End of an Era

Before last week, the last and only time I regretted losing a newspaper columnist was when the Chicago Tribune’s Mike Royko died in 1997. Royko, along with the Baltimore Sun’s H. L. Mencken, and William Cowper Brann, who published the Iconoclast in Waco during the 1890s, have been my fantasy dinner party guests. The careers of the latter two, of course, predate my existence, but I often read their essays in collections.

Now I may have to add the eminent Texas historian and San Antonio Express-News columnist T. R. Fehrenbach to the guest list. Fehrenbach is still among the living, but he retired and published his last essay a week ago. He cited ill-health, and, at 88, he is entitled to retire. Nevertheless, his readers are the worse off for all that.

I first became acquainted with Fehrenbach by reading his This Kind of War, a history of the Korean War, on cold winter nights in, of all places, South Korea. This book was more than just a recitation of battles, tactics, and individual heroism, though it contained much of all three. It dealt with the geo-political context, the nature of limited war, and the military. It is subtitled a study of unpreparedness, because, in his view, the war was just that. “The lesson of Korea is that it happened” is the final sentence of the book.

Fehrenbach, though born in San Benito, Texas was educated at the Ivy League’s Princeton University, graduating magna cum laude in 1947. He served in World War II in stateside desk jobs, and returned to service when the Korean War broke out. In Korea, he served with distinction as a front line platoon leader and company commander, and participated in major combat actions. Fehrenbach, however, never once mentions his personal service in the book.

Fehrenbach apparently never had an academic post. He was thoroughly an intellectual in touch with the real world, having tried cotton farming (interrupted by the Korean War) and working in the insurance industry before turning to writing full time.

He has published eighteen books and numerous articles, including weekly Express-News columns for several decades. The work that made him the (informal) dean of Texas historians is the 1968 work Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans (revised edition in 2000). Lone Star, according to a 2006 article in the Texas Monthly, “[a]t more than seven hundred pages . . . has nearly the heft of the Old Testament” and “paragraphs as architecturally elegant and idea ornamented as Edward Gibbon’s in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire —along with passages almost Homerically poetic.” It is a sweeping tale of the state which Fehrenbach opines is different from “every other American state in the twentieth century [in that] Texas had a history.

Also noteworthy is Fehrenbach’s Fire and Blood: A History of Mexico, the most readable overview of Mexican history in English currently available.

Fehrenbach’s weekly columns dealt with a panoply of topics most current events and concerns and how they fit in a historical context. As an example, here is a quote from a column published March 21, 2013.

“As a rule, the future’s not ours to see.

“To make my point, let’s go back and look at learned opinion about the growth, power and prosperity of the nations of about 1900.

“Very few people recognized the already-in-being industrial capacity of the United States. We, together with Japan, had just been accepted as ‘great powers’ because both of us had won wars — the U.S. against Spain; Japan against Russia — establishing colonial empires. The acknowledged great powers were Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary and Italy.

“Britain was the greatest trading nation, and the pound outshone the dollar; a large part of the world map was colored British red.

“Russia was considered to have the greatest prospects, with its huge size, rapid industrialization and untapped natural resources. A table printed in a recent Economist magazine shows that the Russia stock market out-performed Wall Street from 1865 through 1914.

“Another ‘hot’ country was Argentina, also large and resource-packed. Investment poured into both nations’ businesses, securities and bonds.

“China also was not forgotten. It was in chaos and foreign-dominated, but all those people had to count for something.

“Mexico was another attractive place, then modernizing under so-called ‘technocrats.’

“If you had invested in all those hot prospects, your return in 2000 would have been, roughly, zero.”

This kind of revealing commentary will be sorely missed.

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