“The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.” Whether or not Harry S Truman actually said it, the actor who portrayed him on President’s Day at the Truman Library offered that pithy one-liner during a “White House press conference.” The whole morning was one of hands-on history, including samples of home-baked cookies from “Presidential Cookies” cook book, and a host of intriguing interactive displays. (It was my best Presidents Day ever, making me think I may add the presidential libraries to our Encouter-All-the-National-Parks-of-the-US-and-Canada itinerary.)
But those few words attributed to Truman (along with a dozen fresh-baked cookies and a cookbook for Mom) were my major “take away,” summarizing what I’ve of late increasingly realized.
(I wonder if Truman knew that the writer of Ecclesiastes said it much earlier: there’s nothing new under the sun. Probably so. From early childhood he was an avid reader, particularly of history and great lives.)
Somehow whenever I find a good historical book or documentary it still astounds me to discover, You know, those folks hundreds or thousands of years ago were pretty much like me. They pondered the same mysteries, exhibited the same emotions, strove for the same goals, suffered the same disappointments.
It’s also pretty amazing to discover that much of the technology we pride ourselves on in our “modern” world actually has root in discoveries hundreds or thousands of years ago—possibly even including flight, surgery, war machines and other marvels we consider inventions of our own day. Who knew? …Only those who read their history. Ever hear of DaVinci?
While this realization is, on one hand, rather comforting (the past is perhaps not all that foreign to the present, and those who lived it weren’t all that foreign to me), it is also rather disconcerting. I’ve witnessed the great truth of the adage, “Those who ignore their history are doomed to repeat it.” For instance, the invasion of Iraq has so many similarities to the invasion of Viet Nam just forty years earlier that you have to marvel how anyone could have been so ill-informed as to think we would be greeted as “liberators.” I guess they only read the history books about France’s warm welcome of the Allied soldiers, not the history of the Middle East, where one occupier after another has had to admit defeat, century upon century.
Truth be told, I doubt that Commander-in-Chief Bush had much knowledge of either event. The expression that from the outset of his presidency seemed to best characterize him was “singularly incurious”—the exact opposite of President Truman. By contrast, Bush seemed to be almost proud of being a non-reader. Little wonder, then, that he missed Martin Luther King’s sermon, “Beyond Vietnam,” which, with a few very minor adjustments, was a prophetic cautionary tale about repeating our error of the past. Truman was right, and bears repeating: “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.”