Three-quarters of a century!
It is hard to believe that I am that old, but arithmetic is uncompromising. This means that I have lived through nearly one-third of the entire history of the United States.
The changes in my life—and still more so in the life of the country around me and in the world at large—have been almost unbelievable.
Most Americans did not own a telephone or a refrigerator when I was born on June 30, 1930.
The United States and the world were in the depths of the greatest depression in history. Congress passed the highest tariff in history in 1930, in an effort to protect American jobs from foreign competition—and unemployment became even worse.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was governor of New York in 1930. Winston Churchill was just an ignored backbencher in the British Parliament. In the German elections of 1930, a fringe group called National Socialists received more votes than ever before but the Nazis were still just the second largest party in the country.
Bill Terry led the National League in batting in 1930, with an average of .401—the last .400 hitter in that league. No black man had ever played major league baseball at that point and none was allowed to enlist in the U.S. Navy, even though blacks had once served in the Navy as far back as the War of 1812.
A decade later, the Nazi blitzkrieg overwhelmed France in just six weeks of fighting and, with German bombers pounding London night after night, Britain was not expected to survive.
‘No’ to Despair
After Churchill was appointed prime minister, he said to his chauffeur: “I hope that it is not too late. I am very much afraid that it is. We can only do our best.” He had tears in his eyes.
The war would be more than three years old before the British—or anyone else—won a major battle against the Nazi war machine. When the British finally won a battle against the German army in North Africa near the end of 1942, Churchill declared frankly, “We have a new experience. We have victory.”
That same year, America scored its first big victory—with the help of incredible luck—in the naval battle of Midway against Japan, which had been rampaging through Asia as triumphantly, and as brutally, as the Nazis were rampaging through Europe.
The decisive victory of the Allies at the end of World War II cannot obscure the earlier years of incessant defeats that they suffered or the fact that there was a real question during those years whether Western democracies would survive.
Given the merciless brutality of the German and Japanese conquerors, there was a question whether anything would survive that could be called civilization.
The postwar world quickly became a Cold War world, as Communist conquests around the world replaced Nazi and Japanese conquests. Communists slaughtered even more millions of innocent civilians than died in Hitler’s Holocaust, but they were never condemned as much by the intelligentsia.
The Cold War did not see as many military battles but the terrible shadow of nuclear annihilation hung heavy over the world.
Like the Nazis and the Japanese before them, the Communists looked invincible in Europe and Asia. When Ronald Reagan said that we were seeing the last chapter of communism, the intelligentsia regarded this as proof that the man was stupid. Nor did they change their minds when events proved him right.
All the dark and ominous times that this country and the world have passed through and overcome in the past 75 years make it hard to despair, even in the face of growing signs of internal degeneracy today. Pessimism, yes. Despair, not yet.
In my personal life, I can remember a time when our family had no such frills as electricity, central heating or hot running water.
Even after we left the poverty-stricken Jim Crow South and moved to a new life in Harlem, I can remember at the age of 9 seeing a public library for the first time and having to have a young friend explain to me patiently what a public library was.
There is much to complain about today and to fear for the future of our children and our country. But despair? Not yet.
We have all come through too much for that.