Observed from across the Atlantic, the story of the Revolution looks very different from the one every American child grows up with. To see that story through British eyes, as Stanley Weintraub's ''Iron Tears: America's Battle for Freedom, Britain's Quagmire: 1775-1783'' enables us to do, is to see an all-too-familiar tale reinvigorated. Weintraub reminds us that justice did not necessarily reside with the rebels, that the past can always be viewed from multiple perspectives. And he confronts us with the fact that an American triumph was anything but inevitable. History of course belongs to the victors. If Britain's generals had been more enterprising, if the French had failed to supply vital military and financial assistance, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and the rest would be known to us not as political and philosophical giants but as reckless (and hanged) losers, supporting players in a single act of Britain's imperial drama. We would all be Canadians now, with lower prescription drug costs and an inordinate fondness for winter sports...
...Fifty years ago, Louis Hartz expressed the hope that the cold war would bring an end to American provincialism, that international responsibility would lead to ''a new level of consciousness.'' It hasn't happened. In the 1950's, two wide oceans and a nuclear stockpile allowed Americans to continue living blithely in their imagined city on a hill, and the student revolts of the 60's and 70's, if anything, fed the notion that the rest of the world was ''out there.'' ''Bring the troops home'' was the protesters' idea of a foreign policy.
But the disaster of 9/11 proved that the oceans do not protect us and that our nuclear arsenal, no matter how imposing, will not save our cities from terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction. Today, there is no retreating into the provincialism and innocence of the past. And because withdrawal is not an option, the work of the globalizing American historians possesses an urgency unknown to scholars of previous generations. The major lesson the new historians must teach is that there is no longer any safe haven from history's horror story. Looking forward is unnerving, but looking backward is worse. The United States has no choice. Like it or not, it is obliged to take a leading role in an international arena that is unpredictable and dangerous, hopeful perhaps, but also potentially catastrophic.
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