While we were in Mexico I read and thoroughly enjoyed In Search of History by Theodore White. The book, written in 1978, is the personal story of the White’s life as a journalist and the people and historical events he experienced. The lessons still seem very valid and the view of history is fascinating.
White is a great story teller. In Search of History is organized into four parts. Part one is set in Boston where White grew up and went to Harvard. Part two is set in war time Asia, primarily China, from 1938 to 1945. Part three is set in post war Europe between 1948 and 1953 and Part four covers 1954 – 1963 in the U.S. Although White is probably best known for the Making of the President books that tell about the 1960, 1964, 1968, and 1972 Presidential elections and for giving the Kennedy era the title "Camelot", I found his stories about the communist take over of China and about Europe and the Marshall plan the most compelling.
I almost always enjoy autobiographies because I enjoy reading about people’s interaction with and reaction to history. By telling the story of his life, White sets out to find history in what he has seen experienced.
I love the idea of blogs as conversations. As I was sitting on the balcony of our condo in Manzanilla reading In Search of History I kept finding passages that I wanted to discuss. I made notes and am finally getting around to sharing four of the passages here.
- After describing his experience of the Japanese bombing of Chungking in May of 1939 White wrote;
"What I learned was that people accept government only if the government accepts its first duty – which is to protect them….. Whether in a feudal, modern, imperial or municipal society, people choose government over non government chiefly to protect themselves from dangers they cannot cope with as individuals or families."
Although it seems self evident I hadn’t really thought about it. I was struck by how important a lesson this is when we think about the nascent government in Iraq today.
- White experienced the Chinese civil war between the nationalist and the communists first hand. His perspective on the American reaction to the civil war was very interesting. He writes the following about the period when the U.S. began to help Chiang K’ai-shek’s forces:
"No one explained, nor could I publish, that at the moment when Mao had to choose between the Russians and the Americans, we forced his choice back on the Russians, where he would rest uneasily for the next twenty years. Nor was it understood that we were involving America in an Asian civil war for the first time"
It is kind of ironic when you think that White wrote this book in 1978 thinking of Korea and Viet Nam. I bet he never would have guessed that Viet Nam wouldn’t be our last Asian civil war.
- In talking about leaving Time magazine in July of 1946 and his split with Harry Luce, Time’s Publisher, White talks about learning something that I remember learning during one of my first jobs. I saw the truth of the following in every company I worked for right up to my last days at Intuit.
"With boy scout simplicity he (White) believed that organizations are as loyal to their employees as they expect those employees to be to them. He did not yet know that organizations and corporations have an internal loyalty only to the thrust that drives them forward and that individuals are sacrificed to that momentum."
- Later in the book White talks about the emergence of national magazines like Life, Time, Look and the Saturday Evening Post in the 1890’s.
"This period of political breakthrough is remembered for the muckrakers who gave their name to an era. Yet the advent of the national magazine meant much more than the simple exposure of of oil monopolies…… It meant that whoever was responsible for a national magazine had to think nationally…. Their political power, nationally, thus was prodigious.
White was in the middle of what was happening to the national magazines in the mid 1950s and the impact that TV had on them. His reflections about working for Collier’s magazine and what it meant when the magazine was closed resonated with me. But I am struck by how National magazines changed the newspaper business, television changed the national magazines and now the Internet is changing television and of course all of these mediums also continue to change. One hears a lot of talk about the Internet and/or blogs being the end of newspapers but it seems to me this is just one more change in a long line of changes. Newspapers, magazines and television will not go away they will just continue to change.
I would definitely recommend In Search of History. I would also be very interested in other people’s reaction to the book. I have found that these quasi book reviews that I write continue to get wonderful comments long after they are written. It is almost like having an on line book club with no time limitations.
I think I will do a future post with a list of other autobiographical books I have enjoyed. Does anyone have any suggestions of autobiographical books they have enjoyed?