Friday, November 17, 2017

Sex and politics

Lying in bed last night, I began running through the list of 20th and 21st century Presidents and comparing their sexual behavior.  Here, divided by party, are the results of my survey.

                President                                             Known misbehavior
           Teddy Roosevelt                                             None
           William Howard Taft                                     None
           Warren Harding                                             Extramarital affairs, love child
           Calvin Coolidge                                            None
           Herbert Hoover                                             None
           Dwight Eisenhower                                      Wartime affair
           Richard Nixon                                              None
           Gerald R. Ford                                              None
           Ronald Reagan                                             Nothing alleged after 2nd marriage
           George H. W. Bush                                      Extramarital affair alleged
          George W. Bush                                            None
          Donald Trump                                              Two divorces, extramarital affairs, groping

          Woodrow Wilson                                         Extramarital affair during first marriage
          Franklin Roosevelt                                      Extramarital affairs
          Harry Truman                                              None
         John F. Kennedy                                           Extramarital affairs
         Lyndon Johnson                                            Extramarital affairs
         Jimmy Carter                                                None
         Bill Clinton                                                  Extramarital affairs, unwanted physical advances
         Barack Obama                                             None
   
Summarizing, we find that out of 12 Republican Presidents, seven, as far as we know, would not have been vulnerable to accusations of scandal.  Of the other five, four of them--Harding, Eisenhower, Bush I and Trump--were elected, two of them by landslides, despite widespread rumors (or, in Trump's case, multiple accusations) of misbehavior.  Eisenhower's case is more interesting than I realized.  Kay Summersby, his wartime driver, had actually written a book in the 1940s detailing their association, albeit without any reference to sex, and reviewers did not shrink from using the word "intimate" to describe it.  Yet this had no impact on his candidacy.

Of the 8 Democrats, only three led blameless personal lives in this respect.  Overall, we see 20 Presidents, exactly half of whom did not, apparently, lead strictly monogamous lives after marriage.That, interestingly enough, exactly matches the figure for male marital infidelity published by Alfred Kinsey, based on a very respected survey, in the middle of the last century.

Looking at these lists, I personally can't see any correlation between personal behavior on the one hand and performance in office on the other.  Franklin Roosevelt was a far greater President than Herbert Hoover; Barack Obama was certainly superior to Warren Harding; etc.  Bill Clinton occupies an interesting historical niche within this list: he was the last Presidential philanderer, it seems, who (barely) got away it.   There is general agreement, in the wake of the controversies over non-politicians Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein and political figures Ray Moore and Al Franken, that Clinton would never have survived in office today.  Yet the fact remains that Donald Trump was elected President after he bragged about serially abusing woman on tape, suggesting--as does the attitudes of Alabama Republicans--that Republicans may take such behavior less seriously than Democrats.

Why was it, then, that so many Presidents were elected and remained in office despite personal sexual misbehavior?  In part, of course, this was the result of a kind of gentleman's agreement that such matters were private and not a fit topic for discussion in major media.  Today many people would regard that as an all-male conspiracy designed to protect men, while others might still see it as a sensible custom that allowed our government to function, often very effectively.  In any case, those days appear to be gone.

It is heartening, in a way, that none of the contemporary controversies involves a consensual affair between adults.  I still believe that thsoe episodes are no one else's business, but we are dealing today with something else altogether, allegations of actual physical abuse or attempts to exploit power to secure sexual favors.  Few people, if any, will defend behavior like that.  Yet we don't have a clear standard for what level of bad behavior constitutes disqualification from public office.  At the moment, Al Franken's career is threatened by one clear instance of an unwanted advance and groping. Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times has already called for his resignation and asked the Governor of Minnesota to appoint a woman to succeed him, not because she thinks he deserves to go--she doesn't--but because only this will sustain the current momentum to do something about sexual harassment.  With that I cannot agree, but many will.  (If more women come forward to accuse Franken, the situation, of course, will change very rapidly.  In addition, if Ray Moore wins his election in Alabama, Mitch McConnell will undoubtedly push to have both of them expelled from the Senate.)

I think, as I tried to indicate last week, that we are having trouble keeping various issues in perspective; but that is largely the fault of the politicians themselves. Everyone (including myself) agrees that sexual harassment is a serious problem and that sanctions against it have heretofore been inadequate.  And many of us have almost no respect for any sitting politician, and therefore see no reason not to sacrifice any of them to our current crusade or even to allow them ordinary privacy in their personal life.  There is, however, one enormous exception.  Donald Trump's supporters did not care about the revelations about his behavior during the 2016 campaign, and apparently they still don't.  It will, I think, inevitably occur to many politicians and commentators that if in fact Franken deserves to be driven out of the Senate, Trump should not remain in the White House.  Yet remain he probably will, and this will raise new questions about the attempt to discipline powerful and abusive men, what impact it will have, and whom it will benefit.                         

Friday, November 10, 2017

News content, 1937 and 2017

Today, the world is sinking into crisis--really, into a whole series of crises--just as it was 80 years ago.  In Europe Britain is leaving the European Union and Spain is threatened by civil war.  The Middle East is riven by a new Thirty Years' War between Shi'ite and Sunni powers, which has brought Saudi Arabia and Iran to the brink of war over Yemen and destroyed the nations of Iraq and Syria.  The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia has just begun a massive purge of the royal family, the government, and Saudi society as a whole.  Turkey, for more than 80 years a westernized democracy, has become a dictatorship and the government has locked up tens of thousands of citizens. The Philippine government is murdering thousands of citizens as part of a drug war.  Tens of thousands refugees have fled Burma for Bangladesh.  War threatens on the Korean peninsula.  The Chinese government wants recognition as one of the world's great powers, a status that the United States sill disputes.  War over nuclear weapons threatens the Korean peninsula.   Separatist movements threaten several major African states.  Socialist Venezuela is in a state of economic collapse, and dictatorship threatens there.  And in the United States, the ruling Republican party, dominated by megarich energy producers, is trying to undo the political achievements of the last century to remove obstacles to the accumulation of wealth.

The situation was equally serious, if not more so, exactly 80 years ago. Civil war was raging in Spain, where General Franco was using the Spanish colonial army to try to subdue the elected government and the workers, while Italy, Germany and the USSR intervened on behalf of their preferred sides.  The brutal, bloody Sino-Japanese War was sweeping down the Chinese coast and into the interior.  The recovery of 1933-36 had been interrupted by a new, severe worldwide recession.  Hitler had consolidated power in Germany, although his great political offensive of 1938 lay a few months away.  The USSR was in the midst of Stalin's great purge.

To show how our world differs from theirs, I am going to compare the front pages of the New York Times from today and from November 10, 1937, exactly 80 years ago.  What will readers find there today, and what did they learn then?

Reading from the left hand side of the front page of the 1937 paper, we find three stories dealing with the war in China.  One details the day's fighting, the second reports a speech by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain expressing the hope that the UK and the US might reach a "closer understanding" on the crisis in the Far East, and a third reports that the Japanese government wants the German government (which had ties to both sides) to mediate the crisis.  Next comes an obituary for the former Prime Minister of Great Britain, J. Ramsay MacDonald, who had died at sea.  (I do not think any retired British PM's death would rate a headline above the fold today.)  Then comes a local story, about a dispute over the presence of police officers at the count of ballots in the recent New York city elections.  And on the far right of the top of p. 1 are two stories on federal economic policy.  In one, which is quite technical, President Roosevelt asks the nation's utility companies to change the way they value their assets, which will in turn lower their rates, and the very last story,. in column 8, reports various Administration ideas to use federal funds to ease credit, stimulate enterprise, and get the nation out of the recession without returning to the deficit spending of FDR's first term.  

Moving down the page, we learn that the government of Quebec has invoked a new law to ban a Communist newspaper.  In New Jersey, the CIO--the more left wing of the nation's two national labor blocs--announces a plan to form a new party to challenge the state's Democratic machine.  Joseph P. Kennedy, the Chairman of FDR's maritime commission, proposes an increase in subsidies for the construction of merchant ships.  And at the bottom of the page, Mayor LaGuardia, fresh from re-election, announces that he will demand the end of a Transit Board. That makes a total of eleven front page stories, divided among foreign, national and local news.

Today's front page, by contrast, has only six columns instead of eight (a change that dates, I believe, to the 1970s), and only six stories instead of eleven.  Only one of them is foreign, dealing with President Trump's surprisingly friendly speech in Beijing, in which he blamed his predecessors, not the Chinese, for our trade imbalance, and sought cooperation dealing with North Korea.  Two other stories deal with the Republican tax cut proposals, the first detailing the Senate plan and how it differs from the House version, and the second arguing (under the heading "News Analysis") that the middle class is unlikely to reap much of a benefit from the plan.  The last three stories are the most characteristic of our time.  In column 1, we read of a debate in Texas over whether video of the church shooting in Sutherland, Texas, should be released to the public.  Next, five women accuse the comedian Louis C. K. of exposing himself to them.  And last but not least, the Times tries to catch up with its rival the Washington Post, reporting that Judge Roy Moore, who is on the verge of election to the U.S. Senate, dated, or tried to date, four teenage girls nearly 40 years ago, and did some largely (but not completely) unclothed petting with one of them, then aged 14.  The other three women  interviewed by the Post were between 16 and 18, admit that they were not bothered by Moore's attentions at the time (when he was in his early 30s), and do not allege any sexual relations with him, consensual or otherwise.

How has this happened, and what does it mean?

Clearly, both the Times and its readers--as well as dozens of other newspapers around the country--took their obligation to stay informed about world, national and local affairs much more seriously in 1937 than they do today.  In addition, as I discovered while writing No End Save Victory, the Roosevelt Administration had focused the nation on its attempts to create more employment, regulate economic enterprise, promote the rights of labor, and make better use of our national resources, whether individual Americans or newspapers agreed with those efforts or not.  Since the Progressive Era, government at all levels had enjoyed a very creative period in which the nation was taking a great interest.  Today, our ruling party is trying to finish undoing nearly everything they did--a process that began in the 1980s, if not earlier, and has continued apace under both Republican and Democratic administrations.  On the foreign front, this was (although no one knew this for sure in 1937) late in the era of two world wars, and Americans were accustomed to the idea that events in faraway plans could affect them as well.  Just two months earlier, FDR had shocked the nation by declaring that the "contagion" of war would reach the United States if it could not be halted.  Americans still took world events very seriously all the way through the Cold War, but their interest has ebbed since then.

And what about the three stories with no counterpart in 1937?

Semi-automatic weapons were not readily available to citizens in the 1930s, and while mass shootings took place, they took the lives of only a few people at a time, not a few dozen, as they do from time to time today.  No national, politically powerful organization frightened our politicians away from imposing restrictions on gun ownership.  More importantly, perhaps, newspapers regarded themselves as the primary source of the news, of telling the public what had happened, instead of commentators on videos generated by the citizenry with their smart phones.  As the news has become more visual, beginning with the advent of television, it has become more emotional and much less verbal.  The Times story on the fate of the Sutherland videos illustrates these trends.

And meanwhile, the educated elite of the United States has become extremely concerned--or obsessed--with sexual misbehavior by well-off and powerful men.  We have had so many court cases and news stories about Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Dennis Hastert, Newt Gingrich, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and many more, that any new story--for instance, about Louis C. K.--is instantly newsworthy.  So is any story, even a 35-year old one, involving a political figure's sexual behavior.  The kind of behavior detailed in those stories today undoubtedly was taking place in 1937 and possibly on a larger scale than it is today, but it didn't make the news.  Most would say that was because of deference towards white males.  I think that is partly true, but I think it also reflected a different sense of what serious newspapers were for.

I am depressed that forty years after the first breakthroughs by the modern woman's movement, problems in the workplace do not seem to have gotten a great deal better.  I reject most of the easy answers as to why this is so but I have no better ones to offer.  My question for my readers today is different.  Could the citizenry and the leadership of the 1930s have coped with the enormous domestic and foreign problems they faced if all their newspapers had been been just as full of such stories as ours are now?  And will we be able to give sufficient attention to the parallel problems that we face if we spend so much time illuminating the misbehavior of the rich and powerful--and continually expanding the definition of newsworthy misbehavior, as the Washington Post story about Moore certainly did?

We shall  not be returning to the political and news culture of the 1930s any time soon.  The question is whether we want to continue down the path we have been on for the last few decades, or to shift our focus back a bit towards the actual business of politics and government.  To the extent that the public is distracted by personal misbehavior, I expect that the rich and powerful will continue to thrive.  The Cosbys and Weinsteins among them may be disgraced, but in a sense, they will be battlefield casualties in our new class war, one which the 1% will easily be able to absorb.  We clearly need a new set of rules and procedures for relations between the sexes, especially in the workplace, and I hope they can evolve relatively quickly so that our attention can shift once again to other matters of concern to every citizen.















Sunday, October 29, 2017

Drew Pearson, the sequel

In 2006, I did a long piece here about one of my favorite books, the diaries of newspaper columnist Drew Pearson from 1949 through 1959.  Pearson was probably the single most famous and influential journalist of the middle third of the twentieth century.  He and his one time partner, Robert Allen, created a sensation in 1932 with their anonymous book, The Washington Merry-Go-Round, which combined a scathing portrayal of the federal government in general and the Hoover administration in particular with a great deal of high-level Washington gossip. (Pearson at the time was related by marriage to the Patterson family, which owned the Washington Post.)  He lost his job after his authorship was revealed, but The Washington Merry-Go-Round became a seven-day-a-week column that was carried by more than 600 newspapers around the country as late as the 1960s.  He also became a network radio broadcaster and did some television broadcasting as well.  The stories he broke included General Patton's slapping of an enlisted man in a hospital in Sicily during the Second World War, the payroll padding and kickbacks by the Chairman of the House Un-American Activities committee, J. Parnell Thomas, which landed Thomas in jail, and the payments accepted from industrialist Bernard Goldfine by Eisenhower's Chief of Staff, Sherman Adams--and dozens more.  Jack Anderson began his career with Pearson and eventually became his collaborator, and took over the column after Pearson's death in 1969. 

Pearson had begun keeping his diary in 1949 and left instructions in his will for his stepson Tyler Abell to publish them, and to edit them "not from the viewpoint of what willhurt people, but wha tmight hurt the public good."  In the preface to the first volume, which appeared in 1974, Abell indicated that he had had to make very large cuts in the enormous diary.  He anticipated two more volumes at that time, which extrapolating from the length of volume 1 would have amounted to more that 1600 pages.  That, however, he wrote, would be only about 1/3 of the total.

Somehow I missed the publication of the diary in 1974, but I discovered it in the 1980s and have eagerly looked forward to more of it ever since. By the 1990s Tyler Abell had given most (but not all) of the original to the LBJ Library in Austin, but under terms that did not allow researchers to view it.  Some key passages from the 1960s were released in the 1990s in response to the JFK Assassination Records Act, because they bore upon the assassination of JFK and its aftermath.  At some point in the 1990s I wrote Abell a letter protesting that his father-in-law would be most unhappy to know that most of his diary was still closed, but I received no reply.  Just last month I was in Austin giving a talk at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and I contacted the library again to see about access. The original remains closed, but when I did a google search I found, to my amazement, that the University of Nebraska Press had published a second volume on 1959-69 just two years ago.  It received only one visible review, in The New Yorker, which I had missed. Within a week, I had a copy, and I have now finished it.

I do wish that I could have made contact with Abell and edited the book myself.  In place of the two volumes of about 500 pages each that Abell had foreseen in the early 1970s, we now have one of 700 pages of diary text.  The published volume is a bit unbalanced: its first five years (1960-4) take up just 278 pages and the next four take up more than 400.  (The diary doesn't get very far into 1969 because of Pearson's failing health.)  Oddly, some of the material that was released by the LBJ Library in the 1990s is not included, but at least one very important entry bearing on the JFK assassination from 1967 is in the published version even though it was not released then.  The book is edited by Peter Hannaford, a long-time Washington consultant and friend of Abell's, and I can't say that he did a particularly good job.  He did not, unlike Abell, make much of an effort to identify the players or to to provide necessary background in the midst of the text so as to enable readers to understand long-forgotten parts of the story.  Many names are misspelled and some people are misidentified. Carmine Bellino, to cite one example, was an investigator who had worked for Robert Kennedy, not a Congressman as alleged here.  There is relatively little material on the election campaigns of 1960 and 1964, compared to what Abell had published in 1952 and 1956 and what we find here on 1968.  Pearson was not merely a columnist--he was a Washington player who promoted his favorite candidates and causes.  He supported Lyndon Johnson over JFK in 1960 but that story is largely untold here.  It is tragic that the full ms. remains unavailable to researchers at the LBJ Library.  The editor unfortunately also failed to include any reaction at all to the Supreme Court decision, New York Times vs. Sullivan, that provided new protection for journalists tried with libel suits.  Pearson was the king libel law, having faced literally dozens of suits, trying many, and losing only one.  There is indeed a whole book devoted to the suits with which he and Jack Anderson had to deal.

I did not think that this volume told as coherent a story of the period it dealt with as its predecessor until 1965 or so, but it was filled with fascinating detail nonetheless.  A good deal of it is salacious. Pearson loved gossip, and he identifies previously unknown girl friends of JFK, LBJ, Robert Kennedy, and Barry Goldwater, among others.  He also goes in some detail into the emotional collapse of Phil Graham, the husband of Katherine Graham and editor of the Washington Post, which led to Graham's suicide in the summer of 1963.  But the bulk of the material reflects Pearson's policy interests and political stance.   He was a New Deal liberal domestically who fought corruption and the influence of money on politics, and he continually sought better relations with the Soviet Union and a durable peace.  As a result, he visited the USSR and had long interviews with Nikita Khrushchev more than once, and they are detailed here. 

Pearson had strong personal likes and dislikes, but they did not prevent him from appreciating what political figures actually said and did.  He was initially very cool to John F. Kennedy because he had disliked his father and he referred repeatedly to Kennedy's compulsive womanizing, which he expected sooner or later to end in scandal.  He had as I mentioned tried to stop Kennedy's nomination in Los Angeles in 1960 but he immediate praised him for a "great acceptance speech" and warmed to him during the campaign.  Late in that campaign, he broke another of his biggest stories: that airline magnate Howard Hughes had lent Richard Nixon's brother Donald $206,000.  That was one of many of his columns that the Washington Post and other papers refused to print.  The diary notes that the Kennedy campaign, confident of victory in the last two weeks of the campaign, decided not to do antying with it either, and they may have paid the price when Nixon carried California and turned the election into a squeaker.  Pearson was also very unhappy during 1961 when Kennedy turned to hard liner Dean Acheson for advice on the Berlin crisis and started a military build-up, but he warmed to Kennedy's efforts to bring about detente with the USSR in the last year of his life.  He never, however, warmed to Robert Kennedy, whom he remembered from his days as minority counsel on the Senate committee chaired by Joe McCarthy, a critical Pearson antagonist, and whom he regarded as cold and a ruthless campaigner. 

Pearson's relationship with Lyndon Johnson provides much of the drama of the last 2/3 of the book.  In the 1950s Pearson had often been critical of Johnson as a conduit for the money and influence of Texas oil barons, but in the 1960s they developed a family connection.  Tyler Abell's wife Bess became Lady Bird Johnson's social secretary, and after Johnson became President he appointed Tyler Abell assistant postmaster general. Pearson had interviewed FDR from time to time, had been estranged from Harry Truman for most of his turbulent  presidency, and had never been close to Eisenhower or Kennedy.  Johnson was the first President to whom he had frequent access.

Pearson's personal ties to Johnson were not enough to turn him into a loyal supporter, particularly when it came to the Vietnam War, which the columnist opposed from the beginning.  Johnson repeatedly invited him to the White House for a chat in an effort to win him over.  The diaries provide a revealing glimpse of Johnson's one-on-one technique: he delivered nonstop emotional harangues, which gave his interlocutor almost no opportunity to dissent. He could not win Pearson over on Vietnam but he successfully fooled him about certain aspects of his position.  Neither Pearson nor anyone else in Washington outside the Administration understood that Johnson had approved full-scale war in Southeast Asia in early December 1964 and given the word for both the bombing and the ground war in March 1965, as I showed in American Tragedy.  Until 1966 he bought Johnson's line that he was hoping for peace talks at any moment while doing the minimum necessary militarily.  After that, the book painfully documents the way in which the war destroyed the Democratic coalition that had been put together by FDR, Truman, JFK and Johnson himself, the coalition that reached the height of its power after the 1964 elections but disintegrated thanks to the Vietnam War, leaving Hubert Humphrey with 43% of the vote in 1968 compared to Johnson's 60% in 1964.  He also has insightful things to say about changes within the civil rights movement, and the diary includes some extraordinary conversations with the comedian and activist Dick Gregory, whom Pearson had come to know well.

The published volume treats the 1968 election campaign in great detail.  Pearson was one of the few to speculate in 1967 that LBJ might not run again.  "Maybe he isn't going to run again," Leonard Marks, the head of the US Information Agency and a Johnson confidante, said to Pearson on November 10, 1967. "This may be true," Pearson wrote in his diary. "He has acted and talked like a candidate, but he coudl do what Harry Truman did in spring 1952, after Kefauver beat him in the New Hampshire primary and was about to beat him in the Wisconsin primary. Harry just bowed out."  That, of course, was exactly what Johnson did do after Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, a peace candidate, nearly beat Johnson in New Hampshire and was clearly destined to win in Wisconsin.  Pearson liked McCarthy and was not impressed by Robert Kennedy's decision to jump into the race after McCarthy had proven LBJ to be vulnerable, after previously saying that he would not run.  Indeed, Pearson hurt RFK during the primary season by publishing the story of how he, not J. Edgar Hoover, had insisted on wiretapping Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1963, after Courtney Evans of the FBI had advised against it.  (The FBI showed Pearson the memo that proved this, which was published about 15 years later by David Garrow.)  According to the editor, Pearson's immediate reaction to RFK's assassination is missing from the diary; I hope eventually to be able to verify whether it is lost forever.  Pearson remained sympathetic to McCarthy but fell behind Humbert Humphrey after the Democratic convention, while trying, together with Averell Harriman and George Ball, to move Humphrey away from the Administration position on Vietnam. Humphrey moved, but only slightly. 

Thanks to both LBJ and Humphrey, Pearson was denied a scoop of potential historical impact.  Right up until election day, Pearson found it hard to believe that Richard Nixon could become President.  He had always been, in his estimation, a crook, and he expected--rightly as it turned out--that he would remain so.  He wrote some more highly critical columns during the campaign which the Washington Post and other papers refused to publish.  Neither Johnson nor Humphrey, however, told him about Nixon's attempts to stall the peace talks in Paris by telling the Saigon government to boycott them.  They had decided that the good of the country required that these contacts be kept secret. Pearson would surely have published them and they could have swung a very close election.  It was clear to Pearson--as it is to me now, having read some of Johnson's published conversations from that fall--that Johnson was so angry at Humphrey for staking out his own position that he preferred Nixon to win.

Jack Anderson's name comes up quite a few times but the editor did not give us a real sense of his relationship with Pearson.  He served as an alibi for stories powerful people did not like--Pearson could always say, usually truthfully that Jack had written them.  (He was writing more and more of the columns in the 1960s because Pearson spent a lot of time on the lecture circuit to make up for lost income.)  It turns out that Anderson unilaterally decided to publish the March 1967 column that broke, for the first time, the story of the CIA's assassination plots against Castro and alleged a possible connection between them and the assassination of JFK.  Pearson had gotten the story from Edward Morgan, a Washington attorney who represented Johnny Roselli and Robert Maheu, both of whom were involved in those plots.  Hannaford bizarrely left out the diary entry in which Pearson gave the story to President Johnson.  Pearson did not know that Johnson immediately called CIA director Richard Helms to demand an explanation.  The document generated by the CIA's inspector general's office in response is the reason we know about those plots at all.

After Pearson's death in September 1969, Anderson carried on his tradition.  As Seymour Hersh once pointed out, Anderson broke some very important stories during the Nixon Administration which most major news outlets refused to pick up.  Pearson would have thrived in the days of the internet--if he could have found a way to monetize his independent reporting.  But reading the second volume of his diaries is painfully said not because of what has happened to journalism, but because of what has happened to politics.  It is a story of a different age, when political leaders worked hard to correct racial injustice, spread prosperity, and maintain the rights of labor.  It was a most hopeful moment in American history, one beginning to be swept away by the tragic, catastrophic mistake of the Vietnam War


Friday, October 20, 2017

Living in a dangerous world

At least since the time of the French and American Revolutions, international politics have involved conflicts among different domestic political systems.  In the periodic crises in the international system since the 1790s, the warring parties have fought in part to establish their own form of government.  The Napoleonic Wars ended with the old aristocracy firmly entrenched in Great Britain and bureaucratic monarchies firmly in control in nearly all of Europe.  In the 1860s the victory of the democratic North over the aristocratic South in the American civil war helped lead to the institution of some form of democracy in Britain France, and Germany.  William II of Germany and Woodrow Wilson both saw the First World war as a context between absolute monarchy and democracy.  In the Second World War, the communist USSR and the democracies in Britain and France fought National Socialism in Europe and the Japanese military regime in Asia.  In each case, the resolution of the crisis left some forms of government more popular than others, helping to determine the course of politics for decades to come.

We are now sliding into the next great international crisis.  I have never thought that it was going to lead to all-out world war on the scale of twentieth century conflicts, but it does revolve, in part, around an ideological struggle.  Among the three most important world powers, the United States still stands for democracy, in theory at  least, and for an open global political and economic order.  Both Putin's Russia and Zhi's China stand for something very different: an authoritarian model of government that they specifically distinguish from the weak, divided, socially permissive democracies of the decadent west.  Both also have rhetorically challenged the US claim to lead the world and determine the rights and wrongs of international disputes.  And both have festering territorial demands.  Putin clearly wants to restore more of the old USSR, and looks longingly at the Baltic states.  China insists that Taiwan remains a part of it and has extensive claims on the seas and islands surrounding them.

Alarmingly, the governments of both Russia and China seem far more firmly established, at this moment, than our own.  Zhi is strengthening the control of the Communist Party and the state over public opinon and the economy, reversing the trend of the last couple of decades.  Putin has a stable authoritarian regime without serious opposition that has weathered the impact of economic sanctions.  The United States government is unorganized, almost leaderless, and floundering on mnay fronts.  Most key State Department positions have not even been filled.  Low-level functionaries in the White House such as Steven Miller and Jared Kushner are evidently exerting important influence on foreign policy.  The kind of policy process that has allowed our government to survey the world scene and identify the most important threats seems not to exist any more.

Meanwhile, the President has brought us to the brink of war with North Korea, and is reversing the Obama Administration's move towards peaceful co-existence with Iran.  What disturbs me more than anything is how easy it would be to set off a replay of the events that led to US involvement in the Second World War.  In an increasingly anarchic world, war anywhere can easily lead to war almost anywhere else.

Thus, in 1939, Japan was already in the third year of its attempt to subjugate mainland China, and the Japanese were claiming a special leadership role in Asia, an idea that the United States rejected in favor of the maintenance of an "open door."  In September of that year, Hitler invaded and conquered Poland, and the British and French declared war on Germany. Then, the next spring, Hitler successively invaded Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, and France, forcing France to conclude an armistice, and leaving Britain perilously exposed to a possible German invasion.  Those events had enormous repercussions in the Far East,.  The French, who ruled Indochina, and the Dutch, the rulers of what is now Indonesia, would clearly not be able to defend those territories against a Japanese attack.  The British would be hard put to defend Malaya, Singapore, Burma, and perhaps even India.  The Japanese moved into northern Indochina almost at once and laid plans to go further.  Meanwhile, the US government also prepared to meet German or Italian moves into French, Dutch and British possessions in the western hemisphere.  The lend-lease agreement of September 1940, in which FDR gave Churchill 50 destroyers in exchange for US bases in an Atlantic arc of British possessions from Newfoundland to Trinidad, moved the US defense line hundreds of miles to the east.  A year later, in the second half of 1941, with the US effectively at war against German U-boats in the Atlantic, the Japanese decided to attack British, Dutch, French and American possessions in the Far East, beginning on Decmeber 7, 1941.

The possibility that some one in Washington, it seems to me, needs to think about,. is that war--perhaps in North Korea--could easily tempt Putin to move into the Baltic states, claiming a need to protect their ethnic Russian inhabitants, or China to move further away from its coastline.  It would be extremely difficult, I think, for the US to react effectively to such moves while fighting a war against North Korea (or, for that matter, while fighting one against Iran.)  Putin has pointed out many times that successive US Administrations have acted unilaterally to alter borders (in Yugoslavia in 1999) or to overthrow governments (in Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011) without getting the permission of the world community.  He did the same thing in Crimea in 2013 and has weathered the subsequent sanctions.  He could certainly do it again.

Traditionally the world's leading power has a strong interest in maintaining peace.  That was what Bismarck understood in Europe after 1871, and what American leaders including Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Nixon understood in their time.  Peace does not seem to be one of Donald Trump's priorities. He is more interested in intimidating or defeating enemies and proving that we can "win" again.  Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush managed to achieve similar goals in Grenada and Panama, but those nations were close to the US and did not have nuclear arms.  War against North Korea and Iran could very easily set off a new era of worldwide conflict.  No one would come out of it better off than when they began.