An Historian's Prescient View of 9/11

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in my office at The Hill, a newspaper that covers Congress, when my friend David McCullough called me to say that an airplane had just crashed into the World Trade Tower in New York. He was staying at the Hay-Adams Hotel, two blocks from my office in downtown Washington, and invited me to come watch the TV coverage with him.

I said I'd be right over, and took two young reporters, Melanie Fonder and Allison Stevens, with me. We went to his suite and at that moment, a second airplane struck the World Trade Center. Here is the story that my colleagues and I filed in the Sept. 12, 2001 issue of The Hill under the headline, "Terrorist attacks 'worse than Pearl Harbor,' says historian." I think it's worth reading on the eighth anniversary of what is now universally known at 9/11:

"My God, Windows on the World are gone. There are no windows on the world any more. This changes everything."

David McCullough, the nation's preeminent historian, grimaced in disbelief as he watched the indescribable scenes of carnage and destruction being layed out on television from the multiple terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington Tuesday morning.

In his sixth floor suite at the historic Hay-Adams Hotel across Lafayette Square from the White House, a visibly shaken McCullough was stunned into silence at first as sirens wailed outside the hotel and hundreds of people streamed out of office buildings onto streets clogged with traffic.

But after a few minutes, he began a stream-of-consciousness historical analysis. He made clear he regarded the Sept. 11 attacks as a major turning point in American history.

He predicted that the impact of this day's unprecedented events on the American people, and the America psyche, would be far greater than two other great traumatic events in recent history - the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

"This is worse than Pearl Harbor because it happened to us here, not someplace far away," McCullough declared. "This was not a time of war. It was an attack on innocent civilians, rather than military targets. The Japanese attacked our fleet, but these were symbolic targets.This will make people afraid of cities, of targets of any kind. We may start taking our revenge on the wrong people.

McCullough, author of a new biography of President John Adams, was in
Washington to address last weekend's National Book Festival.

As he watched President Bush announce that he had cut short his Florida visit to return to the beleaguered nation's Capital, McCullough predicted that the nation will look to Bush for leadership in a time of national crisis. "He's got to rise to the occasion, and the country will want him to rise to the occasion. Even Democratic members of Congress will want to rally around him."

Continuing to talk as he and his wife Rosalee, who watched the horrific scenes play out on TV, McCullough said, "Our freedom will be restricted. It will be limited."

Then, the TV showed one of the World Trade Towers collapsing onto the streets of lower Manhattan in a massive cloud of fire and debris. And outside his window, smoke billowed from the Pentagon beyond the White House. "Look at that scene," he said. "Who would ever believe it?"

His wife interjected that it was surreal watching the tragic events unfolding on TV. "You can't hear the screaming," she said.

Her husband, who has written best-selling books about the Panama Canal, the Brooklyn Bridge, young Teddy Roosevelt and President Truman, continued. "There are the two symbols of our capitalist society - New York, the greatest city in the world, and Washington, the nation's political center, and the Pentagon, the center or military power.

"The skyscraper was an American invention. It's been a symbol of American enterprise, economic power and our vitality, that whole spirit of New York, the vertical city of which New York is the epitome. It's the heroic high rise, big time New York, and to see it collapse... It's like seeing something essential to who we are collapsing before our eyes."

He added, "The scale of these buildings, they're out-sized. The Trade Towers are the tallest in the world, and the Pentagon was the biggest building in the world when it was built, and when they come down...."

Americans everywhere, he said, can identify with the thousands of people going to work on a beautiful late summer day with not a reason in the world to expect anything bad to happen to them.

Only an hour earlier, McCullough said, he took an early morning stroll around the White House grounds and across the Ellipse to the Washington Monument, and wondered if there were still barricades around the monument and why Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the white House was still close traffic.

"I was thinking, isn't it time we got rid of these stupid, ugly things and why can't we open up Pennsylvania Avenue? Unfortunately, it means we're going to be doing a lot more of this kind of thing now. It's going to intrude on everyone's life. It's stretching the whole idea of an open society almost to the breaking point."

Referring to the upcoming meeting of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in Washington later this month, McCullough said, "All these people coming to protest this globalization can't [do that] now. This is the bad side of the global village, right here."

Then, looking at the huge shroud of smoke over Manhattan from the burning Trade Towers, he said, "They've gone. Look at that. That's a scene of war. It reminds me of London being bombed during World War Two."

Just then, a military jet fighter flew over the city, and McCullough said, "My God. They're flying air cover over Washington. That must be an historic first."

Peering out the window at the crowds gathered below in front of the White House, McCullough said, "Things will never be the same for America, that's for certain. They'll be for the worse."

He added, "This will have a tremendous impact on people under 50 years old, who don't remember anything like this happening here. It's happened in other parts of the world, out of sight and out of mind."

As he spoke, NBC's Katie Couric reported that a hijacked airliner had just crashed near McCullough's hometown of Pittsburgh.

"Why Pittsburgh?, he asked no one in particular.

Struggling to comprehend what had happened, McCullough said the impact of the terrorist attacks was so powerful because "there was no psychological buildup. This wasn't just a bunch of bad guy terrorists. This was wall organized, well planned, well thought out. Nobody knew we were living in such tense times."

McCullough explained that he had given a speech about President John Adams' place in history the previous night.

"I talked about the idea that people in the past always were caught up in events without any certainty about what the outcome would be," he said. "Whether you're talking about history or about life, nothing is preordained."

As McCullough said goodbye to his visitors, who tried again to understand the impact of the attacks on New York and Pennsylvania and Washington, his wife Rosalee remarked, "We've all been attacked."