Jim Jones Jr., the adopted black son of the Rev. Jim Jones, speaks to a service for the 40th Jonestown anniversary at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, Calif., on Sunday. (Tim Reiterman/AP)
Columnist

In more robust times for the metropolitan newspaper business, the Kansas City Star ran a column devoted to nourishing civic memory. The feature recalled events and personalities from 40 years past — roughly half a lifetime — and frequently sparked reflections along the lines of that great French adage: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Alas, the column has not survived the many rounds of budget cuts visited on the Star and other local papers. But its spirit survives in the 40 Years Ago Column Club. I was their guest at lunch the other day.

The club newsletter at my seat reminded me of the tenor of the world in 1978. Amid the powder keg Middle East, a revolution was underway in Iran. The aged Shah, a despot installed and propped up by U.S. power, imposed military rule in a desperate attempt to extend his reign. Among oppressed Iranians, a rumor spread that the stern visage of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had appeared in the full moon — an omen that would be fulfilled a short time later when the Shah fled and Khomeini returned from exile to inaugurate an Islamic republic.

Meanwhile, a cult leader from California, who had taken his followers to a jungle compound in South America, ordered the assassination of a visiting congressman. Then Jim Jones led his people in a ghastly murder-suicide that left more than 900 bodies putrefying in the heat. A third of them were children.

Six nuclear weapons were detonated around the globe in a single month by four different countries — the United States, France, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union. The total number of test explosions in 1978 was 66 . Anxiety over the risk of nuclear war was rising steeply. Within a handful of years, 100 million Americans — an astounding 43 percent of the population — would tune in to a single broadcast: “The Day After,” which depicted the destruction of Kansas City and nearby towns in a nuclear holocaust.

The newsletter took me 40 years deeper into the past: 1938. A darker period of human history is hard to imagine. Joseph Stalin’s terror was culminating in the Moscow “show trials” of his political enemies, while millions of ordinary Soviets were enslaved throughout the gulag archipelago. Farther east, the Japanese army was continuing its brutal conquest of China.

In the United States, the economy was failing again. One in five Americans was out of work. The midterm elections were a massive rebuke of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was widely criticized as a would-be autocrat. Roosevelt’s Democrats lost 71 seats in the House and seven in the Senate. “The New Deal has been halted,” the influential columnist Arthur Krock declared.

And in those corrupted storehouses of Western culture, Germany and Austria, the murder of a Nazi diplomat in France was the pretext for an orgy of state-sponsored violence against Jews. More than 1,000 synagogues were burned in two November days and nights; at least 7,500 businesses were looted; some 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and condemned to slavery at Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen. This “Kristallnacht” — the glass of smashed windows covered the Reich like crystals — was followed by a month-long barrage of harsher anti-Jewish decrees. One-fifth of all Jewish wealth was confiscated, along with insurance payments for the destroyed property. Jews were forbidden to own businesses; their children were banned from public schools.

Forty years. This exercise could be continued, I suppose, as far back as records will take us. Forty years before Kristallnacht, in November 1898, a white supremacist army overran Wilmington, N.C., and deposed the elected municipal government in U.S. history’s only coup d’etat. Incited by speeches and editorials calling for the mass lynching of African Americans, the heavily armed mob drove hundreds of Wilmington families from their homes and gunned down an estimated 60 black citizens while burning the office of a newspaper editor who dared to suggest that white women might consent to sex with black men.

The lesson: Never in the course of human events was everything well and goodness unchallenged. Hatred and vice have always obstructed and opposed the exercise of virtues — of kindness, generosity, comity, humility, honesty and all the others. If we feel these contending forces more sharply in current events than through history books, it’s not because our day is more conflicted, more anxious, more contentious or more dangerous. It’s because it’s our day.

Now approaches the day set aside to giving thanks. I’m grateful for all those, famous and forgotten, past and present, who have lived through difficult times and chosen hope over despair, respect over contempt, gentleness over cruelty, communion over division, liberty over tyranny, beauty over ugliness, dignity over base impulses and manipulation. These choices are right and good, in all times and places. But that doesn’t make them easy — not today, not tomorrow, not 40 years hence.

Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.