Sunday, November 01, 2020

New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian, A Life in History.  Long-time readers who want to find out how the author of this blog became the historian he is will find information about the book in a new blog, ALifeinHistory.com.  

My talk at the Harvard Coop last May 28 about A Life in History, can be viewed here.  Enjoy! An interesting radio interview with a Denver talk show host about the book can be streamed or downloaded here.

The book can be ordered here.
I look forward to seeing your reactions. For the time being I am pinning this post. Thanks in any case to all of you for your faithful support.

Check below for more recent posts.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Echoes of an earlier time

Like so many other people, I felt I had gone through a time warp as I watched Ambassador William Taylor and George Kent testify two days ago.  These men had descended directly from the foreign service officers that I had known during my father's diplomatic service in the 1960s and 1970s and my own summer stints in the U.S. State Department.  In calm and measured tones, they put their particular job--encouraging the growth of a democratic Ukraine--into a long-term historical context.  They identified Russian expansionism as a new threat, similar to the cold war threats with which we had grown up. (The hearings also struck a powerful chord with me because Taylor appears to be my exact contemporary.)  Over decades they had accustomed themselves not to worry too much about changes in administrations, because both parties supported the principles behind these policies.   They also obviously believed in facts, and understood the importance of a detailed knowledge of foreign nations and their history, and of a sense of the long-term significance of political events.  They clearly felt very secure in their mission and their place in the world.

The contrast between them and the sycophants that now surround President Trump, such as Mick Mulvaney and Mike Pompeo, jumped off the screen.  They belong to the reality based community, and one can't work for Donald Trump without sinking into denial.  Yet I also felt that Taylor, Kent, and their colleagues in the bureaucracy now live in a bubble of their own.  The tradition they represent dates from a completely different era, one in which the American people cared deeply about our role in the world, followed it closely, and made real sacrifices for it.  That era is over, and our national security establishment has lost its connection to society as a whole.

Beginning in the mid-1930s, the American people became focused on war and the threat of war in Asia and Europe.  In September 1937 President Roosevelt warned for the first time that ongoing conflicts, if not stopped, would reach the western hemisphere.  After the fall of France in 1940, when many expected Britain to fall as well, nearly everyone recognized the potential threat to the United States itself, and Congress doubled the size of the Navy and instituted the first peacetime draft.  10 million men joined the military after Pearl Harbor, and in another three years American troops occupied Tokyo and Berlin.  The Truman Administration was determined not to throw away the fruits of victory, and the Marshall Plan, NATO, and even the Korean War strengthened democracies and other friendly states within the territory that the US had liberated and created a system of alliances.  The peacetime draft returned after the Korean outbreak, and for more than twenty years, young American men served all over the world.  Nightly news broadcasts frequently led with stories about conflicts and threats on other continents, as well.

In a great turning point in American history--one that I described in detail two decades ago in American Tragedy--cold war foreign policy led us to the disaster of Vietnam.  That turned a good portion of the Boom generation against US foreign policy, and brought the military draft to an end.  But as Andrew Bacevich has pointed out, the post-Vietnam challenge to the principles of US policy never amounted to very much.  The establishment--and particularly the military establishment--learned that it had to defend  America's informal empire and fight Communist advances without large-scale deployments of US troops.  But cold war principles remained in force during the 1970s and 1980s, and seemed to be vindicated by the collapse of Communism in 1989.

In general, our national security establishment assumed after 1989 that the US could now pursue the same policies it developed during the Cold War, unhampered by the restraints of powerful adversaries.  We enlarged NATO in Eastern Europe and sponsored democratic movements on every continent.  A new turning point, however, occurred on September 11, 2001.  The Bush Administration self-consciously adopted a new mission parallel, in its eyes, to the struggles against Nazism and Communism:  the democratization of the Muslim world.  For a brief moment in the next couple of years, that mission fired the imagination of the American people, and liberal as well as conservative pundits eagerly signed on.  But the Bush Administration made no effort really to engage the American people at large in this new task, either with higher taxes or a new military draft.  More important, it embarked on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that it could never bring to a successful conclusion, meanwhile wasting trillions of dollars that the nation needed at home.

I have remarked many times here that despite its failures, the new Bush policies survived through the Obama Administration.  The war in Afghanistan continued, the war in Iraq halted but then restarted, and the Administration repeated the Iraq regime change experiment in Libya and tried to do so in Syria, with more disastrous results.   The financial crisis of 2008 did not shift Washington's focus away from these conflicts, but it certainly changed the attitudes of the American people.  And then, the election of 2016 showed that our political establishments no longer commanded enough popular support to elect a new president.

Meanwhile, in Ukraine, our foreign policy establishment has soldiered on, trying to create a new American ally on the frontier of Russia.  This has involved Ukraine and the US in a new war--and I must admit that I, too, was surprised to hear that 13,000 Ukrainians have died in that war.  I do not think, though, that the average American knew until very recently that that war was taking place, or felt any personal stake in the outcome.  And even as I listened to Messrs. Taylor and Kent proudly talk about the progress Ukraine had made recently, I couldn't shake my doubts about the project in which they are engaged.  Democracy has not taken firm root in most of the eastern European states of the former Soviet empire, or in much of the former USSR itself.  The new Ukrainian President may, or may not, manage to do something about corruption in his nation.  And meanwhile, it has become much more difficult for the US to promote democracy, simply because our own democracy has fallen into catastrophic disrepair.  Men like Taylor and Kent have maintained a civic spirit and a sense of mission, but I'm not sure we can deploy it usefully in Ukraine at this point in our history.  They are artifacts of an earlier age--a status with which I too am familiar.  Only a genuine national project that engages our resources, our time and our attention can restore some of what that age gave us.


Sunday, November 03, 2019

The Impeachment Debate--a Barometer

Last week I attended a talk by General James Mattis (ret.), the former Secretary of Defense, at the JFK School in Cambridge.  General Mattis is a history buff, and he talked a great deal about how history can enhance your perspective and help you make better decisions.  His host was Prof. Graham Allison, the head of the school's applied history project, whose roots I helped grow myself about 40 years ago.  He also talked about the crisis in our democracy and the problems of tribalism and partisanship.  He did not specifically discuss his tenure as secretary of defense, although he alluded more than once to the great difficulty of making or executing any coherent policy in this administration.

I decided to participate in question time.

I began by introducing myself as a former member of the Strategy and Policy Department in Newport. "General," I said, "I share you concerns about the crisis in our democracy.  Recently it seems to have entered another phase.  During the next year, both the House and Senate and the American people will have to decide whether our President should continue in office.  One critical question bearing on their decision--and I don't think that it should be a partisan political question--relates to his intellectual and managerial competence and whether he is really capable of doing the job.  It seems to me that men like you, and General McMaster, and General Kelly, and Mr. Tillerson have a lot of information bearing on that point.  Whether or not you want to comment on this now, I hope that some of you will take an opportunity in the next year to make the information you have available to the Congress and the public so that they may make a more informed decision."  (That's a paraphrase but it is certainly very close to what I said.)

The general replied emphatically, making clear that he had already settled this question in his own mind.  The American military, he said, has a non-political tradition going back to the Newburgh conspiracy during the Revolutionary War.  It must not set itself up as some kind of Praetorian guard.  I certainly did not think that I was asking him to do that.  I suspect that if Donald Trump were a serving officer commanding a battalion in General Mattis's division, that he would understand that he had to be relieved, but he still feels that his years of military service debar him from exercising his rights as a citizen to pronounce upon his fitness as commander in chief.

General Mattis, then, refuses for his own reasons to enter into a discussion of whether Donald J. Trump can adequately perform the duties of President of the United States.  Yet the issue of why that question isn't at the forefront of our political discussion generally, and why it seems very unlikely that it will be the specific basis for an article of impeachment, goes well beyond his personal views of the duties of military officers.  It goes to the question of whether the citizens of the United States now have enough understanding of, or belief in, our government, to make it work effectively.  I feel more and more forced to believe--by evidence--that they do not.

The Constitution grew directly out of the Enlightenment, the intellectual movement of the 18th century that held that human reason could, and should, order human affairs.  It also reflected the experience of the unwritten British constitution, which it incorporated in many ways.  Many of the words used in our constitution--including "impeachment"--can only be understood with reference to British precedents.  It also reflected the experience of Greek city states and the Roman empire, which the founders had studied, and which come up in some of the federalist papers.  Today, only lawyers--not students of history--know anything about British legal and constitutional precedents, and almost no one knows anything about the political history of ancient Greece and Rome.  Our fellow countrymen, I would suggest, do not know about this history of legislative inquiry as a check on executive power. They see only a war between a Democratic House of Representatives and a Republican president in which they will take sides.

Our federal government as it evolved during the twentieth century is also a child of the Enlightenment, reflecting the idea that impartial bureaucracies can regulate our economy and provide public services that we all need.  Neither Donald Trump nor the Republican Party, however, still believes in that model of government, and the President does not even believe in the role of the modern foreign policy and defense establishment which has taken on so many responsibilities around the world.  The Republican party has been unraveling the achievement of the Progressive era and the New Deal for the last 40  years, and the Democratic party has joined in this process on crucial occasions.  Bernie Sanders, who must remember Franklin Roosevelt's death, and Elizabeth Warren, who learned about some of the problems the New Deal tried to solve during her legal career, still believe in this model of government, but how many voters do?  How many of them care that the Trump Administration is ignoring much of the bureaucracy and turning some of it--such as the EPA--into obedient servants of the corporate America that they were designed to regulate?  Going further, how many Americans--especially better-off Americans--have a real commitment to the public educational system that Betsy DeVos is trying to dismantle?  And how many of us believe in the interventionist foreign policy that has wasted so much blood and treasure and wreaked so much havoc around the Middle East since 2001?  That last cohort of skeptics includes yours truly.  Those of us who remain devoted to American ideals of politics and government are standing for what was, and what they feel could be again--not for what its.

Last but not least, in the last half century we have lost our belief in the superiority of reason, rather than emotion.  The emotional and moral restraint of the American people struck foreign observers like Tocqueville in the 19th century, and they saw it as critical to our democracy. In the civil war, the passionate, emotional aristocrats of the South lost to the more rational merchants and teachers of the North.  Now the screen has replaced the printed page as the primary medium of the circulation of information, and the educational system--especially at the highest levels--no longer forces young people to learn the experience of spending many hours with books.  Without the right training, few Americans can make sense of our complex government and our complex world. 

Donald Trump would never have won the Republican nomination, much less the general election, if a good majority of Americans still understood and believed in our system of government.  And because we now lack any non-partisan belief in our system of government, the impeachment inquiry will most probably lead to impeachment by the House, followed by trial and acquittal by the Senate.  20 Republican Senators would have to vote to remove him to reach 67 votes, and I do not see how that could happen at this point.  That will leave Donald Trump's fate--and the nation's--in the hands of American voters.  Elizabeth Warren remains my candidate, but I regret that she released a detailed plan for Medicare for all.  I support that policy in principle, but it seems very unlikely, in our current climate, that she can convince more than a small minority of voters, at this point, that she can make this happen and that it will be a good idea.  Some restoration of trust in our system and some sense of common national purpose must come before such a sweeping change, however right and necessary it may be.  The previous great crisis of our national life--the revolutionary and constitutional period, the Civil War, and the era of the Depression and the Second World War--played that role. Our own crisis has completely failed to do so.  We must begin the work of restoration calmly, patiently, and slowly.




Friday, October 25, 2019

A blast from the past

It occurred to me this week, reading about the Republican sit-in in the Capitol basement, that today's Republican legislators are using tactics developed 50 + years ago by my contemporaries in the Vietnam era.  This is not unprecedented: John Bolton led a gang of Republican operatives who descended on Miami in 2000 to stop the recount of Florida votes.  Democratic Boomers either dropped out of traditional politics altogether or became respectable.  Republicans, including many from Gen X, show the the same spirit, outlook and tactics that the SDS did back then.  That in turn reminded me of one of the first posts I did here fifteen years ago, which follows.

Thursday, October 21, 2004


George W. Bush--Man of the Sixties

George W. Bush—Man of the 1960s

President Bush likes to contrast himself and his policies with the 1960s. “We’re changing the culture of America,” he says, “from one that says, ‘If it feels good, do it,’ and, ‘If you’ve got a problem, blame somebody else,’ to a culture in which each of us understands we’re responsible for the decisions we make,” (When Dick Cheney used the language of the 1960s in the face of an opposition U.S. Senator and defended himself because he “felt better,” the irony got less attention than it deserved.) Culturally, of course, the President rejects the sexual liberation of his youth, and portrays himself as a reformed sinner. Politically, as a conservative, pro-war Republican whose father had campaigned against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he was certainly out of step on the Yale campus of 1964-68. All this is, however, entirely misleading—and the country, particularly its younger voters, should try to understand exactly who and what they are voting for before the election. George Bush and his Administration actually represent the worst of the late 1960s—a terrifying certainty determined to repudiate the past, disrupt the present, and risk the future for an ideological ideal. His certainty is not merely, as Ron Susskind argued last in last Sunday's New York Times, a question of his faith—it is all too characteristic of his entire generation.

As George W. Bush’s college years drew to a close, the most visible political faction on most campus was the Students for a Democratic Society, which took over the main Adminstration building, provoked a police bust, and temporarily halted instruction at my own school, Harvard, in the spring of 1969. They were distinguished more than anything else by a complete rejection of everything our parents stood for. In their eyes, the Cold War’s “defense of freedom” was greedy imperialism; civil rights laws simply masked enduring American economic racism; marriage and family were outdated bourgeois conventions; and democracy was a sham. They and they alone knew good from evil, and they had less than nothing to learn from the past. Even within their own ranks, they had contempt for democratic processes. In April of that memorable year, a vote of the SDS turned down a proposal to occupy University Hall by a vote of about two to one—but the next day, the losing minority faction undertook the occupation anyway, dragging their colleagues (and eventually most of the student body) in their wake.

A similar omniscient spirit has dominated the Bush Administration from the day it took office. One by one, the achievements of our parents’ generation—who occupied the White House from John F. Kennedy through George H. W. Bush—have been gleefully tossed aside: the ABM Treaty, the rigid separation of Church and State, overtime protection for workers, environmental protection, and especially the spirit of compromise and civic responsibility that allowed Republicans and Democrats to work together for the good of the country from the 1950s through the 1980s. In foreign policy they have even repudiated, in effect, the NATO Alliance and the United Nations. Events in the fall of 2002 were particularly revealing. Prodded by Colin Powell, who remembers the 1950s, the Administration sought a second Security Council resolution to authorize war against Iraq, but when they found they had only two other votes on their side, they simply disregarded the opinion of the world in the same way that the SDS disregarded the majority vote the night before the occupation of University Hall. Meanwhile, our Boomer-crafted new National Security Strategy gives the United States both the right and the duty to decide what nations shall possess what weapons, and summarily to remove hostile regimes. My Harvard classmate Elliot Abrams opposed SDS’s attempt to rule Harvard University according to their lights, but he is now enthusiastically doing his part to assure that he and his Administration colleagues rule the whole world in the same way.

Other memories from the Vietnam era come to me these days. One Saturday afternoon in 1970, I sat in a packed Harvard Square theater watching Sam Peckinpaugh’s The Wild Bunch. Midway through the movie, William Holden (himself a member of what we now call “The Greatest Generation”) tried to explain to his fellow gang members why Robert Ryan was now working for the other side. “He gave his word,” Holden said, speaking for an older America. “It’s not whether you keep your word!” one of his companions shouted. “It’s who you give it to!” The audience went crazy with delight. Isn’t that the same spirit in which the Bush White House has patronized the scurrilous, baseless campaign of the Swift Boat veterans? John Kerry is on the wrong side; therefore, he can’t be a war hero. And such is the partisanship of our times that even Bob Dole and George H. W. Bush Sr. have joined this campaign—although John McCain, significantly, refuses to do so.

Reality, of course, is a casualty of classic Baby Boomer thought. SDS members truly believed in 1969 that workers and students were going to overturn the established order—because it was right. In the same way, George W. Bush, in defiance of mountains of evidence that Iraq is disintegrating and that our intervention has reduced our standing in the Arab world to new lows, repeats that Iraq is on its way to a democratic transformation that will spread through the region. Freedom, he explains, is the Almighty’s gift to every man and woman on this planet—an homily which leaves a calmer observer wondering why the Almighty has been so stingy about bestowing it in so much of the world for so many centuries, or whether the President believes that he is fighting Satan’s evil presence on earth.
Caught between ideology and reality, the Administration constantly resorts to Orwellian language. A loss of jobs becomes economic progress, less health care means more, opening national forests to logging becomes “The Healthy Forests Initiative,” and so on. In the same way, the SDS explained to us that dictatorship of the proletariat was the only true democracy. And the Administration cares nothing about federalism, because federalism could stand in its way. In 1960, when Kennedy and Nixon debated federal aid to education, Nixon argued that federal money would eventually mean federal control. Now a new Republican generation is using federal money to discredit and weaken public education through the No Child Left Behind Act.

The Bush Administration and its supporters are usually less obvious than their leftwing contemporaries were about their repudiation of our parents’ works, but the other day, Grover Norquist—the anti-tax activist who has bragged about his close relations with the White House for four years—let the cat out of the bag in an interview with a Spanish newspaper. The Weekly Standard has printed quotes from the tape of the interview. Here is now Norquist assessed the coming election.

And we've had four more years pass where the age cohort that is most Democratic and most pro-statist, are those people who turned 21 years of age between 1932 and 1952--Great Depression, New Deal, World War II--Social Security, the draft--all that stuff. That age cohort is now between the ages of 70 and 90 years old, and every year 2 million of them die. So 8 million people from that age cohort have passed away since the last election; that means, net, maybe 1 million Democrats have disappeared…
This is an age cohort that voted for a draft before the war started, and allowed the draft to continue for 25 years after the war was over. Their idea of the legitimate role of the state is radically different than anything previous generations knew, or subsequent generations. . . . Very un-American. Very unusual for America. The reaction to Great Depression, World War II, and so on: Centralization--not as much centralization as the rest of the world got, but much more than is usual in America. We've spent a lot of time dismantling some of that and moving away from that level of regimentation: getting rid of the draft . . .

Norquist, a younger Baby Boomer, has actually hit the nail on the head. The twenty million men we drafted to win the Second World War (a conflict he apparently regrets) deserved, and got, their countrymen’s reward, in the form of the GI bill, 4% mortgages, generous Social Security benefits, and real pensions. Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower confirmed the government’s responsibility for their well-being and that of their families. Such policies have now become “un-American” as the Bush Administration leads us towards their New Jerusalem—really a new Gilded Age. Norquist is actually exalting the collapse of civic virtue and mutual responsibility that he has helped to promote during his political career. Younger Americans should understand one thing: our current leadership is impervious to facts. Ultimately, like so many of my contemporaries, they care less about any specific changes they make at home or abroad than about simply proving to their own satisfaction that they are right and everyone else is wrong. They have already left the nation and the world a dangerous legacy.