. On the other hand, one of the things that defines us as a people, what makes this country distinctive over time has been the rather ferocious consistent defense of individual liberties that is part of our national character. And we’re unwilling, in the larger sense over time, to give much of that up. This is a dilemma for us, I believe.

HEFFNER: I wonder in this question of attitudes toward power whether we mustn’t phase into the discussion the question of whose power…whether it hasn’t basically been an economic question, a class question. The matter know of the de-evolution of government…the past three decades…hasn’t that been a function of economics, and taking the controls off of the economic giants, in a sense reversing those years that you characterized so well in your book on the New Deal?

KENNEDY: Well, you’re absolutely right. If the story of the New Deal…is the story of the expansion of federal or governmental power over the private economic sector that is a central to the story line of that period…I would agree with you that in the last generation or so that there’s been some reversal of that story line. There is a pulse in our society to unfetter the private sector from at least some measure of governmental control. I would set the issue up this way: in the realm of civil liberties, the trade-off is between national security and individual liberty. That’s the tension. In the economic realm, I think the trade-off, the tension is between social security, the economic safety and stability of individual citizens in our society, and economic sufficiency. And the argument about the trade-off between individual security and economic sufficiency, I think is an eternal one. It will go on forever, and there are points to be made on both sides. It may mean in different historical circumstances there is a greater or lesser need for more emphasis on security or emphasis on efficiency. In the New Deal era, the Great Depression era, it seemed self-evident to a lot of people, that the efficiency of the economic system had broken down miserably. The system was badly broken. And therefore it was appropriate to introduce a greater measure of security and stability and risk-reduction into it. By the end of the 20th century, during the decade of the 1990s, there was a plausible case to be made that they took too great an emphasis on reducing risk in the economic sector in achieving security and it was dragging down the efficiency of the system, and therefore the system needed to be loosened up a bit. Then we have the crash at the end of the 1990s, especially in the high-tech realm, and then right on the heels of that, of course, the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, and so now we begin to turn our attention back toward the notion of security again.

HEFFNER: Well, I’m interested that you use the word “efficiency”. I would have used the word “profit”, ah, in driving the money-changers from the temple. Our friend FDR wasn’t posing, it seems to me, security vs. efficiency, but rather inefficiencies that came from an unbridled greed. Why do you call it efficiency? Security versus….

KENNEDY: Well, because…I call it that because I’m actually self-consciously searching for a vocabulary that gets us out of the traditional argument between greed and profit on the one hand and individual human dignity and security on the other.


KENNEDY: Because I think in the longer run, and I think you can see this record played out, in the history of not only our society, but the history of most of the Western mass industrialized countries. In the longer run, and in what you might say the more dispassionate objective historical point of view, the long run trade-off is between individual and social security on the one hand and the optimal performance of the economic system on the other. This is what the economists tell us continuously, and I’m not prepared to tell them that they’ve got it all wrong. And in the long run, I’ll take an extreme position here, I’m not sure if you’ll believe this but profit in the long run is the handmaiden and the servant of efficiency. Profitable enterprises in the long run are efficient enterprises. They perform a real social service function. They deliver a good or a service that people want at a reasonable price and we’re all better off for it. The long tern trend in the development of any economy should be, and I believe you can make a plausible case has been, the improvement of the material standards of living through the continued increase in productivity, improvements in productivity, and thus rendering the economic system more efficient.

HEFFNER: So, a kind of social Darwinism.

KENNEDY: Well, I’m not sure (laughter)…

HEFFNER: Is that unfair?

KENNEDY: Well, I’m not sure…revert to that…Social Darwinism is another term, it seems to me, to kind of dress out in slightly more scientific language the old notion of the class struggle. I don’t want to deny for one minute that there are elements of class struggle embedded in the history of the industrial revolution as it’s made its way forward in the last two centuries. No question about it. But I do think there, there is a case to be made for continuously seeking ways to improve the productivity of modern economies, which ultimately…the benefit, not only for the profiteers, the capitalists, the greedy, and so on, but to everyone.

HEFFNER: You know, the trouble is for me, and I suspect that you’re right, and you write about the New Deal, but I AM an old New Dealer…and the trouble is, I can’t quite accept that. I think you’re right, but you know, I remember The New York Times Book Review section one Sunday back, I suspect it was in the late 40s, when they had a book reviewed by two different people. And I think it was a biography of John D. Rockefeller. I think…and, a review on the left hand side, as you look at the page, the politically wrong side by Allen Nevins titled “The Industrial Giants”…And the review on the right hand side by Matthew Josephson called “The Robber Barons”…

KENNEDY: Uh huh…

HEFFNER: So those two perspectives, I think, are what you’re addressing yourself to.

KENNEDY: Yeah. I think that’s right. And Allen Nevins, if I remember, also wrote a very famous article just after World War II. It had a title something like “Old Oil…”, no, “New Oil for Old Lamps” or something like that…that’s not quite right, but it was something like that kind of metaphor, in which he himself revisited his appraisal of the late 19th century so-called “Robber Barons” in the light in which the way the United States had fought World War II. And his argument was whatever the abuses and the excesses in that phase of our industrial revolution in the 19th century, these guys, however objectionable they might have been on one level, created the industrial system, the foundation of the industrial system, that eventually by the middle part of the 20th century equipped this country to bring to bear the fantastic material and economic resources that spell the defeat of Fascism and Nazism and Japanese aggression. And therefore in the longer light of history we have to recognize that we owe some kind of debt to those in the historical developments who put on the train. People like Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Fricke and so on.

HEFFNER: Of course, the question remains, do we ever put up our hands and stop the train or slow it down? Because in terms of the new regulation that has taken place in the last decades, things are being reversed. You talk about Social Security, talk about other permanent reforms of the New Deal…there tends to be now, even now that we’re past Reagan, and we’re past Bush 1, but we’re seeing in Bush 2, without tremendous opposition, there seems to be an exhilaration in the process of deregulation.

KENNEDY: Well, it’s true. All of the modern history of deregulation actually begins on Jimmy Carter’s watch. The airline industry was substantially deregulated. We’ve gone on from there to deregulate, or partly deregulate other industries, at least the financial backing industries. Again, I’m not enough of a technical expert on those matters to have a very worthwhile opinion about the merit of those measures. Time will tell, I suppose.

HEFFNER: Let me ask you something, because I know I’m going to get a sign soon that time is grinding down…the journalist as historian…Do you think that journalism, that the media today plays an enormously important role in making us aware of the past? And perhaps a distorting role, perhaps not…

KENNEDY: Well, it I think it’s too easy to bash the media as the source of all our ignorance and misinformation.

HEFFNER: Not of all of it.

KENNEDY: (Laughter) Well, you often hear that. But the…I guess I’m more of the school that believes, as Ben Bradlee, the former editor of The Washington Post said “Journalism is the first rough cut of history if it’s done responsibly”. I think much of American journalism is done responsibly, much criticism to the country notwithstanding. On the other hand I do think it’s the responsibility of the historian to an extent that’s reasonable, to enter into the world of contemporary journalism and try to bring the perspective of a longer view, more contextual view to the understanding of contemporary issues. So if journalists…you might say, if journalism is the first rough cut of history, then I think history, historians in a sense have the obligation to bring back into the realm of contemporary journalism some kind of historical perspective.

HEFFNER: Of the two groups…are they meeting their responsibilities?

KENNEDY: Well, I suppose it would be untoward of me to comment too lavishly on whether journalists are meeting their responsibilities! So let me speak then about my guild, which is the world of professional and academic historians. I think there’s felt and widespread ethos amongst my colleagues as historians in universities and colleges all over the country that we have some kind of responsibility as appropriate, to bring to bear the fruits of the work that we do on a daily basis, which when we do it right, when we are allowed to do it right, it’s deep study and reflection and archival work, getting the empirical story straight, bringing this famous historical instrument to bear in all kinds of things. I think that I find amongst my colleagues around the country a willingness, indeed a eagerness to bring those kinds of points of view into public discourse much more broadly. In my own case, I was trained as a graduate student at Yale in the 1960s in part by C. Vann Woodward, a great dean of American historians who died just a year or two ago. He was a missionary about this. All of us, virtually from the first day that we entered his seminar, part of our professional responsibility that we were being trained there as graduate students to fulfill was to take part in the public discourse of our times, as he did, rather regularly, probably most famously in a terrific little book that he wrote called “The Strange Career of Jim Crowe”. This was a history of segregation in the post-Civil War South, what Martin Luther King Jr. once called the Bible of the Civil Rights Movement. So Woodward was a conspicuous example bringing into discussion of contentious public issues in his own time….historical perspective…I grew up on that and that idea and have tried to put it into practice as best I could ever since.

HEFFNER: When I have had journalists meeting here at this table, and I have asked them about this first draft of history and what their responsibilities are, almost invariably I get the reaction that “there’s no one in here but us chickens”. “Don’t put that on us, that’s not our business.” And that’s why I, I wish you wouldn’t hesitate to comment about what the other guild does, is doing, because it may be even more important, at least as important.

KENNEDY: Well, I think that the other guild, work-a-day journalists, they do have their own brief, their own portfolio, their own job assignment. It’s not to be deep historical analysts. To the extent they can bring that to bear from their own education, their own intellectual formation, all the better, but I think their first job, I think what Bradlee meant when he coined that phrase “the first rough cut of history”, their first job is to get the facts straight, telling the story as truthfully and honestly as they can. It’s important first of all, to the informed opinion of their fellow citizens, they consume these journalistic products, and second of all, to later historians who quite routinely look to the journalistic record to ascertain certain basic facts. As a working historian I find myself routinely in The New York Times index, looking up an article, looking up something somebody might have written for example on the Lend Lease Act in 1941, or the campaign of 1936 or what have you. What journalists write IS the historical record, so historians later use it.

HEFFNER: Do you turn less happily, with less satisfaction to contemporary journalism than you did at the time of the Lend Lease Act?

KENNEDY: Well, again, this is probably unseemly of me…

HEFFNER: Why unseemly?

KENNEDY: …since here we are on television, but it’s true to a rather considerable degree that television has displaced much print journalism and is the medium through which much of the public gets its basic information about political events of the day, world events, national events, what have you. To repeat a famous phrase of former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder’s, she once said “the reason that television is called a medium is because so little of it is well done or rare”. Let’s hope that this program is an exception to that. (Laughter) The point is that much television is, apparently for reasons of the structural, technological necessities of the medium it would appear, rather limited in its ability to explore issues in any context in any depth. I once read many years ago in fact that there are fewer words typically spoken on the 30-minute evening news broadcast than there are printed on a single page of the average American newspaper.

HEFFNER: Want to know something? Dick Salant, who was president of CBS took a script, a 30-minute news script, a script – that’s minus time for commercials, for breaks, etc. and laid it down in I think a column and a half of the front page of The New York Times.

KENNEDY: That makes the point, doesn’t it, that by that very measure…there is the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words, and I suppose that’s true in terms of emotional impact, psychological affect, but in terms of analytical thinking, conceptual thinking, perspective, for deeper understanding, I think that that kind of imagery simply can’t do the work that print can do.

HEFFNER: Question. I frequently quote for my students Charles A. Beard saying that all recorded history is an act of faith. And I make them listen to me, but I’m interested in your reactions to what Beard had to say.

KENNEDY: Well, I believe that what he meant by that is that both the historian that puts together the record of history and the reader who comes into contact with it…both have faith that the selection of facts that the historian has hit upon and assembled is the right assemblage of facts. We, we…there is no such thing as a history that constitutes total recall of the past. That would be impossible, logically impossible. We can’t recapitulate the full chaotic…of things that happened at any moment in the past. So we have to bring to the enterprise a certain sense of what’s more or less important, put together stories, narratives, and connect events in patterns that we believe to be faithful to the events, but at some level represent our own values and preferences and understandings. And there is a lot of faith in that I think both by the practitioner and the consumer, you might say, that we’ve got it right. That’s why history is such a contentious business. What keeps people like you and me in business you might say in the long term is that there is never one hundred percent agreement that the story has been captured absolutely accurately. We debate these matters over time. Different points of view come forward in different contexts. History is an ongoing dialogue not just an inert lump that we ingest like a bullet that stays in us forever.

HEFFNER: At this point in history, in your history, Roosevelt…where does…where do you rank him?

KENNEDY: Well, I rank him, I rank Franklin Roosevelt about where most other historians in the United States rank him, second only to Abraham Lincoln in the roster of our national leaders. There’s an old formula of detective stories, you know, about how you identify a suspect. A suspect has to have motive, means, and opportunity. If a suspect fills all three of those bills, then Perry Mason, or whoever, has his man. There’s a comparable test I think you can apply to the judgment of presidents. Did they have the vision to accomplish something that we all can agree was positive? Did they have the political skill to actually implement the vision? And did they have, did they operate in a circumstance that allowed them to articulate the vision and bring it to some degree of realization? In Franklin Roosevelt’s case, I believe, he certainly had the vision. He had a vision about the nature of American society domestically, and he had a vision about America’s place in the world. He inarguably had the political skill to accomplish much of what he envisioned. And when we come to the question of the circumstance in which he operated did he have the opportunity? The answer is not simply “yes”, it’s “yes”!!! First of all, he had the great opportunity of the Depression, and then secondly, the opportunity, the circumstance of World War II. So unlike virtually any other of our presidents, he had two enormous calamities back to back on his watch. And again, to use the familiar old phrase, he turned those two lemons into lemonade. He made great profit out of the calamity of the Depression, first the Depression, then World War II. He used the Depression to reduce the risk in the American economy, the lives of American citizens by a measurable degree, to make this a safer place to do business and a safer place in which to lead ones life. And internationally he, at last, accomplished the objective of bringing, of ushering this country fully into the international arena, putting it on the track of trying to stabilize international affairs as well.

HEFFNER: Professor Kennedy, I think that’s probably the most positive note on which to end our program, and I, I, except to say that I hope everyone reads “Freedom From Fear”. It’s a wonderful book and it’s bringing back for me a period in which I lived. It was a joy, as is this program. Thank you again for joining me today.

KENNEDY: Thank you, Dick.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The Bluestein Family Foundation; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The Garfinkle-Minard Foundation; The Center for Educational Outreach & Innovation at Teachers College, Columbia University; The Commonwealth Fund; and from the corporate community, Mutual of America.