Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties
By: Paul Johnson
Published by Harper & Row, 1983
MATS C-133 squadrons came into existence during the height of the “cold war” so crew-members were quite cognizant of this worldwide clash of cultures and much of its vicious nature. But, to many of us, much of the country seemed asleep or unaware of the crimes being committed or had been committed against humankind by this gang of thugs. Our citizens knew the crimes of Nazism, but it was said that by highlighting the crimes of communism, there would be a danger of putting the crimes of Nazism into the background. That seemed absurd, as the crimes of the Nazis are well known whereas the crimes of the communists are routinely whitewashed in the highest circles of academia and government. Through the years I have often wondered if the true nature of the 20th century would ever be encompassed in a readable format, one that C-133 crew-members could attest as true to their experience. I believe this is it!
The Search Begins
A few years back while wintering in Key West, we were invited by a friend of old to join a group that meets every Friday, and has so for the past thirty-five years. Supposedly, the group’s original charge was to discuss esoteric subjects such as the current economic and political conditions that beleaguer the world. Since we meet in a local Irish Bar and the conflicting visions of governance are such that civilized discussion can be difficult, we have saved our friendships by turning to such mundane subjects as the evening’s selection among the hundred or so beers and ales available. For me, that provokes an equal amount of thought and attention! We call the group the Salon at the Saloon.
Various professionals are represented and one of my favorites is an ex-Harvard American History professor who served as an MP in Heidelberg, Germany, during the same years I was with the University of Maryland at USAREUR Hdqs, also located in Heidelberg. Even though we did not know each another then, we have a lot in common given my interest in American History and our simultaneous times serving with the DOD in Germany during the height of the Cold War.
The Search Defined
After several weeks of trading tall tales (all true) we both mentioned that someone must have written a history that embraced those years of the 20th century that would be forceful and convincing to the intellect and reason of why the U.S. was involved in such unpredicted worldwide confusion and disorder. Our involvement, given America’s long political history of national isolationism, would be especially interesting. Also, the age range and the missions of our USAF service years would coincide with much of this 20th Century history.
I knew it would take a special author with a well-researched text to fully describe the 20th century political mixes along with the tremendous scientific advances that led to incredible violence and repression by regimes as they attempted to resolve their national problems largely through the introduction of a new type of “social engineering”, totalitarianism. It is from the history of the 20th century that we learn anew that totalitarian leaders in any situation will claim benevolence on behalf of doing whatever it thinks it needs to do in pursuit of its goals.
The great Irish writer C.S. Lewis once said that ‘of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive’. The carnage wrought through the acquisitive principles of such regimes produced the deadliest of all centuries with atrocitologists estimating total military and civilian casualties ranging up to 275,000,000. MATS C-133 crewmembers shared many of their years with much of it as we had veterans of every conflict beginning with WWII, and the Cargomaster was involved in several beginning shortly after its 1956 service debut.
The Author of Choice
There are many authors who have written about major historical events that took place during the 20th century, but my search was for a more comprehensive narrative than the single significant occurrence. After several weeks it finally ended when I unexpectedly found Modern Times, by Paul Johnson, during attendance at the local library book sale. Johnson was educated in the Jesuit tradition at Stonyhurst College and then Oxford, at first a Liberal, but turned into a Conservative during the 70’s, and became a trusted advisor to Margaret Thatcher.
Johnson is a stubborn critic of modernity because of what he sees as its moral relativism, and is a staunch anti-communist. It turns out that Modern Times is “… a major full-scale analysis of how the modern age came into being and where it is heading”. It is a marvelously written history that tells the story of the evolving six decades after WWI. Johnson covers all of the major events, ideas, and personalities during those years; and, those were the formative years of the majority of readers of our site, mainly C-133 crew-members. We lived not only the years he depicts, but the events as well!
The Engine of Envy
A faint-hearted author, who Johnson is not, would be hardly suitable to take on the task of writing the history of our century, as it was a brutal picture of unspeakable violence. The great revelation of the 20th century was the remarkable capacity for humankind to disregard a basic moral tenet of the bible: Do not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed. The chaotic results stemming from such idle disregard by the world for his fellow man were frightening and remain frightening.
Presently, many are again publicly embracing the egregious populist and sophistic arguments of class warfare as they attempt a national political resurrection to gain both personal and party power. Johnson defines this as envy: “The urge to distribute wealth equally, and still more the belief that it can be brought about by political action, is the most dangerous of all popular emotions. It is the legitimation of envy, of all the deadly sins the one which a stable society based on consensus should fear the most. The monster state is a source of many evils; but it is, above all, an engine of envy.” Is there a person among us who can argue against this thesis?
These charlatans of envy and their intent to deceive are the ‘intellectuals’ who think ideas are more important than people. It is a dangerous song they sing, very dangerous, a song that is disheartening for our Republic when it emanates from our political class. Man’s ability to be inhumane to his follow man is told in the above numbers and they are astounding! One such author, Matthew White, drew three big lessons from his study of history’s carnage: “Chaos is more deadly than tyranny, the world is much more disorganized than we realize, and more civilians than soldiers are killed in wars-in fact, the army is usually the safest place to be during wartime.”
The Lesson for Today
The 20th century lesson for today’s democracies is to be far more cautious of these present-day charlatans calling themselves “transformers” bearing their false promises of Utopia that often become the foundation for the assuring, deceiving lies leading to totalitarianism. One of Hitler’s last recorded remarks was: “Afterwards, you rue the fact that you’ve been so kind.” It seems difficult to find the kindness in him or his murdering totalitarian world brethren. Their motives were greed not only for land and power, but for blood as well. In the end these were systems of government made possible by an evil ideology that had expelled not only absolute moral values but also reason itself. Many of the citizens became “dream dancers” who would pay dearly for the blind trust they put into their leadership. Thus, became the legacy of the 20th century socialists/communists/fascists thuggery: that of a widespread practice of genocide rather than that of a Utopia. The Century turned out to be a world of war for democratic survival against predatory totalitarian rulers. Will it ever end?
Johnson sets the beginning of our modern 20th century as 29 May 1919, in the first sentence in his first Chapter, “A Relativistic World”, when photographs of a solar eclipse were developed that proved Einstein’s 1905 paper, “The Special Theory of Relativity”, had been right. To some this was like a Greek drama, “…a great adventure in thought had at last come home to shore”. Einstein became a global hero, the impact of his theory was immediate, and for the first time there was a belief that there were no longer any absolutes, above all of value. Relativity became confused with relativism and, ”…the highly developed sense of personal responsibility and of duty towards a settled and objectively true moral code…” was undermined. Thus, the century began its unimaginable, unprecedented moral degeneration as all the horrors of all the ages were seemingly brought together. Only a few had predicted such a suicide for Western Civilization and its rapid spread throughout the World.
The remaining Chapters build upon the events and the personalities leading to the breakdown of morality that unleashed the worldwide evils of totalitarianism upon the unsuspecting. Each Chapter guides the reader forward through the Century with detail and anecdotes of the politics and culture of those countries as they fell prey to an incredible repression of human rights and personal violence. Johnson leaves no world leader untouched as he directs the reader through the six decades since the First World War each having major implications for the following decade’s economic order and open warfare.
Suicide of the 60’s
One of my favorite Chapters titled “America’s Suicide Attempt” speaks directly to the 1960’s as that was the time most C-133 Crew-members were either serving in the USAF or nearing the age that they would be. It was a decade of change beginning largely with the election of Kennedy. Johnson notes that Kennedy had ‘class’ and that meant he was the first president since Roosevelt who never had to earn his living. Like FDR, he turned D.C. into a city of hope, which in turn meant a place where middle-class intellectuals flocked for employment. It was ‘the new Camelot’.
But, Johnson becomes more scathing as he turns to the handling of Cuba, Vietnam, and the space program as a failure to distinguish between image and reality. Even more serious, in his view, was the media’s notion that increasingly conveyed to the public a Vietcong victory was inevitable. Vietnam grew into a media war where President Johnson became the tool of the military and Goldwater a suicidal aggressor whose stated strategy would put America in danger of a nuclear war.
There is compelling evidential blame about those who acted without regard for the truth in order to enhance their own political and personal agenda. Such prevarication by the major news journalists, Ambassador Lodge, and Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, are abundant. That turned out to be one of the saddest commentaries for the Country and for those who served during that period.
The Problem Eliminator
The author then takes the reader into the new fiscal and social policies of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Kennedy introduced a new concept of ‘big government’ as the problem eliminator: That every area of human misery could be classified as a ‘problem’, and that the Federal government could be armed to ‘eliminate’ it. Thus, ‘The Great Society’ and dozens of other government programs were initiated and began to grow along with budget deficits existing to this day.
President Johnson, fearing inflation and his inability to control it given the expenditures that were needed to fulfill his promises, told Wilbur Mills, “…the country’s economy was about to go down the drain.” A welfare state had been created that pushed people out of the productive economy permanently and made them dependents of the state. The author then points to that as the hidden reason President Johnson left public life in 1968.
President Johnson’s caused demise remains the fiscal story to this day: All a government program needs to be successful is more money. The lack of measurable successful outcomes and their inability to become self-sustaining suggests these programs were misconceived, ill directed, and never ending. An unassailable but sad truism from Bastiat’s era to our present day continues to be, “…how the few have managed to plunder the many through the sophistry that persuades the victims they are being robbed for their own benefit.”
The Failure of Education
Then the author begins his most scathing criticisms of the 60’s by assailing “the old Liberal belief that universal education alone could make democracy tolerable”. This, he felt assured, created the central mirage of the decade. His critique of the nation’s “myth” of education being a miracle cure for society’s ills is the most devastating discussion of our failed attempt to make “middle-class democracy…with all of its freedoms” the “wave of the future” that I have read. Johnson describes the failure of the knowledge industry during the 1960’s as a “…tragic and painful…loss of illusions over education”. Student demonstrations during the ‘60’s were the most violent in American history creating untold public and physical damage to the environment of higher education that persists to this day.
Johnson was quick to note the unintended consequences of our failed experiment with social engineering by the education profession remained for students, parents, states, and the federal government all saddled with high costs, students with declining test scores and declining confidence, and noted business leaders complaining. During the intervening years, student loans along with federal funding has morphed into a back door financial subsidizing of the education industry; and, during 2011 student loan debt alone was estimated to be over $1 Trillion thereby exceeding credit card debt. These disastrous results for families and students have created a loss of national confidence as they ponder the economic advantages for more public education.
The 60’s decade is closed out with the observation that the combination of the failures of Vietnam, the collapse of The Great Society, and the Imperial Presidency constituted a suicide attempt that returned international society to the fear and disarray of the 1930’s. Equally, it undermined the capacity of American leadership to respond to the new instability that was created.
Johnson’s examination of the 20th Century is so consuming that reading Modern Times was actually rather refreshing. The country’s historical crises of past years were constantly flashing through my mind as they were complex, dangerous, and never before experienced by our nation. Most of us (Crewmembers) have constant memory from the decade before WWII and most of the events we know of, but not why. Johnson has filled that gap of knowledge of why?
After becoming unusually engrossed in my reading of his text I began to purposely slow down, not wanting to finish, as each chapter was a path leading to a better understanding of the events that effected our lives. The day of completion was rather melancholy as Johnson was leaving my life, along with the fervent hope that the story he has written is never to return. The 20th Century was like no other, except we were there. Enjoy!
Richard Spencer, 39th ATS, ‘62-’65, DAFB
PS: Here is a chapter by chapter outline of Modern Times. I suggest a review of each chapter outline before reading. It will add immensely to your enjoyment.
PPS: And here is a terrific interview conducted by the WSJ with Johnson titled "Why America Will Stay on Top". Enjoy!
WHY AMERICA WILL STAY ON TOP