Going through a stack of old Time magazines recently, I was astonished at how different the world looks now compared to 30 years ago. Back then Time was running cover stories on "The Coming Ice Age"; now we hear about global warming and devastating tsunamis. World maps showed a large red stain of communism spreading across Indochina and Africa. Economists predicted the end of American dominance and a new global parity among the United States, Russia, China, Japan, and Europe. Of all continents, Africa offered the brightest prospects for growth.
A more recent magazine, from August 2001, reported breathlessly on the latest developments in the mysterious disappearance of a House intern and her affair with a California congressman. I searched in vain for the words al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. Somehow, it seems in retrospect, prognosticators missed all the defining political events in my lifetime, including the war on terrorism and the end of the cold war. As I went through the stack of magazines, I tried to remember how it felt at the time, when I truly feared the prospect of nuclear war, when Saddam Hussein was a U.S. ally, and Lebanon was the most dangerous place in the Middle East.
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Barbara Tuchman once explained that in writing history she tried to avoid "flash-forwards." When a historian writes about the Civil War, for example, he or she should resist the temptation to include "Of course we all know who won" asides. From the early months of the war right through until Gettysburg, it looked as if the South might prevail. Tuchman tried to avoid flashing forward to a later, all-seeing point of view; she sought instead to recreate history for the reader, conveying a sense that "you are there."