January 04, 2013

Sunday 12 January 1947

On Sunday 12 January 1947, Alistair Cooke recorded a letter from America. It is as ever an immensely well read and erudite document of its time- but it reflects its time and the mood of that long dead moment. Cooke recorded it whilst contemplating the election of the 80th US Congress. Like today's Congress, that Congress was a Republican Congress elected to face a Democratic President. Cooke's argument though is one that no one has made in popular print or on radio or television today- he tied his argument both to American history and to contemporary events. It is interesting to see how the world has changed since then and follow his thought.

Cooke compared the new Republican Congress to a different event which took place 70 years before he had made his broadcast. In Montana, when the West was still the West, Colonel George Custer led his troops into one of the United States's greatest military disasters. Custer's last stand became an example of heroism for the new Republic though- still recovering from the strain of civil war. Cooke suggested the new Congress like Custer was standing, for Americans as a set of heroes, embarking on a last stand- in this case an ideological last stand for capitalism. He did not elaborate on their success- and perhaps the recording, a brief five minutes was cut off, but it is a defining image of the fears of America at that point in history.

Three things instantly struck me as I listened to the letter- apart from the beauty of the language. The first was that the familiarity with which Cooke talks about Custer- of course seventy years ago is nothing in the lives of  men. There would have been living people who were alive when Custer died in 1947- Custer was as far away from Cooke as he read his letter as the Second World War is from you as you read this blog. Secondly the context of our lives has changed unutterably since the Cold War: for America to be making a last stand for capitalism in the manner of Custer, there must have been an aggressor, a foreign aggressor against whom to stand. In 1947 that aggressor existed in the Communist Soviet Union. Thirdly Cooke's artistic delivery is something we never really hear today: his talk, especially his final comment that the Republicans are making a last stand for capitalism is subject to two interpretations. One that the Republicans are like Custer making a futile stand after a foolish charge: the second that they are heroes. I don't think I've heard such subtle ambiguity on a news broadcast for a while.