Let us now praise, and pity, famous men who did their thankless, almost unacknowledged best for the common weal. Let us begin by parsing ‘Our Age’, and by considering one instance of its operation as a historical concept and a literary device:
Our Age was to see a reprise of the irrationality which Keynes so detested. In 1945 when the American and British governments were pondering what to do when they occupied Germany, there arrived in Whitehall the plan put forward by Morgenthau, the secretary to the us Treasury. It proposed Germany should be pastoralised and everyone in official and economic life down to the middle executive rank of, say, bank manager, should be expelled from their posts for having supported or connived at Nazism. Among the officials at the British Treasury was Edward Playfair who had been at King’s. He saw at once that the proposals which had landed on his desk were like the settlement at Versailles, not only mad but bad. Why should Britain pay vast sums to feed the unemployable population of a deindustrialised and destabilised Germany in order to satisfy a demand, however comprehensible, for revenge? This time the forces of reason prevailed.
Where to commence? Let us admit, first, that this agreeable, free-hand style has a charm of its own and that despite an inclination to cliché (‘forces of reason’; ‘landed on his desk’) it can still resonate successfully in parts. ‘Mad and bad’, which would have been more to the point if it were ‘not only bad but mad’, is rendered as it is in order to evoke the shade of Brian Howard out of Lord Byron. And could one have a name more exquisitely apt, for the circumstances, than Playfair of King’s?
And yet, and yet. Henry Morgenthau’s plan was actually defeated at the Quebec Conference between Churchill and Roosevelt in September 1944. It was defeated, having gained the assent of Churchill (who himself wrote in the word ‘pastoral’) by the combined opposition of Cordell Hull and Henry Stimson. (Neither in 1944 nor in 1945, nor for many years thereafter, were any serious Washington plans being defeated by British civil servants of any college.) It was in the first instance a plan based on the racial theories of Sir Robert, later Lord, Vansittart, Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office, who had
There is also, to conclude our parsing of this randomly selected passage, that suggestive word ‘comprehensible’ in the penultimate sentence. It is, in its context, a rather weak compromise between the forgivable and the merely understandable: between comprendre and pardonner. This difficulty will recur.