The Proud Towers fall; America’s Last Summer?

“While from a proud tower in the town,
Death looks gigantically down”
                                                          – Edgar Allan Poe, “The City in the Sea”
These lines from Poe’s poem were quoted by Barbara Tuchman and were the source of the title of her collection of essays about the Western world in the two decades prior to the outbreak of the cataclysmic Great War in 1914. The Proud Tower (Macmillian 1966) sought to portray the principal nations (the United States, Britain, France, and Germany), and movements (Anarchism and Socialism) from the standpoint of those who lived during that time with no inkling that a catastrophic war was on the horizon. To those living during that time, the problems and concerns existed, and were not inconsequential, as her chapter on the Anarchists showed. But they seemed for all intents and purposes surmountable. After all, Europe had enjoyed essentially a century of peace since 1815, punctuated only by a few brief wars on the continent, and brushfire wars in the colonies and elsewhere. The most protracted and destructive was the American Civil War, which did not involve Europe and the rest of the world. That century also saw unprecedented material progress, and quantum leaps in transportation and communication which erased physical distances in ways that no one could have imagined earlier. The prospect that all this progress might be thrown away and destroyed was unimaginable. But it nearly was to be. It surely was for the tens of millions who were to prematurely die.

Fast forward a century to 2001. The trials and tribulations of the 20th Century were matched only by the continuation of the net material progress brought about by continued scientific and technological developments. Unlike the 19th century, it was not peaceful by any standards. It was a time of cataclysmic conflict and terror. The war that started in 1914 arguably lasted, with a few interludes, until 1994 when the last Russian troops left Eastern Europe. The most violent phases, known as the two World Wars, were horrific in the destruction of life and property, and the Cold War phase was certainly psychologically devastating in its constant threat of total nuclear annihilation. And it was not without its costs in blood and treasure, and its setbacks. But in 1989-1991, all that ended. The Soviet Union and its clients capitulated, and the West won – without firing another shot.

The last decade of the 20th Century was as calm on the surface as the first. In almost a blink of the eye, the totalitarian second world was gone except for a few insignificant tinhorns. Everything seemed to be coming up roses; peace and prosperity seem to be in the foreseeable future. But it was not to be without its troubles.

September 11, 2001, for all its immediate horror and loss, will not define the 21st century like August 1914 did the 20th. The decade following has seen two protracted wars and deepening international suspicion – not to mention shocks to the collective psyche of the United States, and, yes, the rest of the West. Currently, an economic downturn has many concerned, but that came seven years after the 9/11 attacks, and its relationship to them is tenuous at best. It will pass, just as the others did (although in my view, improvement in the economic and especially the employment picture will occur faster when the current occupant of the White House loses his job, along with those who rode in with him).

A quarter century ago a President observed that then it was Morning in America. But in a real sense, it always is morning in our nation. Morning brings a new day and new challenges, even when they first appear to be setbacks. Like those earlier mornings of December 7 and April 12, the challenge has been met. America has endured and prevailed. It has and will again.

Historian David Fromkin, titled his analysis of the beginning of the First World War Europe’s Last Summer (Alfred A. Knopf 2004). In that book, Fromkin describes the European summer of 1914 as unusually beautiful and pleasant. I recall that the summer of 2001 was also a nice summer, at least in my part of the country. Early September, especially the morning of the 11th, had beautiful weather nationwide. Regardless of the destruction of our Proud Towers, it is all but certain that no future historian will write that the year 2001 was America’s last summer.

One comment on “The Proud Towers fall; America’s Last Summer?

  1. SteveReagan says:

    Stephen Dunn wrote the poem “Grudges”:

    Easy for almost anything to occur.
    Even if we've scraped the sky, we can be rubble.
    For years those men felt one way, acted another.

    Ground Zero, is it possible to get lower?
    Now we had a new definition of the personal,
    knew almost anything could occur.

    It just takes a little training, to blur
    A motive, lie low while planning the terrible,
    Get good at acting one way, feeling another.

    Yet who among us doesn't harbor
    A grudge or secret? So much isn't erasable;
    It follows that almost anything can occur,

    Like men ascending into the democracy of air
    Without intending to land, the useful veil
    Of having said one thing, meaning another.

    Before you know it something's over.
    Suddenly someone's missing at the table.
    It's easy (I know it) for anything to occur
    When men feel one way, act another.

    Like

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