In spare, yet elegant language Winston Churchill, determined to tell his story of the second Great War in his lifetime, wrote about this week 80 years ago.
“Poland was attacked by Germany at dawn on September 1. The mobilization of all our forces was ordered during the morning. The Prime Minister asked me to visit him in the afternoon at Downing Street,” Churchill wrote in the first volume of his literary and historical masterpiece about the Second World War.
Students of history – most of us, of course, weren’t around for the world changing events of the first week of September 1939 – will know what followed. Churchill returned to the British Admiralty as First Lord, a position he vacated in disgrace in in 1915, and eventually, in 1940, became prime minister. Churchill only got the top job, a position he had coveted since his youth, because of failure.
A botched military expedition landed British troops on the Norwegian coast in the spring of 1940 led to history shaping decisions. Churchill supported the Norway landings, but the ill-planned and poorly equipped troops had to be withdrawn and the Royal Navy lost several ships, including an aircraft carrier. The subsequent debate – “the most momentous that has ever taken place in Parliament” in the words of one participant – was so bitter, so ugly that it soon became clear that Neville Chamberlain, the Conservative prime minister would have to resign.
Churchill became prime minister, at least in part – he did not detail this in his own writings – because he skillfully maneuvered for the job, sidelining the sitting foreign secretary the First Earl of Halifax, a calm, quiet, pious man known as “the Holy Fox.” Halifax was also “an appeaser,” one of many British politicians who had sought up until the moment Hitler’s panzers rolled across the Poland frontier to find a way – almost any way – to avoid war. Halifax was also a member of the House of Lords, a political detail that technically prevented from speaking in the Commons, a difficult problem for a politician attempting to rally the country to war.
Churchill used all his leverage and a lifetime of experience in politics – he was 64 at the time – to make it obvious to everyone in public life in Britain that the King had to summon him to form a government. As he later wrote of his first night as prime minister, “I felt as though I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial.” He slept soundly, Churchill recalled, “and had no need for cheering dreams. Facts are better than dreams.”
In his masterful biography of Churchill, arguably the most important and most complex political figure of the 20thCentury, the historian Andrew Roberts makes one telling and extremely valuable point about this now ancient history: It might have turned out much differently.
Halifax, with all his shortcomings, but also senior standing in the party could have insisted on the premiership. He had more support among Conservatives and, in contrast to Churchill’s impulsiveness and penchant for drama, was considered a man of superior judgment. The King also wanted Halifax to succeed Chamberlain. The complication of his House of Lords position might have been finessed. Yet Halifax, a figure now largely lost to history or if remembered not remembered well, did something remarkable. He put his country ahead of himself.
“He knew in his heart,” Roberts has written, “that he was not of the calibre required for a wartime prime minister, and that Winston Churchill was.” Halifax’s act of “supreme self-abnegation” was, Roberts says, perhaps his greatest service to his country, indeed to the world.
There is certainly no equivalence – or very little – between a war crisis 80 years ago and the slow walking economic suicide taking place today around Britain’s pending withdrawal from the European Union. Yet the confluence of cataclysmic events does underscore one immutable truth: character in leadership matters, and never matters more than in times of great trial.
The British prime minister today, Boris Johnson, is as unlike the man who came to power in Britain in 1939 as two men could be. Johnson claims to revere Churchill and has written a book about him, but BoJo, as he’s now regularly called, is a clownish figure not unlike his chaos inducing similar number in the White House. Neither man has the fundamental character to master the jobs they hold let alone provide the steady, principled leadership that troubled times demand.
The erudite Edward Luce, a columnist for the Financial Times, summed up Johnson this week – he might have been talking about Donald Trump: “To anyone not paying attention, Boris Johnson is making it up as he goes along, which is precisely what he did as a journalist. He doesn’t have a clue how to govern. His prime ministership is tomorrow’s fish and chip paper.”
Johnson lost his first vote in Parliament this week and his petulant response was to effectively sack nearly two-dozen members of the Conservative Party, including Winston Churchill’s grandson, Nicholas Soames. The firing, reminiscent of Donald Trump’s constant need to punish any Republican who darns cross him, came 80 years to the day that Soames’s grandfather came back to the Admiralty. The irony is lost only on someone who has no appreciation of irony.
There is crisis afoot in the world’s two great democracies and the trouble starts, or at least is most sharply defined, at the top. The notion that character counts, that the mental and moral qualities necessary for true leadership are paramount, is missing from politics. Truth has taken a vacation.
Some of our fellow citizens apparently feel so despondent about the shape of things that they willingly turn governments over to turmoil makers like Donald and Boris, believing somehow that “leaders” who fuel their days with chaos and thrive on narcissistic self-interest are good for what ails us.
Those who forget history, as it’s said, are doomed to repeat it. The importance of character-driven leadership has rarely been more important, and that is an enduring lesson from September 1939. How quickly things can go to hell without principled leadership is another lesson.
“This is the United States of America. It isn’t Nazi Germany.”
– Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), in an interview on MSNBC, about the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the border.
The venerable Senator Feinstein is correct; we are not Nazi Germany – at least not yet.
But we are beginning, in some remarkably troubling ways, to resemble the ill-fated Weimar Republic that preceded Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. A chilling new book – The Death of Democracy – tells the story of how a cultured, sophisticated people – Weimar Germany was the land of Richard Strauss and Bertolt Brecht, the home to Nobel Prize winners – tumbled into deep political division and then widespread street violence and then a dictatorship and tragedy.
Historian Benjamin Carter Hett writes that the 1919 constitution of the Weimar Republic “created a state-of-the-art modern democracy, with a scrupulously just proportional electoral system and protection of individual rights and freedoms.”
“If Germany had long prided itself on being the ‘land of poets and thinkers’ then in the 1920s it seemed to surpass even itself. And yet somehow, out of this enlightened, creative, ultramodern democracy, grew the most evil regime in human history.”
We still wonder how it happened and why.
Part of the answer, Hett writes, was a breakdown in what was regarded in Germany as acceptable political behavior. Brown shirted toughs took to the streets intimidating political opponents and “others” – Jews and Communists, in particular. German politics became deeply polarized, while nationalism and a national sense of grievance grew. Jews were scapegoated as part of a vast global conspiracy that was somehow tied to Communism.
Hett argues, compellingly and disturbingly, that the rise of the Nazis was in large part a response to globalization and economic change. Major Nazi political theorists actually adopted a policy of “autarky,” the notion that “a country can cut itself off completely from the world economy and rely on its own resources, no imports, no exports, or foreign investments.”
Proving the old saying that “the only thing new is the history we haven’t read” is this remarkable statement from Hitler in 1928. “The German people have no interest,” he wrote, in a “German financial group or a German shipyard establishing a so-called subsidiary shipyard in Shanghai to build ships for China with Chinese workers and foreign steel.” Such an arrangement would not benefit Germany since, Hitler said, jobs that should benefit Germany would not be created in Germany. As the historian Hett notes, “The political mobilization of the late 1920s, especially among those Protestant groups who would become the Nazi base, was mostly about Germany’s vulnerable position in the world economy and financial system.”
When the German conservative establishment – business leaders, the military, Protestant evangelicals and importantly Great War hero Paul von Hindenburg – eventually turned to a bombastic Austrian veteran who preached a virulent form of nationalism heavily doused with racial animus – Jews were his “vermin” – Adolf Hitler became the German chancellor. His Nationalist Socialist Workers Party had never commanded more than about 30% of the popular vote before he reached the top of German politics.
“These conservatives could have stopped Hitler in his tracks,” Hett writes. “Instead, they chose to use him.” Business leaders liked his talk of an expanding German economy, higher tariffs and his plans to crack down on labor unions. Military leaders, smarting from how the Great War had ended, appreciated Hitler’s pledge to rebuild Germany’s armed forces. Evangelical Christians flocked to him because he seemed to promise that he would marginalize other Catholic backed political parties.
Within a matter of weeks after being appointed chancellor, Hitler, a brilliant communicator with a flair for the theatrical, had consolidated power to himself. The burning of the Reichstag – the German parliament building – four weeks after he took office was a galvanizing event, an excuse to create a police state. Hitler blamed the fire on Communist conspirators, almost certainly a lie, and historians still debate whether the Nazis staged the whole thing.
Without regard to facts, Nazi paramilitary brown shirts began locking up political opponents, silenced the independent press and deepened the Nazi party’s appeal to very conservative German farmers and small business people who craved stability.
“The key to understanding why many Germans supported him,” Hett writes, “lies in the Nazis’ rejection of a rational, factual world. Hitler himself, in the words of his biographer Joachim Fest, was ‘always thinking the unthinkable,’ and ‘in his statements an element of bitter refusal to submit to reality invariably emerged.’”
Hitler assumed dictatorial powers in Germany thanks to a series of lies, boasts, grand promises and raw appeals to emotion, racism, hatred and strength. Many Germans thought the strutting, one-time postcard painter with the pasty complexion simply wouldn’t last. But while he played his role Hitler could be a necessary evil – a tool – to crush the liberal left, the trade unions, intellectuals and elites. History is made of such horrible miscalculations.
There are, of course, no perfect historic analogies. Each generation stumbles ahead or falls behind on it’s own accord, but it is also true that history contains valuable lessons that we would be wise to heed. This is such a moment.
When politicians say, as the American president did recently, that “We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country. When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came. Our system is a mockery to good immigration policy and Law and Order. Most children come without parents.” We would be well advised to take them at face value. The American Constitution, of course, guarantees due process – to everyone regardless of legal status.
Dehumanizing your opponents is a tried and true tactic of authoritarians. When the president of the United States calls Hispanic or Latino human beings “animals” or “thugs” or “vermin” and refers to an African-American congresswoman as “an extraordinarily low IQ person” it is impossible to see such language as anything but dehumanizing.
By responding to the congresswoman’s incendiary and profoundly improper encouragement of harassment against Trump Administration officials with his own taunts – “be careful what you wish for” – the president doubles down on a politics of confrontation and demonization.
Former first lady Laura Bush explicitly compared the administration’s recent border separation strategy with the infamous “internment” of Japanese-Americans in 1942, one of the most egregious violations of civil liberties in modern American history. The actor George Takei, who with his parents was interned in one of the camps, has written that two big lies, including the fiction that a law exists demanding the separations, have fueled the authoritarian border policy.
“The second lie is that those at our borders are criminals, and therefore deserve no rights. But the asylum-seekers at our borders are breaking no laws at all, nor are their children who accompany them. The broad brush of ‘criminal’ today raises echoes of the wartime ‘enemy’ to my ears. Once painted, both marks are impossible to wash off. Trump prepared his followers for this day long ago, when he began to dehumanize Mexican migrants as drug dealers, rapists, murderers, and animals. Animals might belong in cages. Humans don’t.”
As the Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum wrote last week: “It is worth noting how often the president repeatedly conflates refugees with illegal immigrants and MS-13 gang members. This is not an accident: He has targeted a group and given them characteristics — they are violent, they are rapists, they are gang members — that don’t belong to most of them. He then describes them with dehumanizing language. Democrats, he has tweeted, ‘want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our country, like MS-13.’ The image of ‘infestation’ evokes, again, vermin and lice. A few weeks earlier, he spoke of MS-13 as ‘animals,’ once again making it unclear whether he meant actual gang members or simply those who distantly resemble them.”
Or as conservative columnist Michael Gerson wrote recently, “Dehumanization has a natural progression. It starts by defining a whole race or ethnicity by its worst members — say, rapists and other criminals. It moves on to enforce generally applicable laws and rules that especially hurt a target group. Then, as the public becomes desensitized, the group can be singled out for hatred and harm. It is the descent, step by step, into a moral abyss.”
When the president of the United States, against most credible advice and in the face of much history about how global trade works, imposes tariffs on imports from the nation’s closest allies and threatens retaliation against American companies it’s difficult not to conclude that he is playing on old fears about globalization.
Denigrating a Free Press…
When the president of the United States on a daily basis denigrates “the fake news” and criticizes news organizations and reporters by name it is impossible not to see parallels to the Nazi manifesto that declared that editors and contributors to newspapers “be people’s comrades” and that “newspapers which violate the general good are to be banned.”
The president has now actually uttered the words “enemy of the people,” a term Stalin often used, to label the press that routinely still calls out his lies and incompetence.
“One of the basic tools of fascism is the rigging of elections – we’ve seen that trialed in the election of Trump, in the Brexit referendum and (less successfully) in the French presidential elections. Another is the generation of tribal identities, the division of society into mutually exclusive polarities. Fascism does not need a majority – it typically comes to power with about 40 per cent support and then uses control and intimidation to consolidate that power. So it doesn’t matter if most people hate you, as long as your 40 per cent is fanatically committed. That’s been tested out too. And fascism of course needs a propaganda machine so effective that it creates for its followers a universe of “alternative facts” impervious to unwanted realities. Again, the testing for this is very far advanced.”
Americans, long content to embrace our myth of “exceptionalism,” now are grouped with a growing list of nations around the world where democracy is in retreat. Yes, it is happening here. We are exceptional, but not in the way Ronald Reagan or Franklin Roosevelt envisioned.
A new report by European researchers contend that 2.5 billion people – a third of the world’s population – now live in countries where democracy is on the run. As the study indicates, “In recent years, the number of nations that are becoming more democratic has declined, while the number ‘registering significant change toward autocracy’ has increased. Even worse, ‘the population living in the 24 countries backsliding on liberal democracy”—a list that includes Russia, India, Brazil, and, yes, the United States—‘far outnumbers the population living in advancing countries.’”
“A much larger share of the world population is experiencing autocratization [than] democratization,” the researchers note. “This translates to a major reduction in the enjoyment of rights and freedoms.”
One can look back over the tumultuous last 18 months of American history in one of two ways.
One type of analysis would say: True enough, Donald J. Trump has upset a lot of traditions and norms in American politics. Other presidents have been liars, exaggerators, provocateurs who upset the status quo. We may not like all his language or emphasis, but the United States has been around a long time and navigated many challenging times. Trump has attacked judges and journalists, trashed Democrats and tarnished his GOP critics, but the system still works. We’ll be fine.
Another version of the same facts might well reach an altogether bleaker conclusion. The systematic dehumanizing of refugees and immigrants will last well beyond the current occupant of the White House. The disparagement of the independent press undermines, perhaps permanently, a vital check on misconduct and abuse of power. The criticism of judges, the claim that a special counsel investigation is “a witch hunt” and the suggestion that due process is an outdated concept are broadly damaging to the concept of the rule of law. The widespread abrogation by Congress of oversight of the executive branch – few oversight hearings, little if any complaint about manifest ethical transgressions and embracing policies and approaches Republicans would once have rejected totally – is an historic erosion of the time-tested systems of checks and balances. Nationalism, anti-globalism, trade wars, a growing cult of personality around Trump all show a clear and dramatic break with American values. This cannot end well.
Historian Benjamin Carter Hett notes several times in his profoundly important book about the fall of the Weimar Republic that most Germans in the 1920s and early 1930s really didn’t want violence in the streets, didn’t want to see the “liberal” values of an enlightened society crushed, but for most it was difficult to tell in real time how bad things were becoming. And then it was too late.
“Few Germans in 1933 could imagine Treblinka or Auschwitz, the mass shooting of Babi Yar or the death marches of the last month of the Second World War,” Hett says in summing up what happened. “It is hard to blame them for not foreseeing the unthinkable. Yet their innocence failed them, and they were catastrophically wrong about their future. We who come later have one advantage over them: we have their example before us.”
“Hillary Clinton’s admission that she has pneumonia after allegedly becoming ‘overheated’ at a 9/11 event has even some in MSM acknowledging that the issue of the Democratic candidate’s health can no longer be ignored, as her tour has been put on hold.”
A few days ago Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum, a noted writer on Russian and European history and politics, outlined what seems to me a highly likely scenario regarding the American presidential election.
Vladimir Putin, Applebaum wrote, is not so secretly attempting to undermine the U.S. electoral system, indeed his aim may well be to destabilize American democracy. It may sound farfetched, but then again the evidence may be hiding in plan sight.
We should believe that Putin, the creepy Kremlin leader and a former KGB apparatchik, is meddling in the election because he has done it before and, in fact, he does it all the time.
What Americans might be waking up to – we can hope – is that in Putin’s attempt to interfere with a U.S. election he has for the first time, as an earlier generation of Moscow leaders might have said, “a useful idiot” to help him in the person of Donald J. Trump.
Here’s Anne Applebaum’s informed speculation in a nutshell:
Trump continues to say, as he already repeatedly has, that if he loses the election to Hillary Clinton the whole system must be “rigged,” the polls are “wrong” and “real voters” have been ignored. He constantly complains that the “dishonest” and “corrupt” media is out to get him.
Meanwhile, Russian Internet hackers will continue to use a third party – Wikileaks – to disseminate emails pilfered from Clinton or George Soros or some nameless bureaucrat somewhere in order to, as Applebaum says, “discredit not just Hillary Clinton but also the U.S. democratic process and, again, the ‘elite’ who supposedly run it.”
Before Election Day or even on Election Day hackers will try to create havoc with one of more state election systems. They don’t need to succeed; just trying will be enough to confirm the suspicion, already firmly planted by Trump and others, that the election is “fixed.” The FBI, we already know, has warned election officials in Arizona that the election machinery may have been compromised. Imagine waking up on November 9th with Clinton having narrowly won Arizona – polls show her within striking distance there – and then imagine what Trump does and says.
I’ll quote Applebaum directly regarding the next step: “The Russians attempt to throw the election. They might try to get Trump elected. Alternatively — and this would, of course, be even more devastating — they might try to rig the election for Clinton, perhaps leaving a trail of evidence designed to connect the rigging operation to Clinton’s campaign.”
What a perfect KGB-like operation: Plant a trail of evidence “proving” that Clinton “stole the election.” It all reads like a John Le Carre thriller, but somehow doesn’t seem all that farfetched. “Once revealed,” Anne Applebaum writes, “the result will be media hysteria, hearings, legal challenges, mass rallies, a constitutional crisis — followed by confusion, chaos and an undermining of the office of the presidency.”
No Matter What – Putin Wins…
Here is the particularly pernicious aspect of the Russian meddling: there is no downside for Putin or his objectives. Putin wins no matter the outcome in November.
Suppose Trump wins the election in which case Putin gets his useful idiot in the White House and ends 75 years of Republican skepticism about all things Russian.
Or suppose Clinton wins amid allegations that the election was rigged or stolen. Putin still wins with a weakened American president who is immediately discredited as “illegitimate” by a sizable chunk of the electorate.
Under any scenario the Kremlin gains in its real aim, which is to destabilize western democracy, weaken NATO and diminish U.S. standing around the world. These aims also help explain Putin’s objectives in supporting Brexit, the United Kingdom’s pending exit from the European Union, his encouragement of hard right elements in France and elsewhere in Europe and his embrace of Syria and Iran.
But the critical element in the Kremlin strategy is the utility of the fake billionaire from Trump Tower. Without a major party presidential candidate like Trump, a guy who surrounds himself with advisers with ties to Putin, who praises the Russian dictator as a better leader than the American president and then grants interviews to Putin’s international disinformation network, the election meddling and propaganda campaign would be a good deal more difficult to pull off.
As the Washington Post pointed out Trump’s recent interview with Larry King on the Putin financed propaganda channel RT was all about dissing news coverage of his own campaign. That message fits perfectly with Putin’s larger aims. Alexey Kovalev, a Russian journalist and translator who runs a blog dedicated to exposing misinformation in Russian media, put it this way: RT’s “mission now is not to report on Russia but to tell everyone how bad America is. There’s a huge audience for that, not just internationally but in the United States as well.”
Republicans who continue to lionize Ronald Reagan must wince just a little that the new face of their party now echoes the Kremlin line. “Reagan never gave interviews to Pravda while campaigning to be our president,” Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, wrote on Twitter, referring to the official newspaper of the Soviet Union. “Who advised Trump to appear on RT?” Who indeed?
Nothing motivates the GOP presidential candidate more than money, so that fact may offer the simplest, if a no less comforting explanation of the Trump-Putin alliance.“Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” Donald Trump Jr. told a real estate conference in 2008 and it has been widely reported that his old man has been trying to cut a fat hog in Moscow for years.
Even if you don’t buy the full extent of Anne Applebaum’s conspiracy, just consider this: Is there anyone who knows anything about American politics who would have predicted two years ago that the Republican candidate for president would have at the center of his candidacy a bromance with a Russian hatchet man? Four years ago Mitt Romney, you remember him, was condemning Russia and Putin as our nation’s greatest strategic threat. In fairness to Romney, many allegedly smart people in both parties disagreed with his assessment. Now Mitt looks like a genuine prophet.
Not only has Trump embraced Putin and essentially offered cover to Russian outrages in Ukraine he has neutered GOP hawks like John McCain who are left to mumble, as House Speaker Paul Ryan did last week, that Vladimir Putin really isn’t a nice guy. The former KGB agent really isn’t a nice guy, but he may understand U.S. politics better than many American voters.
Nothing Like This Before…
So, has anything like this ever happened before, has a foreign power ever attempted in such a comprehensive way to mess with a presidential election and influence American policy? The answer is both kind of and no.
One somewhat analogous historical precedent is the presidential election of 1940 and the tumultuous foreign policy debate immediately preceding U.S. entry into World War II. While far less obvious than the Russian effort in the current election, Britain clearly tried to influence U.S. politics, policy and public opinion – with willing help from Franklin Roosevelt – in 1940 and 1941.
During the 1930s, as Cull has written, British policy “explicitly forbid any such endeavor in the United States,” but that policy changed as the war situation darkened after the fall of France in 1940. British policy makers began to believe “through judicious use of propaganda and publicity” that they might “undermine U.S. neutrality and somehow sell Britain and a second world war to a skeptical American public.”
A key tactic was to plant “subversive propaganda” through a network of middlemen – “cut outs” they were called – who were charged with distributing up to “twenty rumors each day with the ‘leading home reporters of the New York and Chicago papers.’”
Given the sensitivity at the time to the notion that Britain was trying to maneuver the United States into the war, public disclosure of a propaganda campaign or covert lobbying of Congress would have been politically explosive. The British, however, deemed feeding useful information to popular reporters, both low risk and effective. They used a well-connected political operative with relationships inside the government and with columnists and radio personalities like Walter Winchell and Dorothy Thompson to shape public and political opinion. Over time the effort was quite successful.
However, what Winston Churchill’s government did not do, unlike Vladimir Putin’s, was attempt to hijack an election or destabilize American democracy. There is no obvious historical precedent for what has been quietly happening in plain sight with Trump’s campaign.
Now with media obsession focused on Hillary Clinton’s health, an issue sure to dominate news coverage for days, and with the Kremlin’s candidate climbing in the polls we may learn just how sinister a former KBG henchman can become when at last he has a useful idiot in the Oval Office.
Bush’s stumbling attempts to get his arms around the issues, however, points out how dangerous things can be on that high wire. Still if he hopes to be president, Jeb will be forced to regularly and publicly struggle with brother George W’s legacy in the Middle East, while always trying to tip toe around the smoldering wreckage. No easy task.
Bush tried mightily this week to both avoid talking about the family mistakes and pin the continuing mess in Iraq and Syria on the current president and the former secretary of state. Even he must know its a stretch. Bush’s major foreign policy speech, delivered on the hallowed ground of the Reagan Library in California, was equal parts reinventing recent history and continuing the proclivity of many American politicians to work very hard to avoid confronting obvious, if difficult truths.
Grappling with the Facts and Lessons on History…
Across Europe this summer and last, the Brits, French, Germans and others have been marking both the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the centenary of the Great War that did not end all wars. British school children have taken field trips to the scenes of the carnage on the Somme in 1916 and near the tiny Belgian village of Passchendaele in 1917. But in reading about the various memorials and events, one gets the impression that something is missing from the history of this war – why did this catastrophe happen, this great war that destroyed empires, spawned an even more destructive second world war and gave us – apparently to the continuing astonishment of many current politicians – the map of the modern Middle East that was drawn during and after the war with little regard for facts on the ground?
The commemoration of the Great War and the end of the second war is, of course, entirely appropriate, but remembering the conflicts is not nearly enough. And some politicians – Japan’s prime minister, for example – would just prefer to move along, thinking; been there, done that. The anniversary of the Great War, for example, is only being quietly marked in Germany and the French continue to mostly ignore the their own troubled history during the second war.
Failing to heed the lessons from such vastly important events has consequences, including the repeating of old mistakes. We must, as the respected British military historian Sir Max Hastings said recently, probe and question, debate and discuss the meaning, the causes and the consequences of our wars.
Hastings argued in a 2014 interview with Euronews that it is a serious mistake to simply mark the horror of the Great War without a serious grappling with the issues and reasons behind the fighting. Hastings’ lessons about that war and about the importance of teaching its lessons to new generations is worthwhile viewing. One wishes the current crop of candidates took the time to listen and think about such big questions, particularly as they rush to define their foreign policy platforms in an area of the world that is still so very unfamiliar to us.
Cloudy Thinking, Shaky Facts, Bad History…
In terms of understanding issues like the U.S. role in Iraq and the rise of ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant sometimes called ISIS – we can’t even agree what to call the movement) there is always a simple, concise explanation that is wrong, which leads me back to the allegedly “smarter” Bush – Jeb.
The essence of Bush’s recent foreign policy argument is that Iraq was “secure” in 2009 following the “surge” of American troops that was instituted by his brother. That strategy, temporarily at least, propped up the perfectly awful regime headed by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Malicki.
Then, at least in Bush’s telling, President Obama with the support of Hillary Clinton let it all go to hell with the premature removal of American combat troops from Iraq. Therefore, under this logic and accepting Bush’s telling, Obama and Clinton “lost” Iraq and paved the ground for the rise of the spectacularly brutal ISIL. Bush’s analysis if, of course, mostly aimed at Clinton and is simple, concise and mostly wrong.
Writing in The New Yorker, Dexter Filkins, one of the more astute analysts of the American experience in Iraq, says: “the Republican argument that a handful of American troops could have saved Iraq misses a larger point. The fundamental problem was American policy—in particular, the American policy of supporting and strengthening Maliki at all costs. Maliki was a militant sectarian his whole life, and the United States should not have been surprised when he continued to act that way once he became Prime Minister. As Emma Sky, who served as a senior adviser to the American military during the war in Iraq, put it, ‘The problem was the policy, and the policy was to give unconditional support to Nuri al-Maliki.’ (Sky’s book,The Unraveling, is the essential text on how everything fell apart.) When the Americans helped install him, in 2006, he was a colorless mediocrity with deeply sectarian views. By 2011, he was an unrivalled strongman with control over a vast military and security apparatus. Who enabled that?”
Filkins’ answer to the enabling question is that George W. Bush, Obama and Clinton all had a hand in creating the mess, but he also notes a fact that Jeb ignores – it was his brother who established the timeline for the troop withdrawal, a timeline that Obama was only too happy to implement since he had campaign to get U.S. troops out of Iraq. Amending that agreement, as Bush said “everyone” thought would happen, was entirely contingent on the Iraqi government we had helped establish agreeing to U.S. troops remaining. Changing the Bush agreement, given the internal strife in the country, was never going to happen and, in fact, the Iraqi parliament refused to consider modifications of the troop withdrawal timeline.
As Filkins says, “at best, Jeb is faulting Obama for not amending the deal.”
Other commentators, including Paul Waldman, have observed that Jeb Bush, as well as other Republicans, continue to believe, against all evidence, that the United States could bend the internal politics of Iraq in a way that we might like. Remember the rhetoric about a western-style democracy taking root in the heart of the Middle East? It was a pipe dream and still is.
“And this is perhaps the most dangerous thing about Bush’s perspective on Iraq,” Waldman wrote recently in the Washington Post, “which can also be said of his primary opponents. They display absolutely no grasp of the internal politics of Iraq, now or in the past, not to mention the internal politics of other countries in the region, including Iran. Indeed, most Republicans don’t seem to even believe that these countries have internal politics that can shape what the countries choose to do and how they might react to our actions.”
As for Clinton, who of course is the real political target of Bush’s recent critique of past and present U.S. Middle East policy, Dexter Filkins says: “She played a supporting role in a disastrously managed withdrawal, which helped lay the groundwork for the catastrophe that followed. And that was preceded by the disastrously managed war itself, which was overseen by Jeb Bush’s brother. And that was preceded by the decision to go to war in the first place, on trumped-up intelligence, which was also made by Bush’s brother.
“All in all, when it comes to Iraq, Clinton doesn’t have a lot to brag about. But Jeb Bush might want to consider talking about something else.”
Let the Debate Continue…
Or would it be too much to just ask that Bush – other candidates, as well – grapple with the grubby details of the mess in the Middle East. It is a convenient sound bite to say, for example, that Obama and Clinton “allowed” the Islamic State to emerge amid all the sectarian violence that we could never have successfully controlled, even had we committed to U.S. boots on the ground for the next 50 years. Such thinking does little – nothing really – to help explain what has really happened in Iraq and why.
In a truly chilling article in the current New York Review of Books, an anonymous writer identified as a senior official of a NATO country with wide experience in the Middle East, provides some insight into all that we don’t know and can’t comprehend about the forces that have unleashed havoc in Iraq and Syria.
The latest ISIL outrage includes, according to the New York Times, a policy of rape and sex slavery, across a wide swath of the region. The sober and informed piece should be required reading for every candidate as a cautionary tale about how American policy, beginning with George W. Bush, has been a tragic failure. It is also a stark reminder of the real limits of what our military power can accomplish.
“I have often been tempted to argue that we simply need more and better information,” the writer says in attempting to explain ISIL. “But that is to underestimate the alien and bewildering nature of this phenomenon. To take only one example, five years ago not even the most austere Salafi [ultra-conservative Islamic] theorists advocated the reintroduction of slavery; but ISIS has in fact imposed it. Nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman North Africa has seemed so sudden, incomprehensible, and difficult to reverse as the rise of ISIS. None of our analysts, soldiers, diplomats, intelligence officers, politicians, or journalists has yet produced an explanation rich enough—even in hindsight—to have predicted the movement’s rise.
“We hide this from ourselves with theories and concepts that do not bear deep examination. And we will not remedy this simply through the accumulation of more facts. It is not clear whether our culture can ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination, and humility to grasp the phenomenon of ISIS. But for now, we should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled.”
If there is any good news amid the re-writing of our recent and often disastrous history in the Middle East it may be contained in the fact that Jeb Bush’s quest for the White House will mean that the American legacy in Iraq will continue to be debated. Smart politics might have dictated that Jeb leave the sleeping dogs of W’s policies lie, but that was never an option. The mess his brother made is still too raw and too important not to demand ongoing discussion, particularly from another Bush.
History will assign the blame for U.S. policy in the Middle East and I’m pretty confident how that will shake out. American voters, even given our short attention span and penchant to accept over simplification of enormously complex issues, should welcome the discussion that Jeb Bush’s speech has prompted. He may be, as Paul Waldman says, “shockingly obtuse” about the limits of American power and as misinformed as some of the people who led us down this rabbit hole, but we still need to force the debate and challenge the “theories and concepts that do not bear deep examination.”
Who knows, as Max Hastings suggests when considering the lasting lessons of the 100 year old Great War, we might actually learn something.
The first Secretary of the Treasury, inventor of American governmental finance and a top aide to General Washington, Hamilton probably should have been president. But was also born out of wedlock, got mixed up in a very messy love affair during the height of his political career and then got killed by Aaron Burr in a duel. He could have been a great president, but like Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, William Jennings Bryan, Adali Stevenson – all remarkable men who might have been great presidents – Hamilton sadly never got there. Now apparently he’s toast on the ten spot.
I come not to bury old Hamilton, but rather to praise him, but also to make the case for the woman who should grace the nation’s currency as Hamilton rides off into assured oblivion as the Founding Father most likely to be forgotten. There are a number of woman worthy of gracing the folding green – Eleanor Roosevelt for sure and Harriet Tubman, Frances Perkins and Rosa Parks, just to name a few – and I would gladly slip a few $10 bills carrying the image of any number of remarkable American women into my money clip.
But my choice is a bit different, a woman from the West, a champion of hard working miners and loggers, a supporter of organized labor, a liberal Republican (when there were such things), an advocate of women and children, a politician without guile or spite, but full of passion and principle, the first woman elected to Congress – even before woman could vote in many places – and, perhaps above all, an unabashed and stunningly courageous advocate for peace. An elegant fashion plate, too, who was surely a commanding figure on the stump. Her broad-brimmed hats and carefully tailored clothing created a political fashion craze decades before Hillary’s pant suits.
Rankin was pacesetter, role model, remarkably accomplished woman and elected official and she would be a powerful reminder that peace, humility, decency and equality are American values that must not be quietly tucked away in history books, but held forth as what we – what Americans – really should be all about.
Elected to Congress the first time in 1916, Rankin is best remembered for her vote against U.S. participation in the First World War. Her vote was a courageous and controversial move, but one completely in keeping with her values and beliefs. Nearly a hundred years later that vote doesn’t look too bad. Rankin ran for the U.S. Senate in 1918, lost the Republican primary in Montana, and ran in the general election as a third-party candidate. After losing that election Rankin re-grouped and re-dedicated herself to the cause of peace. She worked tirelessly for that cause between the world wars, while continuing her advocacy for women and children.
In one of the great ironies of American political history, Rankin ran for Congress a second time in 1940 just as the United States started in earnest down the path to involvement in the Second World War. When Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Rankin was back in Congress and facing her own moral and political crisis – whether to vote for a declaration of war. Agonizing over the decision – her brother and political confidante told her a “no” vote would amount to political suicide – Rankin nonetheless refused to vote for war. She stunned the House of Representatives and many of her constituents when, her voice filled with emotion, she said “I cannot vote for war.”
Rankin’s lone vote against war in 1941 effectively ended her political career if not her anti-war activism. Rankin retired from elective politics, but was still leading marches against war – this time in Southeast Asia – as a spry 90 year-old in the early 1970’s. She died in 1973.
I’ve read all the Rankin biographies (and the one on her very political and very wealthy brother, Wellington), tried to understand her place in Montana and American history, even looked through some of her correspondence carefully preserved at the wonderful Montana Historical Society in Helena, but strangely still don’t feel I know everything I want to know about this remarkable, passionate and principled woman. By most accounts she had that effect on most everyone she encountered.
Mike Mansfield, for example, who replaced Rankin in the House of Representatives in 1942 and went on to his own distinguished career in the Senate, profoundly admired the elegant, outspoken woman from Missoula. I talked with Mansfield about Montana politics shortly before his death and when the conversation turned to Jeannette, Mansfield in his candid and clipped way said simply, “She was remarkable.”
My favorite comment about Rankin comes from an unlikely source. After her vote against war in 1941, the famous Kansas editor William Allen White, a strong advocate of American aid to the allies before Pearl Harbor and therefore on the other side of the great foreign policy debate at the time, wrote in his Emporia Gazette newspaper:
“Well – look at Jeannette Rankin. Probably a hundred men in Congress would like to do what she did. Not one of them had the courage to do it.”
“The Gazette,” White continued, “disagrees with the wisdom on her position. But, Lord, it was a brave thing: and its bravery somehow discounts its folly. When in a hundred years from now, courage, sheer courage based on moral inclination is celebrated in this country, the name of Jeannette Rankin, who stood firm in folly for her faith, will be written in monumental bronze, not for what she did but for the way she did it.”
I say put Jeannette Rankin on the $10 bill. She would be a fantastic reminder that personal and political courage make American heroes.
[Port en Bessin, Normandy] – We’ve all heard the classic stereotype frequently attached to the French; they’re cool – even cold – detached, formal to the point of rudeness, and some might say arrogant and, of course, they don’t like foreigners. The stereotype is, like most stereotypes, largely poppycock. The next time I encounter the stereotype I’m going to remember this little stone monument marking a road hard by the River Orne in Normandy.
A few minutes after midnight on June 6, 1944 – D-Day – three Horsa gliders of the British 6th Airborne Division made what amounted to controlled crash landings about an eight iron shot from this marker. The British troops came in the night to capture two vital bridges that might have been the route for advancing German tanks to repel the entire eastern end of the “greatest seaborne invasion in history.”
One of the bridges – later known as Pegasus Bridge for the flying horse that was the 6th Airborne’s symbol – was captured by Company D of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry under the command of Major John Howard. Howard and his men, as Stephen Ambrose documented in his celebrated book on the raid, conducted their mission flawlessly and held the bridges for several hours until they linked up the next day with British troops moving up from the invasion beaches. The action at Pegasus Bridge is the stuff of military legend.
In many respects John Howard was an unlikely hero, but like so many in those times he rose amid the challenges to become a fine officer and respected leader. He was wounded twice during the Normandy campaign and came away from his experience at Pegasus Bridge with a Distinguished Service Order presented personally by Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery. The citation read: “Major Howard was in com[man]d of the airborne force which landed by glider and secured the bridges over the River Orne and Caen Canal near Benouville by Coup de main on 6-6-44. Throughout the planning and execution of the operation Major Howard displayed the greatest leadership, judgment, courage and coolness. His personal example and the enthusiasm which he put behind his task carried all his subordinates with him, and the operation proved a complete success.”
John Howard’s men anchored the eastern end of the Normandy beachhead by conducting one of the great and gutsy actions of World War II and obviously the French remember to this day. A visit this week to the bust of Major Howard that sits on the exact spot where his glider landed finds the base of the monument layered in fresh flowers, many placed by locals.
The 70th anniversary of the Normandy landing by American, British, Canadian, Polish and French forces in 1944 is being publicized and remembered all over France, and no place more than in the small villages and towns that stretch along the Normandy coast from Caen to Cherbourg. In Caen, a great and ancient city that was once home to William the Conquer and was severely damaged during fierce fighting after the invasion, lamp posts throughout the city feature pictures of the town’s liberation by British and Canadian troops in July 1944. The restaurants feature D-Day commemorative placemats. In the tiny villages behind Omaha Beach on the western end of the invasion zone homes and businesses display the French tricolor side-by-side with the U.S. Stars and Stripes. In fact, you see as many U.S. and British flags as French. The French postal service has created a handsome series of stamps to mark the anniversary. Films, concerts and art exhibits will continue throughout the month.
On the way back from Utah Beach today, I noticed one farm house displaying French and U.S. flags along with a crisp white banner that read simply – Merci.
Of course there is excess in the name of tourism, including the restaurant with a life-like combat ready mannequin at the front door and there are so many cheesy souvenirs for sale that I have lost count. What isn’t excessive is the remarkable sense of history in this place and what feels like a genuine determination to preserve the memory of what happened here 70 years ago. French organizers of the commemorative events say a principle goal is to make certain young people don’t forget the sacrifices made to liberate the country and hordes of French school children are visiting the important Normandy sites and often siting perfectly still for a long description of why this history is so important.
It has been a rare and special privilege to be here this week, visiting the five landing beaches, standing where Major Howard lead his men to Pegasus Bridge, imagining the great DeGaulle arriving in Bayeax and proclaiming it the provisional capital of France and, of course, walking among the more than 9,000 perfectly positioned solemn, sober and humbling white marble crosses in the American cemetery above Omaha Beach.
It was also special – and frankly a little unexpected – to discover that all these years later the Allies coming to liberate France in 1944 still lives in the villages and farms of Normandy. Along the backroads inland from Utah Beach you see dozens of small signs naming a section of road for an American GI. The French have well remembered Eisenhower with a handsome statue in Bayeax, the kind of honor that has been denied the general/president in Washington, D.C. The small resort town of Arromanches Les Bain, location of the brilliantly conceived “artifical harbor” that supplied troops in Normandy and for six months after the invasion became the busiest port in the world, has erected signs declaring “this is the Port of Winston Churchill.” Churchill conceived the far out idea to construct the harbor out of pre-cast concrete and then float it into place across the English Channel. It became one of the great innovations of the war. The town of Colleville changed its name after the war to become Colleville-Montgomery in honor of the British field marshall.
So, don’t buy the nonsense about the haughty French. They are remembering the incredible events in Normandy 70 years ago with style and grace and amazing hospitality. I raise a glass of Calvados to Major Howard and his glider-borne fighters and also to the French and their sense of history, while I quietly wish that our own sense of history could be quite so widespread, so obvious and so well understood.
I admit it. I have taken my share of grief over the years for wearing a bow tie. My affection – or affliction – has prompted snickers, crude jokes and feeble attempts at one-liners.
I’ve been asked, just for example:
“Do you tie those yourself?” No, I want to say, my butler does it for me.
“Can I touch it?” Seriously? If you look like Grace Kelly, I would say, knock yourself out.
“Are they hard to tie?” Yes, very, I say. Rather like those sneakers you’re wearing.
Whenever I get that look, the, oh, he’s wearing a bow tie look, I just remember what a very smart and sartorially advanced gentleman once told me: “It takes a confident man to wear a bow tie.” It doesn’t hurt that women seem to notice and frequently compliment a well-chosen bow tie.
Men’s Journal recently did a takeout on “The Art of Wearing a Bow Tie.” After suggesting, incorrectly I believe, that wearing a bow tie is “always a strange choice,” the article when on to say something I do agree with: “There is no way – unless you happen to currently live in a fraternity house at a large southern university – to subtly wear a bow tie. Your neckwear will say something so you want to make sure it’s on message.”
Like the man said – confident men wear bow ties and, in my experience, the same men make a fashion and personal statement. No president since Franklin Roosevelt has routinely worn a bow tie. He also used a cigarette holder and wore those little glasses – Pince-nez – that fasten to the bridge of your nose. The bow tie was the least of FDR’s fashion statements. Harry Truman, a sharp dresser, tied one on from time-to-time, but no one since has dared except when the commander-in-chief breaks out a tuxedo for something like the increasingly silly White House Correspondent’s Dinner.
Speaking of the tux, I am unalterably opposed to the trend of men wearing long ties with a tuxedo. Call me old-school, another label often attached to the bow tie wearer, but the classic, clean and elegant look of black tie demands a bow. And, yes, you must learn how to tie it yourself. Those store bought, already tied models look like they were stamped out a press. Part of the style of wearing a bow tie is tying the darn thing.
I got my first bow tie when I was, I think, 14 years old. I bought it myself and was given a little booklet – I still have it somewhere – on how to tie the bow. I went home and stood in front of a mirror for what seemed like hours trying to master the right combination of crossovers, tucks and pulls required to cinch the knot just so. My arms began to ache from being held in an unnatural position, but I eventually mastered the art. I don’t need a mirror any more, but it helps. But, as I said, if you are going to make the statement make it all the way – tie it yourself.
Winston Churchill wore, just about every day, a navy blue polka dot bow tie. You think he had a sense of style? Humphrey Bogart wore them. Lincoln and Branch Rickey, the baseball innovator and the man who signed Jackie Robinson, wore bow ties. George Will, the cranky, pedantic columnist frequently wears one, and I forgive most of his most ill-considered rants because he does. Bow ties and the fact George Will appreciate baseball makes up for a lot of misguided political opinions. The late, great senators Pat Moynihan of New York and Paul Simon of Illinois wore bow ties. Can you see Harry Reid or Mitch McConnell in one? I rest my case.
There is a school of thought that bow ties only work with sport coats or a blazer. I’ll grant you that such pairing are generally safe bets, but former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, a great judge and a habitual bow tie wearer, pairs his ties with a dark suit and he looks just like he is – distinguished and classy. Whatever you do, don’t wear a bow tie with one of those old fashioned jackets with the elbow patches or, even worse, a corduroy jacket. It is just fine to appear scholarly or academic, but you can cross a line that you don’t want to cross pretty easily.
Some fool has said you can’t trust a man who wears a bow tie. Ridiculous. Or, its been suggested that when you are next called for jury duty, wear a bow tie. No one wearing a bow tie ever gets placed on a jury they say. Don’t believe it. I did it once and was named the foreman.
In a day when jeans and a tee shirt paired with flip flops can constitute high fashion, I subscribe to a higher and better standard. I’ve never worn a bow tie to a baseball game, but look at a photo of a game prior to 1960 and you’ll see gents in the stands dress for success. I do agree with the contention that a bow tie makes a statement. It says something about style, tradition and individuality. Think Fred Astaire and James Bond, shaken not stirred and always black tie. Think Chaplin and FDR. Teddy Roosevelt, too. Bow ties put you in good and not too crowded company.
Learn to tie one. They’re sold in many colors and shapes. Ladies seem to like them. See if you’re man enough.
The New York Post – as ridiculous as a newspaper in those days as it remains today – offered the headline: “Dangerous Minstrel Nabbed Here” in a story about Pete. Seeger had a particularly American attitude about a Congressional committee asking questions about his friends and associations. It was none of their business. Only a technicality kept him from prison.
Still for 17 years at what should have been the very height of his career Pete Seeger was on the entertainment industry’s blacklist, labeled a subversive and condemned as a mushy-headed pinko who couldn’t bring himself to admit the evils of Stalin. Much the same happened to Wallace, a brilliant, decent man and an awful politician who was too liberal for the times that ushered in Joe McCarthy and destroyed or badly damaged the careers of Pete Seeger and so many others.
Curious thing about the United States, as Adam Hochschild wrote recently in The New York Review of Books, “anticommunism has always been far louder and more potent than communism. Unlike sister parties in France, Italy, India, and elsewhere, the Communist Party here has never controlled a major city or region, or even elected a single member to the national legislature.”
When Henry Wallace ran for president the year he was photographed with Pete Seeger his Progressive Party, with American Communist support, captured an underwhelming 2.4 percent of the popular vote. Americans have never – even in the darkest days of The Great Depression – warmed to communism, yet the word and the association has always been awesomely powerful in our politics.
Until the collapse of the Soviet Union made anticommunism passe, generations of American politicians, including presidents from Truman to Reagan, made fighting communism the centerpiece of American foreign policy. Careers were made and destroyed – Richard Nixon and Helen Gahagan Douglas and their 1950 U.S. Senate race come immediately to mind – as a result of “The Red Scare.” Nixon and his henchmen dubbed Mrs. Douglas, a liberal California Congresswoman, “The Pink Lady” a label that had immediate and positive electoral impact for Nixon. What she called him – “Tricky Dick” – was arguably the much more accurate and lasting label.
In the days before the National Rifle Association intimidated presidents and county commissioners and commanded fidelity from both political parties, one could hardly go wrong politically by being tough on communism. Being right on the Reds in the 1950’s and 1960’s was as politically safe as being in the pocket of the NRA is today.
Pete Seeger’s left-wing politics received mostly passing mention in many of the tributes that have followed his death on Monday at the ripe age of 94. Most of the stories, perhaps appropriately, have focused on the music he made and the influence Seeger had on singers from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen. Still it seems impossible to divorce the man’s music from the man’s politics.
We’ve largely forgotten that prior to Pearl Harbor millions of Americans opposed U.S. involvement in World War II. Many thought another world war would inevitably lead, as the first one had, to diminished civil liberties and a more militarized society. Nothing good comes from war so the saying went. Pete Seeger was among the millions who believed that and sang about it.
When war finally came Seeger, like most Americans, fully embraced the need to fight Hitler and defeat Japan. In a 1942 song – Dear Mr. President – Seeger sang, as if to remind Franklin Roosevelt, about what Americans were fighting for:
This is the reason that I want to fight, Not because everything’s perfect or everything’s right. No. it’s just the opposite… I’m fighting because I want A better America with better laws, And better homes and jobs and schools, And no more Jim Crow and no more rules, Like you can’t ride on this train ’cause you’re a Negro, You can’t live here ’cause you’re a Jew You can’t work here ’cause you’re a union man.
Pete Seeger’s banjo was inscribed with the words “this machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” Seeger, the left-winger, spent his life preaching the gospel of non-violent social change through his music and he never gave up that wild-eyed dream. Even in the song where he signed on to fight Hitler he was dreaming of a more perfect union at home were civil rights were guaranteed for all. Pete Seeger, through all the blacklisting nonsense and the HUAC hearings, never let bitterness get the better of him. He kept singing about overcoming.
When Seeger did appear before HUAC in 1955 he steadfastly refused to play the political game of gotcha that Joe McCarthy and others had perfected. At one point he summed up his attitude telling the committee:
“I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours, or yours, Mr. Willis, or yours, Mr. Scherer, that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir.”
Committee Chairman Rep. Francis Walter, a conservative Pennsylvania Democrat, persisted: “Why don’t you make a little contribution toward preserving its institutions?”
MR. SEEGER: I feel that my whole life is a contribution. That is why I would like to tell you about it.
CHAIRMAN WALTER: I don’t want to hear about it.
More than the anticommunist witch hunters who tried to silence his banjo in the 1950’s, more than those who resisted civil rights in the 1960’s or defended American hubris in Vietnam, Pete Seeger’s long life was the essence of the real American story. He sang to prompt political and social action. Sang with a smile. Strummed his banjo with an honest, candid demand for a better, more tolerant America.
Americans were once optimistic enough – perhaps we will be again – to think that a better country is possible. Pete Seeger never gave up on that America; a country of better homes and jobs and schools. He was a folk music legend to be sure, but also the very best kind of American and, yes, his whole life – the life of a dangerous minstrel – was an incredible contribution.
Robert Taft, the Ohio senator and son of a GOP president, was often called “Mr. Republican” in the 1940’s and 1950’s. He was continually on everyone’s list as a presidential candidate from the late 1930’s to the early 1950’s, but Taft never received the nomination in large part because he represented the Midwestern, isolationist wing of the GOP in the intra-party fight for supremacy that was eventually won in 1952 by Dwight Eisenhower and the eastern establishment, internationalist wing of the party.
The modern Republican Party is edging toward the same kind of foreign policy split – the John McCain interventionists vs. the Rand Paul isolationists – that for a generation helped kill Taft’s chances, and his party’s chances, of capturing the White House. While much of the focus in the next ten days will be on the important question of whether President Obama can stitch together the necessary votes in the House and Senate – Democrats have their own non-interventionists to contend with – to authorize military action against Syria, the other political fight is over the foreign policy heart and soul of the GOP.
“The war in Syria has no clear national security connection to the United States and victory by either side will not necessarily bring into power people friendly to the United States.” Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.).
“I believe the situation in Syria is not an imminent threat to American national security and, therefore, I do not support military intervention. Before taking action, the president should first come present his plan to Congress outlining the approach, cost, objectives and timeline, and get authorization from Congress for his proposal.” Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah).
“When the United States is not under attack, the American people, through our elected representatives, must decide whether we go to war.” Rep. Justin Amash (R., Mich.)
Taft’s reputation for personal integrity and senatorial probity – he served as Majority Leader for a short time before his untimely death in 1953 – has guaranteed that he is remembered as one of the Congressional greats of the 20th Century. Still, as Stephen’s writes in the Journal, Taft has also suffered the same fate at the hand of history as almost all of the last century’s isolationists have. They are condemned for what Stephens calls their almost unfailingly bad judgment about foreign affairs. Taft opposed Franklin Roosevelt on Lend-Lease in 1941. He argued against the creation of NATO, which has become an enduring feature of the post-war doctrine of collective security. Taft, always the man of principle, even opposed the Nuremberg trials that sought to bring to the bar of justice the top Nazi leadership of World War II. He considered the legal proceedings, organized and managed by the victors in the war, illegal under existing international law.
In every major showdown in his three-time quest for the presidency, Taft lost to an internationalist oriented Republican: Wendell Willkie in 1940, Thomas E. Dewey in 1944 and Eisenhower in 1952. When given his chance in the White House, and with the help of one-time Taft ally Sen. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, Eisenhower re-shaped the modern Republican Party for the rest of the century as the party most devoted to national security and most trusted to push back against Soviet-era Communism. That image lasted, more or less, from Ike to the second Bush, whose historic miscalculations in Iraq have helped create the kind of party soul searching for the GOP that Democrats struggled with in the post-Vietnam era.
A vote on Syria in the Congress will be a clear cut test of strength for the neo-isolationists in the modern Republican Party, many of whom have close connections to the Tea Party faction. Still the leaders of the new Taft wing, like Kentucky Sen. Paul, have demonstrated they are not one issues wonders when it comes to foreign policy. Paul filibustered over drone policy, has spoken out against NSA intelligence gathering and frets over foreign aid. And the polls show these skeptics are in sync with the many Americans who are sick of open ended commitments in the Middle East and the kind of “trust us, we’ve got this figured out” foreign policy of the second Bush Administration. I suspect the appeal of the neo-isolationists extends as well to younger voters, many of whom have not known an America that wasn’t regularly sending brave young men and women to fight and die in wars that seem not only to lack an end, but also an understandable and clearly defined purpose.
Bob Taft – Mr. Republican – fought and lost many of these same battles more than half a century ago and since the victors usually write the history Taft stands condemns along with many others in his party for being on the wrong side of the history of the 20th Century.
The great debate in the Congress over the next few days is fundamentally important for many reasons, not least that it is required by the Constitution, but it may also define for a generation how the party that once embraced and then rejected isolation thinks about foreign policy. If Sen. Paul can be cast as a latter day Bob Taft on matters of foreign policy; a questioner of the value and scope of America’s role in the world, who will be this generation’s Wendell Willkie or Dwight Eisenhower?
Any GOP pretender for the White House will need to calculate these issues with great precision. Gov. Chris Christie, who has yet to declare this position but seems more likely to fit in the internationalist wing of the party, must have his world atlas open to the Middle East, but those maps are likely sitting right next to the latest polls showing the increasing isolation of the party’s base; the people who will determine who gets the next shot at presiding in the White House Situation Room. During today’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote on Syrian action Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, another 2016 contender, voted NO reinforcing the notion that a new generation of Republicans seem willing to bring to full flower an approach to foreign policy that died about the same time as Bob Taft.
What an irony that the robust, nation building, regime change foreign policy of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, the very definition of GOP orthodoxy in the post-September 11 world, has been so quickly consigned to the dust bin of Republican policy.
Who this time will be on the right – and wrong – side of history?
[Note that Idaho Sen. James Risch joined with Paul and Rubio in voting NO on the Syrian resolution in the Foreign Relations Committee.]
Burton K. Wheeler was a Democrat who served as United States Senator from Montana from 1922-1946. His career, as he acknowledged in his memoir, was full of controversy. Among other things, Wheeler was indicted on corruption charges and fought with powerful interests ranging from the mining companies in his adopted state to Franklin Roosevelt, a man he had once enthusiastically endorsed for president.
The FBI followed him, particularly after he criticized Roosevelt’s foreign policy prior to American entry into World War II. His patriotism was assaulted. He was deemed a Nazi sympathizer by some. He helped stop Roosevelt’s Supreme Court power play in 1937 and championed important legislation impacting utility companies and Native Americans. If you are defined in politics by your enemies, Wheeler had many. His friends included Charles Lindbergh, William E. Borah, Joe Kennedy, Huey Long and Harry Truman. He was considered a serious presidential contender in 1940. FDR put an end to that with his third term.
Wheeler’s kind of senator really doesn’t exist anymore. Senators of his generation were, of course, from their respective states, but they represented more than local interests. Wheeler and Borah and Robert Wagner and Pat Harrison, who I wrote about recently, were national legislators and the Senate was their stage. Wheeler walked that stage most prominently in 1941 when Americans were profoundly divided over how far the nation should go to provide aid to Great Britain during some of the darkest days in the history of western civilization. Wheeler battled, as he called them, “the warmongers” who he thought were altogether too eager to get the country involved in another European war.
Wheeler lost this “great debate,” the U.S. did come to the aid of the battered Brits, Japan attacked in Hawaii and the Montana senator eventually lost his seat in the Senate. This is a story I’ve tried to tell in the most recent issue of Montana – the Magazine of Western History, the respected history journal published by the Montana Historical Society.
At first blush Wheeler’s fight for non-intervention in 1941 seems like ancient history. Americans fought the good and necessary war to stop fascism and the Greatest Generation is justly celebrated. But, like so much of our history, the fight over American foreign policy prior to Pearl Harbor has a relevance that echoes down to us more than 70 years later as the morning headlines tell of President Obama’s parley in the Oval Office with Hamid Karzai.
We are apparently at the end of the beginning of our longest war. Americans have been fighting and dying in the mountains and deserts and streets of Afghanistan for nearly a dozen years. As we prepare to leave that “graveyard of empires” (leave more or less) the question is begged – have we accomplished what we intended? And when we are gone will we leave behind such a corrupt, incompetent government that the Taliban and assorted other bad guys will again quickly take charge?
Before 1941, when Montana’s Wheeler and others raised their objection to an interventionist foreign policy, the United States was comfortable with a modest role in the world. The county was stunned by the violence and by what seemed at the time to be the ultimate futility of the Great War. During the 1920’s and 1930’s Americans embraced their traditional attitude of remaining aloof from European disputes, gladly eschewed any ambition to supplant the British as the world’s policeman and the country happily retreated behind two deep oceans. After 1941, hardened by the trials of another world war and the threat of Communist expansionism, Americans embraced a national security state and we have never really looked back.
Today, as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders points out, the United States spends more on its military than the rest of the world’s nations combined and we’ve tripled defense spending since the mid-1990’s. Despite the sobering experience of Vietnam, we rather casually, at least by 1941 standards, deploy our troops around the world with certain belief that such power can impact all events. Americans have been camped in Europe since 1945 – 80,000 are still deployed – protecting our NATO allies who increasing reduce their own military outlays.
After a nine year war in Iraq, a dozen years in Afghanistan, with deployments and bases from Australia to Turkey, and given the need to confront a national fiscal crisis one might think that America’s aggressively interventionist foreign policy would be at the center of Washington’s debates, but no. Once the U.S. Senate had such debates; debates that engaged the American public and where Congress asserted its Constitutional responsibility to actually declare war. But even after September 11 the national foreign policy “debate’ has more often been about the need to expand and deploy American power, rather than how to make it more effective. The current shaky state of the nation’s budget would seem reason enough to really have a foreign and defense policy debate again, but even more importantly Americans and their leaders should, with cold and calculating focus, assess our role in the world.
George W. Bush once famously advocated a “humble” foreign policy and disowned “nation building.” Bush’s rhetoric, of course, hardly matched his policy and a dozen years later, with little debate and perhaps even less sober reflection, we wind down a war that likely will again offer new proof of the limits of American power.
Montana’s Wheeler lost his seat in the U.S. Senate in 1946 largely because he was deemed out of touch with the post-war world. His old-fashioned attitudes about expressing American power were out of fashion. But were they? At least he forced a debate; a debate similar to the one that we need again today.