Second Acts

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When I look back over my 91 years, I realize that I have been extraordinarily fortunate. I was a soldier in World War II, and I wasn’t killed or even wounded. I was a Jew in 20th-century Europe, and I wasn’t murdered or even persecuted. The first of these I attribute to the fortunes of war; the second to the wisdom of my forebears, who chose to live in England. I am still grateful to them for that choice, as my descendants will surely be grateful to me for having come to America.

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The American Idea
Scholars, novelists, politicians, artists, and others look ahead to the future of the American idea.

My first acquaintance with Americans, apart from books and films, came after Pearl Harbor, when some American liaison officers were attached to the branch of His Majesty’s service in which I was then serving. After the war, I became a frequent visitor to the United States and, finding it addictive, moved here in 1974.

The better part of my life was dominated by two great struggles—the first against Nazism, the second against Bolshevism. In both of these, after long and bitter conflict, we were victorious. Both were a curse to their own peoples, as well as a threat to the world, and for those peoples, defeat was a liberation.

Today we confront a third totalitarian perversion, this time of Islam—a challenge in some ways similar, in some different. On our side, I see the same initial unwillingness to confront realities—to realize who we are, who they are, and what is at stake. But there is also a difference in the very nature of what we face. The Axis had no weapons of mass destruction. The Soviets had them, but were deterred from using them by what came to be known as “mutual assured destruction.” Our present adversaries either have or will soon have weapons of mass destruction, but for them, with their apocalyptic mind-set, mutual assured destruction would not be a deterrent; it would be an inducement.

I still remember my first two impressions of Americans, derived from my wartime comrades. One was that they were unteachable. When America entered the war, we in Britain had been at war for more than two years. We had made many mistakes, and had learned something from them. We tried to pass these lessons on to our new allies and save them from paying again the price that we had paid in blood and toil. But they wouldn’t listen—their ways were not our ways, and they would do things their way, not ours. And so they went ahead and made mistakes—some repeating ours, some new and original. What was really new and original—and this is my second lasting impression—was the speed with which they recognized these mistakes, and devised and applied the means to correct them. This was beyond anything in our experience.

In looking at the world today, and at our present predicament, I vividly recall that first impression, and anxiously await the second.

Bernard Lewis is the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies Emeritus at Princeton.
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