Tribune of the Republic

A Present of Things Past: Selected Essays

by Theodore Draper
Hill and Wang, 305 pp., $25.00

In the first book of his account of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides, commenting on the difficulties of writing contemporary history, wrote:

With regard to my factual reporting of…events…I have made it a principle not to write down the first story that came my way, and not even to be guided by my own general impressions; either I was present myself at the events which I have described or else heard of them from eye-witnesses whose reports I have checked with as much thoroughness as possible. Not that even so the truth was easy to discover: different eye-witnesses give different accounts of the same events, speaking out of partiality for one side or the other or else from imperfect memories. And it may well be that my history will seem less easy to read because of the absence in it of a romantic element. It will be enough for me, however, if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future. My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last forever.”

Theodore Draper would probably be embarrassed to be compared with the great Greek historian, but the similarities are there. His work in general is distinguished by the manifest intelligence and the skill in identifying and clarifying essential problems that have been called Thucydides’s greatest gifts. When writing narrative history, he is scrupulous in the use of sources and cautious in striking balances between them, and, when assessing the work of other writers on contemporary history, he has little sympathy for the subordination of reality to effect or the invention of the kind of detail that is intended—in the words of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pooh-Bah—“to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.”

In the case of Draper’s new volume of essays, another similarity may be noted. Interested as he was in recounting the military and diplomatic course of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides was equally intent upon showing the effects of the long conflict upon the institutions and the morality of the republics that were involved in it, which he described, in a famous passage on conditions at the end of the sixth year of the war, as a “general deterioration of character throughout the Greek world.” In the first three chapters of A Present of Things, Past—“Eisenhower’s War,” “American Hubris,” and “Reagan’s Junta”—Mr. Draper reflects upon the war that made the United States a superpower and the effects that this had upon how Americans viewed their role in the world as well as upon the integrity and responsibility of their public institutions.

The war against Hitler was waged, Draper writes, by

a British-American alliance …

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