Courtesy Reuters

Pointers from the Past

To the Editor:

Interpreting the larger tendencies and broader patterns of world history is, by its very nature, an intellectually risky business. The mere fact of generalizing across centuries and continents disturbs the orthodox professionals, whose own focus upon a single decade or region probably represents over 99 percent of all historical studies. The necessity to synthesize and make sense of vast amounts of secondary literature irritates the narrow specialist, who holds that it is improper to comment on, for instance, the policies of Gustavus Adolphus without years of research in the Swedish archives. Above all, perhaps, an author's attempt to point to the broader patterns of world history will provoke a response from critics who have their own, and very different, interpretations. Such disagreements will be the livelier if those critics sense that a new publication may also challenge their beliefs about the present and the future. As Marxists recognized long ago, just how the past is interpreted will always be a significant part of contemporary political disputes. "Pointers from the past" are, after all, trying to point us in a particular direction.

To that extent, W. W. Rostow's lengthy assault upon The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers in the Spring 1988 issue of Foreign Affairs is both perfectly natural and welcome. To be sure, anyone who reads a sustained critique of one's latest book in a journal as eminent as Foreign Affairs is bound to have mixed feelings: a dissatisfaction at the reviewer's failure to appreciate the volume in question, and a (admittedly only compensatory) satisfaction at the fact that one's arguments are getting such an airing. Ultimately the feelings of satisfaction must prevail; for does not the present heat generated by the debate over "lessons from the past" (or more accurately, over which "lessons" should be drawn from the past) suggest that we finally may be having our revenge on Henry Ford's well-known aphorism that history is bunk? If he had been right, then

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