In 1918 a German scholar named Oswald Spengler produced a weighty tome titled “Decline of the West,” which had quite a vogue in the first half of the 20th century and probably still sits unread in American homes. Spenglerian prose — “Like the cosmic cycle of the blood, the differentiating activity of sense is originally a unity” — did not prove to be the stuff of bestsellers, but as other authors have discovered to their profit, the idea of decline and fall continues to have considerable commercial appeal in this country, which despite its habitual optimism also contains a streak of doubt about its good fortune and how long it can last.
This new year, not for the first time, we have good cause to wonder about the future. America and Europe together face a reckoning on the costs of their various social contracts, and concerns about stalled economic progress. Rising nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America pose a competitive challenge and, in some cases, maybe a military one. Despite a general worldwide peace, old enmities fester and raise the threat of future nuclear confrontations. The increasing pressure on resources causes worry about scarcity and puts a strain on the world environment.
It’s all pretty daunting, but the country has seen worse and come back from it, most recently in 1945. Andrew Roberts writes in “The Storm of War” of how Adolf Hitler told the Reichstag in 1942: “This war is one of those elemental conflicts which usher in a new millennium.” As Roberts notes, Hitler was right, in an odd way: “Far from a Thousand-Year Reich, Germany today is a pacific , law-abiding, liberal democracy, as is Italy. Poland and Russia are proud and independent Slavic states. France is restored and plays a leading role in Europe. The Jewish people have not only survived and multiplied, but today have their own democratic nation-state, partly because of the Holocaust. The United States, which Hitler loathed because he thought it ruled by blacks and Jews, is the greatest world power.”
And so on. Victory in war was achieved at the cost of six years of horrible suffering, especially by the people of Russia. But the peace that followed was a remarkable example of renewal and foresight. Americans sent their veterans to college, expanded their universities and research facilities, invested in education, roads, and public works, sent billions of dollars to help stricken Eur ope, reopened the country to immigration, renounced racial and religious bigotry, and set about fostering important new world institutions. All of this was achieved while not only maintaining our traditional liberties but expanding them.
Doing these things required rational, open-minded leadership, exercised for the most part by people genuinely committed to the public good and operating in an atmosphere of mutual trust in which a degree of self-sacrifice was expected from many. Will it take another world crisis to revive this spirit? We may find out in the year to come.
The Washington Post (Jan. 1)