Compliments on your editorial guile in preceding the splendid article on Princeton’s contribution to the preservation, recovery, repair, and return of the art heritage of Europe in World War II with the inspiring story of ex-Congressman James Leach ’64’s planned tour of all 50 states to plead the cause of civility, from his eminence as chair of the U.S. Endowment for the Humanities (features, June 2).
In case any reader missed the connection, let me spell it out. In 1942, representatives of the museum and art history world, including Princeton’s Rufus Morey, visited FDR to plead for the protection of Europe’s cultural heritage. The president took immediate action, set up a committee of scholars chaired by Justice Stone, instructed the various branches of the military to add young art historians like Princeton’s Craig Smyth ’38 *56 and Joe Kelleher *47 to their ranks and assigned them the towering job of preserving European art, with instructions that the military support them in every way possible. The episode marks a not un-typical moment in U.S. history when cultural values were protected against the unavoidable “hot rake of war,” in Churchill’s phrase. It was an act of decency and civility, recognizing that war was an aberration against which civilized nations had assumed the duty to limit damage to the treasures of the past, representing as much to the U.S. as they did to Europe.
Sixty years later, six months before the U.S. incursion into the cradle of civilization, the lands between the Tigris and Euphrates, where uncounted millions of artifacts still lie buried, a similar delegation visited the president and were received politely. A seven-volume study prepared by the State Department, including detailed instructions on cultural and historical preservation, was delivered in the following weeks to the Department of Defense, led by a Princetonian; the volumes were rejected and their authors chastised. The result: the destruction of the great museum collections of Baghdad, the trashing of the national library, the paving over of archeological sites for airstrips, the dispersal of the professional museum and library staff under terrorist threat, and the appearance in international antiquities markets of thousands of unique artifacts and texts.
Godspeed to Chairman Leach.
Browsing Letters 2009-2010