ON THE OPPOSITE page today, Morris Fradin describes the perils of revisionism-by-monument -- the rewriting of things written (literally) in stone to comport with the sentiments of the time. Mr. Fradin likens the current impulse to remove the name of J. Edgar Hoover from the Fbi building on Pennsylvania Avenue to an 1862 removal of Jefferson Davis' name from a tablet on the Cabin John Bridge -- to which tablet the Confederate president's name was restored in 1904. As Mr. Fradin is, in our judgement, right in everything but his conclusions about the FBI building, we will begin by seconding and supplementing his warnings on the perils of promiscuous stonecutting, chiseling on history in every sense.
Totalitarian societies, after all, do it best -- the revision of the record and the reshaping of reality, putting this out of memory and that out of favor and the other thing out of commission altogether. The "it didn't happen" school of monument rearrangement has flourished in Eastern Europe, and this one competition Americans surely would just as soon lose to the Russians. One lives with one's history -- in all its ambiguity and complexity and glory and horror and shame. That means accepting responsibility for it. To do otherwise is to be in some particular way demented, a people in flight from its own consciousness, its own past, its own self.
Yes, we've heavied it up a little, but this is, nonetheless, the burden of Mr. Fradin's piece, and it is right. It is right in relation to, say, the memory-tubing campaign to pull down the status of the Confederate soldier now standing in the middle of an Alexandria street, his arms folded, gazing pensively downward.
That status is a poignant memorial to a (mercifully) lost cause and to the men from Alexandria who were lost with it. Mr. Fradin's message is equally relevant to the fitful drive to deport Vietnamese refugees who are known to have committed atrocities in the Vietnamese war while fighting on the American side -- or was it we Americans who were fighting on theirs? Both amount to American efforts to elude our own history.
But the Hoover case is different. It is in fact opposite. To get to the judgment that no building (even such an ugly one) and no institution (even one he all but created) should so memorialize the late FBI director, you have to work your way through an underbrush of objections. Still, you can get there: it is true , for instance, that a succession of American presidents and FBI agents and deskmen cooperated with and even encouraged Mr. Hoover in some of his grosser offenses; but none had the fundamental and pervasive role he had in absolutely perverting the function of this specially empowered agency of government. He led it knowingly and systematically to perpetrate acts of which the old Cominform would have been proud.
The Jean Seberg case was but the latest of these to be revealed, and the "answer" to it is not (as some friends of Mr. Hoover have argued) that you can't disprove the facts of the rumors and allegations about her that Mr. Hoover secretly started. There is no "answer" to the simple fact that his engaging in such a secret campaign to discredit her, along with the other well-documented uses of his extraordinary power to harass and persecute citizens charged with no crime, was evil and destructive of the very spirit and essence of the government he claimed to serve. If keeping Mr. Hoover's name on that building were a way of forcing the nation to face up to and live with the implications of what he did, we'd be all for it.But we don't think the thing is working that way.
Except for a few damage suits brought by Mr. Hoover's victims and some revelations about his awful handiwork in books, articles and reports, and some high-level "never agains," there has really been no effort to deal with his memory and his record and our own national complicity in it. Leaving his name on that building is a way of not facing up to our history. Somewhat mindlessly and reflexively we have brushed off the horrors, looked the other way and collectively said -- "oh, that . . ."
The congressmen who are agitating to change all this by an act of name-removal have the right idea. Sooner or later, as a monument to what this country and this government are really meant to stand for and as an evidence of what we believe the limits to be, the horror of J. Edgar Hoover and what he did with his special powers will have to faced. Taking his name off that building will be least one sign that we have done so.