Between breaking news developments, 2018 has marked out a number of momentous anniversaries. Fifty years since the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. One hundred years since the end of the fighting in World War I. One hundred and fifty years since Andrew Johnson’s impeachment.
Looking backward from this moment of uncertainty and upheaval often means finding others, some of which now feel like long-settled history and some of which still sting at times like open wounds. Many of the hopes and fears of those moments, as of this one, are preserved in contemporaneous pieces written for The Atlantic—along with some pieces, like a story by Charles Dickens and a critique on ostrich science from Teddy Roosevelt, which stand out from their respective eras with a little less urgency and a little more diversion.
“The War Against the Young” by Richard Poirier
Fifty years ago, students around the world staged sit-ins, walk-outs, and strikes to protest against oppression and in favor of expanded rights. Many of their efforts met with violence and repression, a reaction which Poirier criticized in an October article for The Atlantic. “We must learn to know the world differently, including the young, or we may not know it until it explodes,” he warned. Silencing the young wouldn’t just hurt those being silenced, he contended—it would also exhaust “the best of our natural resources”: “youth in its best and truest form, of rebellion and hope.”
“Carnival of Excess” by Charles McDowell Jr.
Public discontent over the ongoing Vietnam War, President Johnson’s decision not to run for a second term, and the June 5 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy set up a contentious race for the Democratic nomination for the presidency which remained unsettled as the summer of 1968 wore on. But in a critical preview of the television coverage of the upcoming party conventions, McDowell warned that viewers wouldn’t have access to the most decisive moments. “While many of the changes brought on by television may be for the best, there is something synthetic about this new kind of convention they are making,” he wrote. “The real decision-making is almost always hidden from the cameras. What we see for the most part is television covering the public version of private arrangements.”
“How Could Vietnam Happen? An Autopsy” by James C. Thomson
By April 1968, American soldiers had been fighting in Vietnam for nearly four years and the conflict had developed into a costly, unpopular quagmire with no clear end in sight. Thomson, who served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in the lead-up to and early years of the war, explored—and condemned—the political factors and decision-making processes that led to deepened U.S. involvement in the region. “Where were the experts, the doubters, and the dissenters?” he asked. “Were they there at all, and if so, what happened to them?” As he explained, the answers were complicated.
“Science at the Front” by Joseph Sweetman Ames
One hundred years ago, the fighting in World War I ground to a close. By January 1918, the conflict had developed into a slow-motion horror marked by the advent of devastating new weapons and modes of warfare, from trenches to tanks to poisonous gases. Ames, an American physicist, described his travels to the laboratories and airfields of Europe and detailed how science was aiding the Allied efforts. “The more one goes up and down the battle-line, the more one is amazed at the vital part which science is playing,” he wrote, “and, the more closely one is allowed to enter into the councils of the staffs, the more apparent it is that men of science have a field of usefulness never before opened to them.”
“The League of Nations” by Albert Thomas
As the war entered its final days, diplomats, leaders, and other interested parties turned their attention to considering how to remake and maintain the global order—including the creation of the world’s first international peacekeeping organization. Thomas described the fears and hopes for such a body, then still just a burgeoning idea, in a November article. “[The League of Nations] alone can … reestablish order after the immense upheaval which will leave in utter disarray the men and the bodies politic of the world before the war,” he argued. But even the League of Nations, of course, would not maintain world peace for long.
“The Wild Ostrich” by Theodore Roosevelt
Before he was first elected president in 1900, Roosevelt repeatedly published writing on politics and public life in The Atlantic. His only post-presidency contribution to the magazine was this peculiar piece, in which he responded to a study of African ostriches written by William Charles Scully printed in the March 1918 issue. Roosevelt’s critique of Scully’s work is thorough and at times biting, concluding: “Mr. Scully writes with genuine charm about much of his subject. This would be in no way interfered with if he were more careful, both in his observations and in his generalizations.”
“Revolutionary Justice” by Madeleine Z. Doty
In 1917, a pair of revolutions brought a bloody end to Russia’s Tsarist autocracy and put control over the government in the hands of the Bolsheviks. A year later, Doty described her experiences in Petrograd during the second uprising. “I felt like Alice in Wonderland,” she wrote of a day spent in the revolutionary courts. “I had swallowed a magic pill which had transformed things. Cooks and duchesses; ragged soldiers and resplendent generals; collarless workingmen and bewigged and begowned judges, had changed places.”
One hundred and fifty years ago, the drawn-out political battle between the Republican majority in the House and President Andrew Johnson, a lifelong Democrat, culminated in his impeachment—though the Senate later fell one vote short of removing him from office in the final months of his term. That fall’s election to replace Johnson, an anonymous Atlantic contributor contended, would be critical to the Republican effort to retain power and continue the uneasy process of national Reconstruction: “It would, indeed, be no exaggeration to say that it will be the most important election that Americans ever have known.”
“George Silverman’s Explanation” by Charles Dickens
Two years before Charles Dickens’s death, The Atlantic printed one of his very last pieces of writing. The short story, serialized across three issues of the magazine, finds the titular character reflecting on the failures and misfortunes of his life, from the traumas of his childhood as an orphan, to his professional mistreatment, to the hopeful moment when love begins to enter his world. “To that time I had never had the faintest impression of beauty,” Silverman remembers of that moment. “I had had no knowledge whatever that there was anything lovely in this life.”
“Inebriate Asylums, and a Visit to One” by James Parton
America’s first inebriate asylums opened in the late 1850s with the singular purpose of treating alcoholism as a disease. In 1868, Parton reported on the history, mission, and operations of the young institutions in an October Atlantic article. For interested readers, he detailed some of the strange and sad moments he witnessed while visiting the decade-old New York State Inebriate Asylum himself—and shared a little hope and commiseration, too. “The disease which such institutions are designed to cure must be very common,” he reflected, “for where is the family that has not a drunkard in its circle of connections?”
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