Tuesday, June 28, 2011

What DID Nixon Do? or, How NOT to Withdraw from Afghanistan

When you study diplomatic history as I do, you become used to the cold-blooded calculus policymakers routinely employ in making their decisions. But an article in Sunday's New York Times was stunning even by that jaundiced standard.

The author Gideon Rose, the editor of Foreign Affairs, argues that President Obama, in looking for a way out of Afghanistan, should ask himself: "What Would Nixon Do?"

Aside from the self-evident obscenity of substituting the name "Nixon" where the popular mind is used to seeing "Jesus," the article also advocates that Obama emulate what is arguably the most cynical and dishonest part of Nixon's foreign policy record: his withdrawal from Vietnam.

It became common in the years of his post-Watergate disgrace for Nixon defenders to point to his foreign policy as a positive aspect of his presidency. Indeed, there is something to that. I would argue, for example, that the long-run effect of Nixon's policy of detente is due more credit for the end of the cold war than Ronald Reagan's military build-up in the 1980s.

But Rose takes that generally plausible point and stretches it beyond reason, asserting that "Mr. Nixon actually did a lot right in Vietnam." No, he did not.

Rose's argument is that Nixon had the right idea: "to walk away from the war ... and avoid formally betraying an ally." The key word here is "formally." Nixon knew, as Rose concedes, that "South Vietnam is never gonna survive anyway," as he said to Henry Kissinger. The objective was to make sure there was a decent interval between American withdrawal and South Vietnam's collapse, so that the U.S. would not look too bad.

This is the course Rose urges on Obama! He summarizes thus: "It will mean denying what is going on, aggressively covering the retreat and staying after leaving." To translate: lie, kill, lie some more.

Rose glosses over the costs of this policy. "Denying what is going on" helped destroy Nixon's credibility with the American public. "Aggressively covering retreat" included such things as the secret bombing of Laos and Cambodia (secret to Americans--the Laotians and Cambodians were well aware they were being bombed), the invasion of Cambodia (and subsequent destabilization that helped lead to the rise of the murderous Khmer Rouge), and unprecedented bombing of the North.

Nixon did all that, and prolonged the war for four long years, only to accept a peace that in the end was not appreciably different from the one he helped scuttle in 1968. In October, right before the election, LBJ was close to a peace agreement. Nixon's campaign sent word to the South Vietnamese president that he should not accept any LBJ-brokered agreement, because Nixon would get him a better one if elected. The negotiations collapsed, Nixon was elected, and the war dragged on.

What did Nixon accomplish in those four years? In the words of Kissinger in 1972, they found a "formula that holds the thing together for a year or two, after which ... no one will give a damn." They got that.  South Vietnam collapsed in April 1975, over two years after the end of the American war.

What was the price of guarding America's image until no one gave a damn? Over 20,000 more Americans killed in action. You won't find that number anywhere in Rose's piece. Evidently that was not an important fact for him. There were about 100,000 South Vietnamese army soldiers killed in those years, even more North Vietnamese and Viet Cong.  And that doesn't even count the civilian casualties.

Rose calls on Obama show more "tough-mindedness." He does not tell his readers how many people will have to die for this pointless show of machismo.

Lastly, Rose shrugs off the fact that Nixon's policy failed to in any way save the situation in South Vietnam. That, he wants us to believe, is not the product of the policy, but of the impact of Watergate and the unwillingness of Congress to support "staying after leaving." With different circumstances, he says, Obama could pull off what Nixon could not.

This is a common claim for those who continue to insist that somehow, someway, the Vietnam war really was winnable. If only Nixon hadn't been distracted by Watergate, they wail (neglecting the fact that Nixon's paranoia over the anti-war sentiment in the U.S. was directly related to the crimes we lump together as "Watergate"). If only Congress hadn't kept President Ford from bombing the North in 1975 (as if air power alone could somehow have saved that hopeless regime). Then we would have won, they say.

This is fantasy. Nixon knew that. He only wanted to save face, not save South Vietnam.

There are indeed times, especially in foreign policy, when a president must be cold-blooded, even ruthless. But he need not be stupid about it. I have serious doubts about the wisdom of Obama's Afghanistan surge, and fear what may come in the wake of the inevitable American withdrawal from that country. But I am confident he will not be foolish enough to take Rose's advice and make like Nixon.

"It may seem crazy to regard the American withdrawal from Vietnam as anything but disastrous," Rose writes. Well, at least he got that right.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Republicans Now Think Herbert Hoover was Wrong

On his blog yesterday, Andrew Sullivan bemoaned the fact that Republican economic orthodoxy is preventing a reasonable deficit reduction deal:

The notion that Herbert Hoover was right has become quite a dogged meme on the reality-challenged right. It's bonkers.

He's half right--Republican orthodoxy that "government spending kills jobs" is "bonkers." But he's wrong that the right thinks Hoover was correct.  It's worse than that--they think he was wrong, but not in the way we usually think.

The conservative consensus is not that Hoover was right and Franklin D. Roosevelt was wrong--it is that Hoover and Roosevelt were essentially the same and both were wrong.

The book most responsible for this "revisionism" is The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression by Amity Shlaes. Despite the subtitle, Shlaes is not a historian.  She is a financial columnist. But her book on the Depression, because it fits the right's ideological predispositions, has become the conservative bible on how not to deal with economic depressions.

Shlaes, making the conservative argument against government efforts to combat depression, lumps the two presidents together:

From 1929 to 1940, from Hoover to Roosevelt, government intervention helped make the Depression Great.

While this characterization would surprise both men, it is the conventional wisdom on the right these days.

The Forgotten Man is the popularization of a position pushed by the libertarian Ludwig von Mises Institute.  An article on their website, titled "Hoover's Attack on Laissez-Faire," makes this argument:

Herbert Clark Hoover must be considered the founder of the New Deal in America. Hoover, from the very start of the depression, set his course unerringly toward the violation of all the laissez-faire canons.

According to this view, there was no appreciable difference between Hoover and FDR.  Both were "progressives" who together led the U.S. down the primrose path to economic perdition.

There is some kernel of truth in this. Historian Joan Hoff Wilson's book Herbert Hoover: Forgotten Progressive makes the argument that Hoover has been caricatured as a knee-jerk devotee of laissez-faire, when in fact he tried to combat the depression.

Hoover indeed had more in common with the Theodore Roosevelt progressive wing of the Republican Party than the Warren Harding/Calvin Coolidge/Andrew Mellon pro-business wing that dominated the 1920s and set the stage for the depression.

The laissez-faire right has seized upon this interpretation to explain away an inconvenient truth: the fact that the depression deepened and reached its worst depths during the presidency of a Republican, and then improved under FDR. If the New Deal was so terrible (an article of unquestioned dogma on the right), then how can this be?

The answer is to transform Hoover into the "the founder of the New Deal."

That's only half of the equation, however. By morphing Hoover into FDR, they maintain the illusion that government intervention worsened the depression. But how to prove that laissez-faire ends depressions?

Enter the "forgotten depression" of 1920. The same article quoted above compares Hoover's attack on laissez-faire to the policies of Harding and Mellon in the early 1920s:

In the 1920–1921 depression, ... wage rates were permitted to fall, and government expenditures and taxes were reduced. And this depression was over in one year — in what Dr. Benjamin M. Anderson has called "our last natural recovery to full employment."

Glenn Beck has popularized this view with videos such as this one, in which he makes the explicit case that "bailouts" and "stimulus" are precisely the wrong ways to approach economic downturns--instead, large tax cuts and draconian budget cuts are the solution.

And that, of course, is the faith-based economic policy of the Republicans today.

You could hardly ask for a better example of the influence of the popular perception of history on contemporary politics. Shlaes' book became the economic bible for Republicans in this recession. A concerted effort by libertarian economists over many decades up-ended the conventional historical wisdom.

Their view is now the orthodoxy of a political party with effective veto power over fiscal policy due to its control of the House. They control the debate. They seem poised to use the debt limit to force their view on all of us.

We may be on the verge of testing their theory. And the beauty of it all politically is that if they are wrong, they can still blame President Obama for the worsening economy, and ride the failure of their economic theory to political victory in 2012.

Friday, June 17, 2011

David Barton: The Right's Historical Propmaster

David Barton is not a historian.

I know he calls himself a historian.  I could call myself an astrophysicist, but I would have no right to expect anyone to take me seriously.

The problem is that while just about everyone knows that an astrophysicist needs specialized training, most people think that anyone can be a historian--you just need an interest in history, right?


When I came to Wofford ten years ago, my history department colleagues decided that we needed a course in historical methods which would be a requirement for all of our majors. History is a discipline, and it has methods.  There are specific skills the historian needs, and we decided we should teach them to our majors in a systematic fashion.

David Barton would fail that class.

When Barton appeared on "The Daily Show" last month, Jon Stewart helpfully pointed out that Barton is not an academic historian.  Barton replied: "No, I don’t have a doctorate in that, I’ve got all the documents."

Now, documents are important--they are the foundation of every good work of history. But this is the equivalent of claiming to be an architect because you have lumber.

The most important thing we teach our history majors about documents is that they must be interpreted responsibly. We do an exercise in which we present the students with an excerpt from a book, and then ten different examples of how that material might be interpreted. In at least one example, the original material is--technically--quoted accurately, but in such a way as to misrepresent its meaning.

This is Barton's specialty. When Stewart tried to challenge Barton's interpretation of a letter by John Adams, Barton replied: "I posted that online. How can I misquote him when I put the whole letter up?" The point is that one can misinterpret without misquoting.

When Stewart tried to make that point, Barton said: "Show me some documentations where it’s taken out of context. They’ve never done that."

I've done that. As I showed in my previous post, Barton's website accurately quotes Thomas Paine's speech, but the selective editing takes Paine entirely out of context, for the clear purpose of making an ideological point. In this case, he most explicitly did not post the entire speech (or even provide a link to the entire speech). I would not accept that from an undergraduate student.

Every historian knows that looking at one document in isolation can be dangerous and misleading. That's why I looked at other examples of Paine's writing on education to see what he thought about religious influence in the classroom. When I did, it threw an entirely different light on the excerpt singled out by Barton.

Regardless of what Barton says, history is not merely the accumulation of documents. "We have 100,000 documents from before 1812," he told Stewart, as if that alone proved something.  The important thing is what we do with the evidence.

Fortunately, Barton's slippery reading of documents was on full display in the Stewart interview. In arguing that the Constitution is a religiously based document, Barton says:

There are seven references in the Constitution to religion, whether it be Article Seven, and by the way, the Declaration is incorporated into the Constitution, Article Seven, so that’s four references to God.
Barton claims that there are seven references to religion in the Constitution. This is easy to check. The following words do not appear at all in the document: God, Creator, Christian. The word "religious" appears once ("no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States") as does religion ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"). That's it.

So where does Barton get seven? He refers specifically to Article Seven. Here's the text of Article Seven:

The Ratification of the Conventions of nine States, shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the same.

Confused? So was I. Then I kept reading.  After Article Seven, we find this final passage:

done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independance of the United States of America the Twelfth.

Still confused?  Barton counts the date language ("Year of our Lord") as the third reference to religion. The other four, he says, come from his view that "the Declaration is incorporated into the Constitution." Where does he get that?

Because the Constitution refers to the twelfth year of independence, he says, that "incorporated" all of the language of the Declaration into the Constitution. And since the Declaration has the words “Creator,” “Nature’s God,” “Supreme Judge of the World,” and “divine Providence,” that makes four references, for a total of seven in the Constitution.

You could not ask for a better example of a dishonest reading of a document. And that reading is in service of a pre-determined political position.

Fortunately, Barton himself inadvertently admitted that in the extended interview with Jon Stewart.  Bragging about his access to conservative politicians, Barton said: "They call me and they say 'Is there anything in history about bailouts and stimulus?'"

Barton is the go-to guy when political conservatives need the quick quotation, probably ripped out of context, to give some legitimacy to a political position that they have already decided upon, regardless of what the Founders would think. They are not concerned with what the Founders actually thought.  They want ammunition, not truth.

Barton is nothing more than the historical propmaster for political conservatives. Barton supplies what they need for their political theater. They use the prop, and when they are done, they lay it back on the prop table, awaiting the next performance.

Barton calls what he does "historical reclamation."  A true historical reclamation requires that real historians expose Barton for the fraud he is, and call out cynical politicians like Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann when they call on Barton to teach Congress about the Constitution, and Mike Huckabee when they try to tell us that Barton is "single best historian in America today."

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

History as a Prop, Ctd: David Barton, Thomas Paine, and Creationism

While I was working on my previous post on Palin and Paul Revere, I came across an article which quoted David Barton, the right's favorite faux "historian," claiming that the Founders had rejected the idea of evolution:

As far as the Founding Fathers were concerned, they'd already had the entire debate over creation and evolution, and you get Thomas Paine, who is the least religious Founding Father, saying you've got to teach Creation science in the classroom. Scientific method demands that!

Now, this didn't sound quite right to me, so I did some digging (unlike the article, which simply snarkily dismissed the idea that Paine, who died in 1809, could have rejected the ideas of Darwin, who was born in 1809).

My previous experience of Barton's claims led me to believe that he must have some basis for this statement, so I went to his website, Wallbuilders, to see what it was.  Sure enough, there was a page entitled "Thomas Paine Criticizes the Current Public School Science Curriculum."  And there, in a speech given in 1797 in France, Paine is in fact critical of what he calls "the error of the schools in having taught those subjects [science] as accomplishments only, and thereby separated the study of them from the Being who is the author of them."

So far, so good.  Paine does say that the study of science should include reference to "the Creator" just as one studying art should "think of the extensive genius and talents of the artist."  Modern-day proponents of "creation science" certainly would find some kinship with Paine there.

But I knew there was still something wrong.  As Barton, in his introduction, is at pains to point out, "Thomas Paine was one of the very least religious of our Founders."  So what gives?

Editing.  Barton has posted only an excerpt from Paine's speech.  So I did what any real historian would do, what David Barton does not want anyone to do: I found the complete speech.

The first thing a curious reader (i.e., someone sincerely looking to understand Paine's purpose, rather than trying to make a political point about "Current Public School Science Curriculum") finds is that education is not his subject.  Paine is actually talking about proofs of God's existence. Such proof is not found in books of theology, he says, but in creation, in "the universe, the true Bible,—the inimitable work of God."

Barton distorts Paine's meaning, first, by editing out the introduction that shows Paine's purpose, and then by omitting the following passage which should be found in the midst of his excerpt:

The study of theology in books of opinions has often produced fanaticism, rancour, and cruelty of temper; and from hence have proceeded the numerous persecutions, the fanatical quarrels, the religious burnings and massacres, that have desolated Europe.

This is the Paine real historians know--the one who was appalled by the way religion had been used as an excuse for oppression.  The scientific approach, Paine argued, leads to a different result:

we are by necessity forced into the rational comformable belief of the existence of a cause superior to matter, and that cause man calls GOD.

This is not Barton's Christian God.  It is the Deist God, the original "cause."

Someone truly interested in what Paine actually thought of Christian education need not look far.  In The Age of Reason, Paine had this to say about Europe's recent history:

the advocates of the Christian system of faith, could not but foresee that the continually progressive knowledge that man would gain by the aid of science, of the power and wisdom of God, manifested in the structure of the universe, and in all the works of creation, would militate against, and call into question, the truth of their system of faith; and therefore it became necessary to their purpose to cut learning down to a size less dangerous to their project ...

And what did Paine think of the creation story in the Bible?

it is certain that what is called the christian system of faith, including in it the whimsical account of the creation—the strange story of Eve, the snake, and the apple—the amphibious idea of a man-god—the corporeal idea of the death of a god—the mythological idea of a family of gods, and the christian system of arithmetic, that three are one, and one is three, are all irreconcilable, not only to the divine gift of reason, that God has given to man, but to the knowledge that man gains of the power and wisdom of God by the aid of the sciences, and by studying the structure of the universe that God has made.

In short, Paine is not even remotely making the point Barton says he is. Paine (not surprisingly) says not a word about evolution.  His emphasis on "creation" is not the "creation science" of Barton's uninformed acolytes. It is the Deist's substitution of science for traditional theology, not an attempt to infuse theology into science.

Through science, Paine believed it was possible to come to a more unifying understanding of God: "the pure, unmixed, comfortable, and rational belief of a God, as manifested to us in the universe."   Such an understanding, he believed, arrived at through the scientific study of creation, would unify all people and lead to the end of all religious sects, including Christianity.

As Barton and his followers show, however, Paine was too optimistic. Barton's project amounts to the creation of a false counter-history for religious/political purposes.  The attempt to replace evolution with "creation science" reveals that far too many people today are just as hostile to scientific inquiry as those persecutors of Galileo whom Paine condemned for having "held it to be irreligious to study and contemplate the structure of the universe that God had made."

No, Mr. Barton, Thomas Paine didn't reject (or endorse) evolution.  He did, however, disdain "the supporters or partizans of the christian system," because they, "as if dreading the result, incessantly opposed" honest scientific inquiry "and not only rejected the sciences, but persecuted the professors."

If I had to guess (and unlike Barton I actually admit that it is a guess), I suspect that Paine would prefer Darwin to Barton, in whom he would likely see the modern version of those who find it "necessary to their purpose to cut learning down to a size less dangerous to their project."

(In my next post, I'll discuss how Barton's "methodology"--really the lack thereof--makes him the foremost practitioner today of "history as a prop.")

Friday, June 10, 2011

Palin, Guns, and Paul Revere: History as a Prop

Lots of people have been having lots of fun with Sarah Palin's latest adventure in American history (no one more than Stephen Colbert, whose "reenactment" of Palin's description of Paul Revere's ride is hysterically funny).

In case anyone missed it, here's how Palin described Revere and his famous ride:

"He who warned, uh, the ... the British that they weren't gonna be taking away our arms, uh, by ringing those bells and, um, by making sure that as he's riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that, uh, we were gonna be secure and we were gonna be free ... and we were gonna be armed."
Watching it, I had a teacher's response. This is the student who hasn't done the reading, and doesn't know the material, but feels compelled to talk anyway. There's no need to rehash how badly Palin mangled the story (Andrew Sullivan has a good summary here).  I'm more interested in why she felt the need to say anything about Revere in the first place.

In her subsequent interview with Chris Wallace, which is now infamous for Palin's refusal to admit any error, she made this revealing statement when asked what she was doing on the bus trip:

"I'm publicizing Americana ... and how important it is that we learn about our past ... we need to make sure we have a strong grasp of our foundational victories so we can move forward."
The reality, of course, is that Palin is not the least bit interested in learning about our past.  She is only interested in using it for political purposes.  So how was she trying to use it here?

She spoke about Revere because she wanted to make the story into a parable about the Second Amendment.  She told Wallace that Revere's message to the British was

"you're not gonna take American arms. You are not gonna beat our own well-armed persons, uh, individual private militia that we have."

In this particular Palin word jumble, we can make out the language of the Second Amendment, but significantly mixed with the modern interpretation of the individual right to bear arms.  The result is a new Palinism: the internally contradictory idea of the "individual private militia."

Having visited the Revere historical site, Palin had decided that the important point about Revere's ride was that armed Americans protected their arms against seizure by a tyrannical government, and one way or another, she was going to make that point, casting the Obama administration as the British, and herself, of course, as Revere.

Palin was asked: "What have you seen so far today, and what are you going to take away from your visit?" She seized upon what she now insanely calls a "gotcha" question to talk about Revere, not because she wanted to talk about history, but to make a demagogic political point about gun control.

She's not talking to people who know the Revere story, or care about telling it accurately.  She's talking to people who know, despite the lack of any evidence whatsoever (or perhaps because of the lack of evidence), that the Obama administration is going to take their guns.

It is useless to try to correct Palin about the facts of history.  She does not care.  History, for such a person, is nothing more than a prop.  It has no independent reality.  It has only immediate political purpose.  It can be twisted, contorted, refashioned into whatever shape the present moment demands.

Nothing speaks more eloquently to that point than the attempt by Palinistas to alter the Paul Revere Wikipedia page to conform to her version of events.  They support her contemporary beliefs, and so history must be changed to fit her opinions, however mistaken they may be.

This isn't respect for history--it is contempt for history.  We can only hope that history returns the favor.