- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 4, 2000

It's said that in the study of history nobody learns dates any longer, or even decades. Today's cybersoaked American college students aren't sure which came first: Vicksburg or the Inchon landing. They don't know what might have occurred on June 6, 1944, or Nov. 22, 1963.The historian Sir Martin Gilbert, Winston Churchill's official biographer and the author of scores of books, may not have had such historical illiteracy in mind when he set out to produce his three volume account of the century now ending, but his work may prove in a small way remedial.

Mr. Gilbert has organized this history, unfashionably, by calendar year. A reader of this final volume can turn to the chapter on 1974, for example, and be reminded that more was going on around the world at that time than Watergate. In 1974, the Soviets arrested and exiled Alexander Solzhenitsyn for "The Gulag Archipelago." Emperor Haile Selaisse of Ethiopia was deposed. There was fierce fighting in Cyprus, and the population of the earth passed four billion.

Though modern academic historians are likely to consider it unsophisticated if not simpleminded, this chronologic approach offers some real advantages. (Mr. Gilbert isn't the first to use it. Werner Stein's 1946 "Kulturfahrplan," translated and updated as "The Timetables of History" by Bernard Grun in 1975, conveniently lists the highlights of the last 6,000 years this way.)

A history organized as chronology is extremely handy for reference purposes, of course. But beyond that, it provides even the casual reader with a sense of the interrelationship of great and less-great events. It views time, as the 18th-century hymn by Isaac Watts put it, as an ever-rolling stream, impartially bearing all away.

Mr. Gilbert's history invites browsing, which can lead to surprising discoveries, and in turn to a richer understanding of the past as a fabric rather than an accumulation of facts. But like any other approach to history it is ultimately subjective, and thus open to criticism, for what it leaves out even more than for what it includes.

For example, in 1974, the following events occurred but were not considered by Mr. Gilbert to be worthy of specific inclusion: There was worldwide inflation and virtually no economic growth. The Dow Jones index fell to 663. Gasoline shortages were widespread. Edward Heath resigned in Britain, Willy Brandt in West Germany. Juan Peron, Mohammad Ayab Khan and U Thant died. So did Duke Ellington, Charles Lindbergh, Jack Benny, Anne Sexton, Walter Lippmann and Sam Goldwyn. The Soviets landed a space probe on Mars. The American Mariner 10 satellite sent back important photos of both Mercury and Venus. Gunnar Myrdal and Friedrich von Hayek won Nobel Prizes.

Also that year, Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's lifetime home-run record. Frank Robinson became the first black manager of a major league baseball team. Patty Hearst, the kidnapped heiress, said she was joining her kidnappers' movement. W.H. Auden's last volume of poetry was published, posthumously.

Some of these factoids are no doubt irrelevant to Mr. Gilbert's vision of history. But still, they all contributed to the significance of that year. How dare he, nitpickers will grumble, leave them out?

In a rather nice touch, Mr. Gilbert has chosen a quotation to head each year's chapter. The one for 1974 is from the Peking Review. "Some people talk about bourgeois classical music with great relish, are mesmerized by it and prostrate themselves before it, showing their slavish mentality for all things foreign."

(The real target of the Chinese attack on Western music, Mr. Gilbert points out, wasn't the music itself. It was the prime minister, Chou En-lai, and his campaign to open China to the West.)

The above example to the contrary, Mr. Gilbert's history of the century is generally focused on Europe and the United States, and will no doubt be criticized in some quarters for that. Africa and Asia seem to appear mostly when bad things happen there, such as genocide in Rwanda or Cambodia respectively.

Volume I of Mr. Gilbert's work ended, appropriately for a three-volume history, in 1933, one-third of the way through the century. Oddly, though, Volume II only covered 17 years, which leaves this last volume to account for the century's entire second half.

Odder still, Volume III, presumably in order to meet a publisher's deadline, ends with April 1999. Mr. Gilbert and his publishers must have prayed there would be no worldwide cataclysm before Dec. 31.

Because the chronology ends in April, the final event in Mr. Gilbert's history is international military action in the Balkans. And perhaps that's a fitting conclusion. For as the author observes, "The twentieth century opened in 1900 with collective international military action against China. That year, Germany, Britain and the United States had each taken part in the punitive action. Each was among the nations participating in the air-strike forces against Serbia as the century drew to a close."

History can remind us how far we've come, but it is even more valuable when it reveals how far we haven't.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer living in maryland.

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