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We the Victors

October 14, 1999

“Progressive” views of history usually assume that the present is somehow the culmination and even the perfection of the past; this is what the historian Sir Herbert Butterfield called “the whig interpretation of history.” Such views are apt to be unconsciously and optimistically provincial.

The current uproar about Pat Buchanan’s views on World War II is due to Buchanan’s rejection of “victor’s history.” He doesn’t share the general opinion of the literati that the Allied victory over the Axis was a blessing for everyone. On this subject, multiple perspectives aren’t allowed. The “progressives” assume that their perspective is the only valid one; others are taboo.

Yet every historical event can be seen from many angles. If you ask a Catholic whether World War II ended as it should have, he may reply: “No. Stalin wound up in control of several Catholic countries.” Is that wrong? From his point of view, it’s the obvious truth. A Hindu might answer: “The war ended well. It hastened the end of the British Empire and the independence of India.” A diehard British imperialist might lament the war for the same reason. The optimistic view of the war simply omits these perspectives. They don’t count.

Because the “progressive” — “liberal,” “moderate,” or “conservative” — can hardly imagine other perspectives, he assumes that his own angle is “the judgment of history.” In his new book, A Necessary Evil, Garry Wills assumes that the growth of a centralized federal government is a wholly desirable thing, partly because it has given us legal abortion (which he says has “made women the arbiters of their own pregnancies”). He also assumes that the reader will agree. So American history becomes a long but ultimately triumphant march toward today’s status quo, and the abortion clinic becomes a monument of freedom.

But reverse that postulate, and it all looks different. If you regard abortion as a barbarity, you not only see no happy ending in a million abortions per year, you see tragedy. And you may look back at American history with the question, “Where did we go wrong?” American history is full of people, many of them profound thinkers, who rejected the prescribed official optimism.

Tens of millions of people died in World War II, and their survivors were entitled to feel that the whole thing was a terrible waste. Yet the official optimism, reflecting the perspective of the rulers, doesn’t even take this natural human feeling into account. And of course the dead don’t write letters to the editor offering their own point of view. They don’t count.

But from the point of view of Franklin Roosevelt and “Uncle Joe” Stalin, the war ended very happily. As Stalin said: “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” There is the official view in a nutshell. In a world of superstates, private feelings don’t count.

The trouble with the optimistic mind is its adaptability. It cheerfully accepts the replacement of traditional morality by a new state-imposed morality. It believes in “evolution,” even when this means that the very standards by which it judges keep evolving. People who used to think abortion was (of course) evil now point to it as a proof of progress. Before World War II, all civilized men would have condemned the aerial bombing of cities. But since the victors annihilated cities with bombs, the practice is no longer regarded as quite so horrifying. It’s still as evil as ever, but we have set a precedent we don’t dare renounce.

When we violate our standards, the danger is that we may wind up changing our standards. Optimism requires self-exculpation; we can’t bear to face the possibility that we have become evildoers, so we redefine good and evil to suit our practices. Instead of judging history by fixed standards, we allow history to dictate more convenient new standards. And we call the result “the judgment of history.”

A soul that adapts to its time is a soul in decay. It judges not by morality but by utility, usually the utility of the state. And a lot of us have adapted very well.

Joseph Sobran

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