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Published: Sunday, 1/8/2006

Putting trying times into historical perspective

Bill Mauldin was, like a lot of cartoonists, a lot smarter than many commentators and columnists. Toward the end of World War II he produced a sketch for Stars and Stripes that shows two GIs looking at a newspaper in a trench in France. The caption captures the timeless remarks of one of the soldiers: "Th' hell this ain't th' most important hole in th' world. I'm in it."

Those two sentences from 1944 explain a lot about the way we look at life in 2006. We think the war on terror is one of the gravest moments in our history. The Bush Administration believes the gravity of the threat justifies an unprecedented domestic spying offensive. We are convinced that this is one of the turning points of history.

There is no way to play down the potential danger of our age. Madmen and madwomen abound, and some of them have, or are trying desperately to acquire, weapons of truly devastating power. We know - in truth, hardly anyone can deny - that the modern age has given us the ability to destroy a city or cripple a culture with a weapon as small as the sort of five-pound bag of sugar you used to prepare your holiday cookies.

But some sober-thinking historians at Siena College in tiny Loudonville, N.Y., have tried to put the modern threat in historical perspective. They did a very dangerous, oftentimes controversial, thing. They asked some experts - 354 of them, college history professors from around the country. Their response may surprise you.

The study is called "America's Most Trying Times," and the unhappy truth is that Americans have had many times that tried their souls. But America's history professors don't think the war on terror even begins to match up with other threats the nation has faced. Indeed, this survey shows that of eight "trying times" from the Revolutionary War through the Cold War, the Vietnam/cultural revolution, and the war on terror, today's fight ranks dead last.

The most trying time, according to this survey, was the Civil War era, when the very survival of the nation was at stake. More than half the historians chose this as the most critical time, and there is something to their argument. Had the Civil War been handled differently, had the result been different, this would have been a very different country - unrecognizable both to us and to the founders.

Next comes the Revolutionary period. There is some logic to this as well; without the American Revolution there is no nation about which to worry. It is possible, of course, that the United States might have evolved the way Canada did, but if it had, it would not have been the nation we know today, for better or for worse.

And third is the Great Depression. It is hard today, at the distance of three-quarters of a century, to feel the depth of the pain and the seriousness of the threat the Depression posed. It is not too much to say that the collapse of the economy threatened a collapse of the national spirit and threatened to alter the nation's identity. Nor is it too much to say that the survival of democracy and capitalism was in serious jeopardy.

One of the most poignant testimonies to this comes in the pages of You Can't Go Home Again, Thomas Wolfe's stirring novel, when the book's hero, George Webber, says of the stock-market crash and the bank failure in his small town: "I'm coming to the feeling that we may be up against something new - something that's going to cut deeper than anything America has experienced before."

The historians, speaking as a group, make a compelling case about these three trying times. They were different from our own in that the survival of the nation as we know it was in question. I would add, by the way, the World War II era, when it was not inconceivable, at least in the beginning, that the Japanese or Germans could have invaded the mainland or even have prevailed in sustained combat against the United States.

"This should reassure us that the country has dealt with problems a good deal greater than the ones we appear to be dealing with now, and has dealt with them successfully," said Thomas O. Kelly, professor emeritus of American Studies and co-founder of the Siena College Research Institute. "This is not to say that a terrorist attack would not be terrible, and if you were in the World Trade Center it is hard for life to get worse than that.

But the astonishing thing about 9/11 is that the country that was in a relatively mild recession has dealt with the impact very well. There have been dislocations and I don't want to minimize them, but the country has proved to be incredibly resilient."

Now I want to add a cautionary note. Historians are superb at evaluating the past, far less adept at predicting the future. They are right that, until the moment I type this, the Civil War, the Revolutionary era, and the Great Depression were more trying than the war on terror has been thus far. But that does not mean that they will be right in this conviction forever. It is possible - it is frightening to contemplate this, but it is possible - that a truly horrific terrorist attack sometime in the future will alter this view. That is the difficult thing about evaluating ongoing events. They are not finished yet.

This new report reminds us how great were the threats this country has faced. In reflection we can see great moments of stress - trying times, in the phrase the Siena experts use - and we can be inspired by how these moments have been conquered. But a little perspective, like a little knowledge, can be dangerous. These are trying times, too. With any luck someone will take a poll in a decade or so and the war on terror will stay exactly where it is today, at the bottom of the heap of threats.



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