Occasionally, the French (of all people) bring us down to Earth. The Frenchman who did that recently was Jean-Barnard Raimond, the foreign minister. At a NATO meeting in Brussels following the Reagan-Gorbachev summit here, Raimond refused to allow his colleagues to describe the accord on intermediate-range nuclear missiles as "historic." Although he did not say so, his intent was clear: Leave it to history to decide what's historic.
The French minister's apparent Gallic petulance came as a bracing antidote to what had been happening in Washington all week. The word "historic" was thrown around with historic abandon. The summit was "historic." The treaty was "historic." Everything about the event was "historic." Everyone said so.
It may be that the meeting and the treaty were historic. But we do not yet know that. History may take little notice of what happened in Washington in December, and the event, like so many others, may sink into obscurity. If there's a rule about such things, it's that the truly historic may not be noticed in its time. Modesty requires that the judgment of what's historic be left to history itself.
Take, for instance, the invention of penicillin by Sir Alexander Fleming in 1928. With the mold Fleming grew in his laboratory, a host of killers met their match, and yet it was a year before Fleming published his results in the Journal of Experimental Pathology, and it took even more years before the medical community took notice of it.
And who knew that history was being made on Dec. 1, 1955, when a Montgomery, Ala., bus driver named James Blake ordered a black woman named Rosa Parks to surrender her seat to white people? "Y'all better make it light on yourself, and let me have those seats," Blake said. Three blacks rose and went to the back of the bus. Parks stayed -- and made history.
Probably the most horrible historical episode of the 20th century was the Holocaust. Yet, Americans were slow to appreciate the enormity of what was happening in Europe at the time. For instance, The New York Times, hardly a paper that's cavalier about history, played its first story on the existence of Auschwitz not on page 1, where history would insist it belonged, but on an inside page. Similarly, an earlier report of the massacre of up to 1 million Jews in Eastern Europe was played by The Times in the middle of the paper.
In contrast, there have been events, incidents and discoveries that were hailed at the time as being historic but, really, turned out to be nothing of the sort. The Battle of New Orleans was celebrated in the United States as the turning point of the War of 1812. Trouble was, the war was already over. The Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 was hailed as a historic arms-reduction treaty that would help ensure a lasting peace. A decade later, World War II began.
Often, truly historic advances in technology are not noticed because they are purposely kept secret. This happens in wartime. The computer was developed as part of the military's attempts to break enemy codes. Television had been invented before World War II, but its improvement by the military helped make it a household staple after the war. And, of course, the existence of the atomic bomb remained a military secret until two were dropped on Japan. No newspaper marked the first successful test of the bomb with a headline saying "historic." As is often the case in wartime, history was censored.
The word "historic" is often applied to what Roger Kennedy, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, calls "the acceleration of the normal." He gives as an example the completion of the first Atlantic cable. Certainly the cable accelerated communication, but much more was expected of it. It was also supposed to somehow enhance the chances for peace. Much the same claim has been made for satellites, but they, too, only accelerate a process already under way.
Occasionally, truly historic discoveries are just overlooked, sometimes by their discoverers. The Austrian monk Gregor Mendel did not appreciate the significance of his experiments with peas. He had, in fact, discovered genetics. Similarly, Heinrich Hertz hardly cared that he had invented radio. It took Guglielmo Marconi, who had read Hertz's paper, to realize the importance of the discovery.
As for the recent summit meeting, it's too soon to evaluate its historic importance. But it's symbolic of our times that the meeting was instantly declared historic. In doing so, we -- particularly the participants and the media -- were celebrating our own self-importance: See? We live in historic times!
Our use of the term historic also reflects a yearning to leave a mark on posterity. In this sense, "historic" is much like fame or celebrity, concepts that date back to Alexander the Great (great at self-promotion, among other things) but that in our own age have become obsessions. To preempt the possibility that the summit meeting might not turn out to be historic, we declare it so on the spot. The promotion we accord the event is really meant for ourselves. What's historic gets remembered, and we all get a little piece of posterity, like the many pens passed out at a treaty signing. The impulse is ultimately vain and, for a self-proclaimed religious people, man-centered. We are intent on impressing history itself -- people who come after us. History, though, will decide the matter for itself. ::