The Lessons of History

I delivered the following remarks on November 11, 2018, at the Greater Lowell Veterans Council Veterans Day ceremony at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium.

The Lessons of History

By Richard P. Howe Jr.

Thirty-eight years ago this Wednesday – November 14, 1980 – I boarded a plane at New York’s JFK airport and was transported across the Atlantic Ocean to begin a three year tour of duty with the United States Army Europe. Ronald Reagan had been elected president just a week earlier on a promise to confront the Soviet Union all over the world, but especially in Central Europe.

I had a front row seat for that confrontation because I was assigned to the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, a unit that used armored vehicles and helicopters to patrol the border between West Germany and East Germany, a border also known as the Iron Curtain.

My unit was based in the medieval German city of Nurnberg at a place called Merrell Barracks. In the 1930s, Nurnberg was a center of Nazi Party activity. You may have seen historic video of Adolf Hitler giving fiery speeches from a huge marble stadium to tens of thousands of enthusiastic Germans. That stadium was across the street from my base. It turns out that my base had previously been a barracks for the German SS units that guarded Hitler when he was in Nurnberg for those Nazi Party rallies.

Although I lived in Nurnberg, I spent much of my time along the border, trying to keep track of the Soviet tank divisions we would have to fight if NATO and the Warsaw Pact went to war. We didn’t go to war, but tensions were high and the risk of war was ever present.

At the end of three years, I boarded another plane, returned to the United States, finished my military service at Fort Devens, then settled back here in Lowell where I’ve lived ever since. My time in the service had a profoundly positive effect on me that continues to this day.

Now you may be surprised that with this being the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, I didn’t tell a story about that conflict. But if you think about it, I did talk about World War I.

For it was the catastrophic collapse of Russia early in World War I that gave birth to the Soviet Union and ultimately to the Cold War, the conflict that placed America and the Soviet Union in a perpetual state of war-readiness from 1945 to 1989. And it was the harsh terms imposed on Germany by the victorious allies at the end of World War I that led to the collapse of the German economy and the rise of Hitler. Without World War I, there would have been no Nazi Germany. Without World War I, there would have been no Soviet Union.

President Harry Truman, himself an Army veteran of World War I, once said that “The only thing new in the world is the history you have not read.” Just as my experience in Germany in the 1980s can be traced directly back to World War I, events that happen today can be directly traced to events that happened a year ago, or a decade ago, or a century ago. We live in dangerous, turbulent and disruptive times. By occasionally putting aside our smart phones and our TV clickers and instead picking up and reading a history book, we will be better able to put today’s events in the proper context and will become better citizens in the process.

3 Responses to The Lessons of History

  1. Louise Peloquin says:

    This text compels us to pick up and read a history book.
    Just as “time in the service” had “a profoundly positive effect” on Richard P. Howe Jr., delving into history can inspire all of us “to this day.”

  2. Chris O’Connor says:

    Would love to hear more about your observations while stationed in Germany. It’s indeed unfortunate that many of the tactics used in the past to divide people, and make them doubt things from the media to election results, are still successfully used on people today. It’s not just the result of individuals not knowing history, but more and more, it’s those deliberately ignoring it. This is a great piece!