[Editor’s note: One hundred sixty years ago today, the first issue of The Atlantic was published. All month, we’ll be sharing stories about the magazine’s history. For the Masthead, we wanted to mark the moment by celebrating you, the readers. We asked for Masthead members who shared a November 1 birthday, and George Stoddard put his hand up. Today, Annika Neklason, our archive fellow, writes back. Here’s to 160 more. —Matt Peterson]
LESSONS FROM 160 YEARS OF ATLANTIC HISTORY
A celebration letter to a Masthead member who shares our birthday.
Happiest of birthdays to you, and congratulations on turning 82 today. The Atlantic was also born today, although at 160 years old, the magazine is nearly twice as old as you are. Cheers to your relative youth, to your good health, and to your large and wonderful family. And thank you for being a member of The Masthead.
In your recent letter to us, you wrote:
My family has been important in my education and my own personal journey to inculcate values that allow me to approach my inevitable end with a sense of peace and acceptance of my own human frailties and missteps. I am reminded of the work of Erik Erikson who posited the stages of our life cycle. He identified eight stages or psychological crises ending with the struggle between integrity and despair as we near death.
While I come down on the integrity side of that crisis in my personal life, perhaps that judgement should be made by others. However, I am troubled about the future of our nation and the challenges that my posterity will face. In recent years, I have developed an interest on our national history. Although that interest had helped me put our present time in some perspective, I can’t hope but feel threatened for my family by the dangers our democracy faces at this time.
We share your concern for the perils that confront our democracy, and of course, your interest in our national history. That history offers its own lessons for us, especially from the many times in your living memory when we have confronted grave threats to our democracy. We thought we'd use the occasion of these joint birthdays (yours and ours) to review some of the milestones in our shared history, guided by the themes you shared in your letter.
Not long before you were born, Hitler rose to power in Germany. Two years after he ascended to the chancellorship, and just nine months before you entered the world, Barbara Spofford Morgan warned readers about the rise of national socialism in our February 1935 issue. The Nazi ideology “is a revolt against the ideals of democracy,” she wrote, attacking “not merely its practices, but the very assumptions upon which the democratic state operates.” The party, and the movement it led, “is brutal, blustering, repressive; it burns books, struts uniforms, and kills,” she wrote—and the impulse at its core “is not only national but universal.”
You were born on the same day as the literary critic Edward Said. Just after he died, weeks before your 67th birthday, he was remembered in our pages by his friend Christopher Hitchens. Said, Hitchens wrote, seemed uniquely positioned to bridge the disunion between East and West he spent his life writing about. But, Hitchens contended, Said dismissed much of the complexity of the East-West relationship in his critique of Western Orientalism. He “chose a one-sided approach and employed rather a broad brush,” Hitchens wrote.
The United States elected a Republican president—Dwight D. Eisenhower—for the first time in your life when you were 17. Four months before your 18th birthday, Joseph S. Clark worried about the flaws in the Democratic Party that might keep liberals from regaining power. As the nation confronted new threats from both within and without its borders, he feared that conservatives would steer the country in the wrong direction. “The strength of the United States of America may well be all that stands between mankind and destruction of the human race,” he concluded. “The best hope for survival lies in control of that strength by clear-thinking, adult liberals of integrity.” The Democrats did, in fact, reclaim the presidency when John F. Kennedy was inaugurated eight years later.
Twenty years later, when you were 37, the Watergate scandal shook the Oval Office and the nation. David S. Broder gave a prescient assessment of American politics in our March 1972 issue, months before the scandal broke. Dithering and unproductive two-party government had eroded public trust in politicians and parties, he wrote, and, if that trend continued, mistrustful voters would further weaken American institutions by preventing either party from holding any significant, prolonged power. Broder posited that, in those circumstances, “a plausible demagogue” could rise to prominence promising order, security, and effective governance, at the price of America’s democracy.
The month you turned 38, historian and former Kennedy advisor Arnold Schlesinger wrote about how that weakening of political institutions and lack of public vigilance had enabled the powers of the presidency to spiral out of control under President Nixon. “The Constitution cannot hold the nation to ideals it is determined to betray,” he wrote. “In the end, the Constitution will live only if it embodies the spirit of the American people.”
The Berlin Wall fell just over a week after you turned 54. In retrospect, the opening of Germany’s border seems a profoundly positive moment for democracy, but at the time, hopefulness was shaded with fear and uncertainty. As many Eastern European countries left the sphere of Soviet control and began shaping their own governments, Raymond D. Gastil cautioned that self-determination would not always lead nations to embrace the principle of individual and universal rights. “The liberal underpinnings of modern democracy,” he emphasized, had a distinct value beyond the machinations of “political democracy.” The former must be defended and advanced as the latter took shape.
Five years later, as the decade neared its close, Robert Kaplan, too, warned that the effort to spread democracy around the globe might be ill-fated. Like Gastil, he noted that democracies don’t always advance liberal values, and expressed a fear that “the democracy we are encouraging in many poor parts of the world is an integral part of a transformation toward new forms of authoritarianism.” And, he asserted, American democracy was in danger of becoming oligarchical, as globalization and technological advancement distanced leaders from their constituents. “Democracy in the United States,” he wrote, “is at greater risk than ever before.”
We can’t say what the future will bring, but you—and The Atlantic—have lived through so much already: wars and constitutional crises, the growth of democracy in some nations and the fall of fascism and communism in others, the brightest and darkest days of more than a dozen American presidencies.
Our founding sponsor Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1862, from the midst of the Civil War, that “America is the country of young men, and too full of work hitherto for leisure and tranquillity.” But he also commended the peace and understanding that came with “old age” (he at the time was just 58—much younger than you or The Atlantic are today). And Erik Erikson, who you reference in your letter, had his own idea of how that peace and understanding could at once benefit the old and the young, as Joseph Burgo wrote in 2014. “Erikson,” he wrote, “tells us that the alternative to self-centered stagnation [that comes with age] is to find new sources of meaning in life by using our accumulated wisdom and experience to help guide the next generation.”
This birthday, for you and for The Atlantic, could mark another moment to come down on the side of integrity in a time of crisis. It’s an opportunity for both of us to take all that accumulated wisdom and experience and help guide the next generation into an uncertain future.
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