Learning hard truths through history
I met a friend of similar age at the gas station today. Watching her pump gas as I pumped mine made me think of the days when a woman would never have pumped gas into her car. It just wasn’t done! That was a man’s world. In fact when you drove up to a full service station you never even got out of the car. The attendant would get the gas pumping and in the meantime wash your windows, check the oil and then the air pressure in your tires. When the tank was full the attendant took your cash or a credit card and brought back the change or the receipt. When self-service hit you suddenly had women standing at the pump (me included) looking a little lost. But we made it and today it is just the way things are. I will admit I am not a happy camper when it is freezing cold and I am trying to take air pressure in my tires. Or standing in the snow and wind while the attendant is warm and cozy inside. Oh, for the days when . . .
Last summer I was on Route 66 at Williams, Ariz. They enjoy tourists and tourists enjoy a step or two back into the 1950s and 1960s when this life style was common. We stopped at a gas station and I got out of the car to pump gas. At the same time a young woman came out of the gas station and began to wash my windshield. My great niece and nephew thought I had lost my mind when I stood there amazed and said. “No one has washed my car windows in 30 years or more.” She did a splendid job and I think they stayed cleaner for a longer time than my washing jobs ever do.
I know I am getting old when the days past shine brighter than today. But history has a sad way of repeating itself. My Dad, the history teacher, always began his year quoting to his students the words, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I had a good reminder of that watching the PBS series on World War I this past week. This year is 100 years since the U.S. entered the war to “Make the world safe for democracy.” It was a great series and covered a time period that has slipped out of common memory for the most part. My Grandpa Anderson was a new immigrant from Sweden who joined the Army in World War I. I have a picture of him in a World War I uniform. He was always proud of his veteran’s status.
But, as often happens, the war did not bring out the best in Americans. There was great patriotism and it was the U.S. entry into the conflict that brought the war to an end which were all good things, but the underlying issues, often side-stepped, reminded me of the repetition. During World War I German-Americans were persecuted. Montana especially had a bad reputation for making life difficult for these folks. There are stories from Dawson County as well as the Forsyth area and many others where even a single comment put someone in prison. According to the documentary people were tarred and feathered and killed by mobs for ‘disloyalty’. One really sad story was about two Hutterite brothers taken from their home in South Dakota. They were conscientious objectors. Imprisoned and tortured they finally died of this ill treatment. When one of the wives came to claim her husband’s body she was horrified to see he had been dressed in a soldier’s uniform. It was a terrible time for those of German background. Of course later on, in World War II, we saw this same treatment of Japanese-Americans and now we are seeing it again with immigrants and refugees of Middle-eastern descent. “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Another dark side of the story is that for all the good he did, President Woodrow Wilson was not a good example for Americans to follow. From his southern background he was a racist and brought segregation into Washington, D.C., in many of the jobs Black Americans had filled previously. Because he was lauded by the nations fighting in Europe and because of an extreme public relations campaign in this country, he began to move into the image that had been created of him.
Many of the war reports in the nation’s newspapers were written in Washington so people heard only what the government wanted them to hear. When Wilson finally went to Europe at the end of World War I, later historians note his ‘god-complex’ in that he believed he was the only one who could bring peace to the world. His lack of compassion and vision allowed mobs to persecute at home, and meant he did not take the influenza epidemic seriously (more men died of influenza than died in the war). It was his ideology, his vision, his perceptions that created much of the history of that time. When the Democrats lost the mid-term elections and later with the defeat of the League of Nations, Wilson’s dream for the world was not accepted. His advisors told him he should have seen this coming.
Each era of history requires those of us living in this time to examine our actions, our perceptions, and those who lead us. It is dangerous to let too much power pass into the hands of a few people and it is dangerous when we have lost the art of civil discussion. Periods like World War I and the years that followed were tumultuous years. Change was fast-paced technologically and social change even more so. No time in history is set apart from any other time. If we know who we are and where we come from and deal with it honestly, with our ethics and morals intact, then there is hope for the future. A narrow view of the world, with self-interest the only goal will bring down the humanitarian structures we have created and make the world a much more difficult place in which to live.
Avis Anderson lives in Glendive. Her online blog can be found at www.prairienewdays.com.