When David McCullough speaks, Americans should listen. And one of the country’s most accomplished historians has some excellent insights that are worth sharing.
McCullough is an optimistic historian. A theme in some of his best books, particularly his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Harry Truman, is how ordinary Americans can achieve extraordinary things. His new book, “The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For,” comes out this week.
The book is a collection of some of his recent speeches, and McCullough said he felt during the 2016 presidential campaign that this is the right time to discuss the importance of American history. He is pushing back against a certain 45th president, who has said the topic doesn’t interest him. Here are some of McCullough’s comments from an interview on the Time magazine website:
- “We have to remind ourselves of what we believe in, in the way of standard behavior, standard dedication, standard patriotism. And in order to do that, you have to understand history. We’ve been raising several generations of young Americans who are, by and large, historically illiterate. And it’s not that they’re not bright. It’s not that they’re indifferent to learning. It’s not that they’ve grown up with great disadvantages. It’s not their fault. It’s our fault. Almost 80 percent of colleges and universities no longer require history for graduation.”
- “History is about people. History is about cause and effect. History is about leadership or lack thereof, or twisted vision that inflicts its mistakes upon leaders. As I point out in the book, the best of our presidents, using the presidency as a model of leadership, were all avid readers of history.”
- “Some of the best decisions ever made by our presidents are when they decided not to do something. Harry Truman decided he would not use the atomic bomb in Korea. General Eisenhower decided not to go into Vietnam. John Adams decided not to go to war with France when it would have been disastrous, and it made him very unpopular. So when you take that job, you have to not only understand how the government works, but you have to understand how human beings work, and that people are imperfect.”
- “History should be a lesson that produces immense gratitude for all those who went before us. To be ignorant of their contribution is rude. And for anyone in public life to brag about how they don’t know any history — and don’t care to know any history — is irresponsible.”
- “(President Trump) said he does not read history, or presidential biographies, because, as he said, he has a mind that can reach beyond all that. That’s utter nonsense. That’s ego-centric illusion. To me, it’s as if we’ve put someone in the pilot seat who has never flown a plane or even read about how you do it. So we have to cope with it, by counteracting that, with young people coming along that realize that this is a lesson in how not to be a leader.”
Jack Ryan, Enterprise-Journal