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Of all the difficulties facing the historian in his task of understanding and describing the past, none can be greater than that of emphatically recreating the popular “mood” attending any particular event or period. For example, in describing the Europe of 1914, it may be relatively easy for the historian to detail the day-by-day diplomatic moves, or to analyze the comparative strengths and weaknesses of each of the European armies and navies, or to scrutinize manufacturing output and commercial relations. All of these tangible aspects of history have left records—not perfect, to be sure, but usually adequate—in the form of letters, instructions, and statistical data from which reasonable conclusions may be drawn. In other words, we can historically know the structure of Anglo-German trade in 1914, just as we can know what telegrams entered and left the French Foreign Ministry.
Yet to know with any degree of accuracy the “mood” of European societies on the eve of the First World War is altogether more challenging, not because documentation (such as diaries, reminiscences, police reports, press accounts) is missing, but because the evidence is contradictory and confusing. One segment of society appears optimistic, another pessimistic, about the future. Some pressure groups urge the resort to war, others agitate for peace. One year’s best seller, Norman Angell’s The Great Illusion, showing the folly of war, is succeeded by another, General Bernhardi’s Germany and the Next War, arguing that conflict was both inevitable and desirable. The art, music, and literature of the period also reflect different feelings, from a contentment with nature to angry rebellion, from satisfaction to a sense of impending doom. And many people, including powerful political figures, we remain—and must remain—uncertain what it was really “like” then.
If that is true of past epochs, will not the same uncertainties and confusions attend the historian of the future who seeks to describe the mood of the United States as it enters the final decade of this century? Such a historian might at first conclude that in 1990 there was much for the nation to be optimistic about. There was a positive, upbeat president in office, achieving record popularity in the opinion polls. Notwithstanding the national debt and deficit, the economy continued into its seventh year of expansion. New cars, new consumer goods, new gadgets, were announced every day. Breakthroughs in science and technology and medicine occurred, seemingly with unstoppable regularity. Abroad, major improvements had taken place: the Soviet Union was in deep difficulties, democracy had “broken out” in Eastern Europe and was steadily gaining in South Africa and Latin America, the cold war was winding down, arms-reduction talks were accelerating, the “peace dividend” was already being anticipated. Triumphalists like George Gilder and the leader writers of The Wall Street Journal were in a happy …
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Is the US Declining? October 11, 1990