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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 th...

Monday, September 11, 2023

When did "the sixties" end?

 Six months ago I reviewed a book by Heather Hendershot, When the News Broke, about the television coverage of the turbulent Democratic Convention of 1968.  The current issue of the New York Review of Books includes a review of the same book by the distinguished Columbia historian Eric Foner.  I have some differences of opinion with Foner about the era which we both lived through, mostly about the role of leading mainstream media outlets. " For many years," he writes, especially but not exclusively in the South, the mainstream press published articles about the civil rights movement that denigrated demonstrators, defended segregation, and included the names of Black men and women who sought to register to vote, resulting frequently in economic retribution such as the loss of their jobs."  I believe that nearly all the major northern media coverage of the civil rights movement in the South was very sympathetic, as were the news broadcasts of the major television networks.  "Until 1968," he continues, "the news media displayed a remarkable credulity about official claims of military progress in Vietnam and failed to examine in any depth the rising tide of nationalism in the colonial world that helped explain the conflict."  In fact young reporters for leading newspapers in Vietnam expressed enormous skepticism about how the war was going during the Kennedy Administration and much of the media was skeptical from the outset of the large-scale war in 1965.  Foner wants us to believe that we needed I.F. Stone's Weekly, the Nation, and the new underground press to learn the truth.  And that leads me to what I really want to talk about: the definition of the exact legacy and the intellectual and academic rebellion of the late 1960s, to which Foner turns at the end of his review.

Foner points out that the bulk of the television audience sided with the police, not the protesters, after watching the Chicago convention.  Partly for that reason the Democratic Party--which had won more than 60 percent of the popular vote in Johnson's 1964 landslide--won just 42.7 percent of that vote in 1968, the rest divided between Nixon and George Wallace.  The entire South, except Texas, went for Nixon or Wallace in that election, the beginning of the realignment that allowed the Republicans to win five of six elections from 1968 through 1988,  and the next two Democrats to reach the White House were southern centrists.  Reagan put an end to the New Deal order.  Yet as Foner points out, that was not the whole story:

"But radicalism did not suddenly disappear. By the early 1970s social movements dotted the political landscape, including the second wave of feminism, gay liberation, and environmentalism, while the Black struggle continued. All survive to this day, and all have changed American life in dramatic ways. The antiwar movement did not reach its peak until 1970 when, in the aftermath of the US invasion of Cambodia and the killing of four protesting students at Kent State University by members of the Ohio National Guard, a strike paralyzed campuses throughout the country. And in 1975 the war ended. . . .When did the decade of the Sixties end? Did it end at all? We sometimes seem to be reliving those years that did so much to shape our world."

I am convinced that the legacy of those years is far more profound than he seems to realize, and I want to explain why.

The Second World War and its aftermath were the climax of about two centuries of European and North American politics based upon a mix of the principles of the Enlightenment and the social influence of the Christian religion.  The states of the North Atlantic region believed that reason and science could create better governments based on impartial principles and improve the lives of their citizens--and states did that.  They did so, however, thanks to a widespread, though not universal, respect for authority among the citizens, who submitted to a great deal of discipline in nearly every area of their life.  Education was based on well-defined curriculums.  The laws tightly regulated questions of sex and marriage.  Society defined strict roles for men and women.  The continental European nations required their young men to serve in their armies, and the Anglo-Saxon nations adopted that practice as well during the two world wars. The Second World War showed what the modern state was capable, both for good and for evil, and much of the wartime atmosphere lasted for another fifteen or twenty years because of the Cold War.  Meanwhile, a new generation was growing up in relative security and affluence--the Boom generation--whose parents had already begun to discipline much less, and who were not growing up in fear of war or destitution.  

What holds the various political and social aspects of the sixties together is a rebellion against authority of all kinds--political, social, and cultural, and above all, generational.  The percentage of young people in college was much higher than ever before, and this was perhaps the first generation--the Boom--in which everyone who could go to college was expected to do so.  The 1964-5 school year was the first in which nearly all the students in college came from the Boom--and it coincided with the start of the Vietnam War, which over the next few years proved that the older generation had made a terrible mistake.  Many students did not see why they should fight in that war, and that in turn encouraged them to question other forms of authority, from dress codes to parietal hours in dorms to the illegality of certain widely available drugs.  

Something else was happening on campus.  The academics of the Silent generation (b. 1925-42) were the most favored group in the history of American higher education.  They got an excellent education and finished their degrees in the midst of a very rapidly expanding job market.  And quite a few of them began making their names by questioning the most fundamental beliefs of postwar America--such as the idea that the Cold War was simply a defense of the free world against Communism.  It was in 1965 that Gar Alperovitz--an economist, not an historian--published Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam, arguing that the United States dropped the atomic bombs on Japan to intimidate the USSR.  This was one of a flood of books blaming American imperialism for the Cold War, and they all became more popular as the Vietnam War went from bad to worse.  In 1973 the historian Robert James Maddox published The New Left and the Origins of the Cold War, showing that Alperovitz and six other historians had built their case largely on sand, but his work had little impact.  The idea of American imperialism as the source of the world's evils was an idea whose time had come.

The women's movement, meanwhile, was getting off the ground as well.  Female undergraduates accompanied their male contemporaries into graduate and professional schools in unprecedented numbers.  The 1960s did not really discover gay rights--they are not even mentioned in the indispensable documentary, Berkeley in the Sixties--but the gay rights movement grew in the 1970s.  To his credit, Foner does not associate the civil rights movement with the rebellion of the late 1960s.  It had won its biggest successes by then, and it was being weakened by a generational rebellion of its own, led by men like Eldridge Cleaver, Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown.  The black activists of the late 1960s introduced a crucial shift in liberation movements.  Rather than arguing, like the earlier leaders of the NAACP and Martin Luther King, Jr., that black Americans simply deserved to be treated like white Americans, they identified the United States as hopelessly racist and corrupt, beset with evils that only revolution could remove.  

The rebellion continued to make gains on campus even in the Reagan era, and women's studies (later gender studies), black studies, and gay (later LGBTQIA+ studies) became established academic fields. All of them increasingly followed in the footsteps of the antiwar and black activists of the late 1960s.  Rather than simply calling for equal treatment within the existing American legal framework, they increasingly insisted--following scholars like the Frenchman Michel Foucault--that all the principles of western civilization were based on the oppression of some groups by others.  By the 1990s the oppressors were identified with straight white males.  I recently glanced once again at my own online archive of articles from Academic Questions, the journal of the National Association of Scholars, which was formed in 1987 to defend traditional intellectual values.  It is amazing how closely articles from the 1990s anticipate what has become the mainstream intellectual climate today.  The attitudes that rule our elite media and publishing today already ruled the campuses then, but it took two more generations for them to take over our institutions.

Foner made his name as a scholar of Reconstruction and recently wrote a book about Abraham Lincoln--yet he has apparently refused to join the courageous scholars who have pointed out the falsehoods underlying the 1619 Project.  He cannot face the idea, apparently, that the activism of the late 1960s might have done more harm than good--but that is the truth.  Because I was already immersed in the writings of George Orwell--the subject of the senior thesis I wrote in 1968-9--I already had an immunity to that kind of activism, and that has stayed with me for my whole life.

The mid-twentieth century consensus, to repeat, rested on the political and intellectual principles of the Enlightenment.  The rebellion against it led over the decades to the abandonment of those principles among our intellectual class.  They do not believe in a single historical or social reality, but rather in multiple realities that belong to different races, genders, and people of different sexual practices.  They believe that any consensus position on almost any issue is simply a vehicle by oppression by a particular group.  Many of them now reject the nuclear family as a model.  They cannot even accept climate change as a threat to all of us in which we have an equal stake.  Something bigger, however, than leftwing activism obviously lies behind all this, because the right now feels the same way--equally entitled to believe in and act on their own reality, even when it comes to responses to new diseases.  That is the real secret to what has happened in the last half century.

In the long run, the discipline of the era of the first two hundred years or so of American history turned out to be too much for humanity to endure--especially as we became more comfortable and secure economically.  Nearly all of us rebelled in one way or another.  Something similar may have happened to the Roman Empire, although I am too ignorant about that empire to say.  Great historians, I often say, do not argue with history.  Those of us in our 70s or older have lived through a profound transformation of human life--one that clearly must reflect immutable aspects of human nature.  Other generations must deal with the consequences--possibly for a very long time.

Monday, August 28, 2023

The coming election

 I am not going to comment at great length on the Republican candidates' debate, but I found it highly significant.  Whether or not Donald Trump wins the nomination--and it certainly seems mostly likely that he will--he has irrevocably transformed the Republican Party.  On three major issues--climate change, immigration, and the drive to eviscerate the federal government--nearly everyone seemed to be trying to out-Trump Trump.  They competed to find reasons to avoid doing anything about emissions, they agreed on the need to destroy the administrative state, and they want more drastic measures to stop immigration and, in at least one case, to remove immigrants already here.  And the scariest candidate is also the one whose popularity is rising the most quickly, Vivek Ramaswamy.  I urge everyone to read his Wikipedia entry to find out how he made his money--without doing any good for anyone but himself. 

Meanwhile, I am equally concerned about the future of the Democratic Party--whose establishment seems set on a losing strategy.

One poll after another shows that a majority of Americans, Republicans and Democrats, think that Joe Biden is too old to run for president again.  Biden's public appearances, such as they are, are doing nothing to dispel that impression.   This weekend a Boston Globe story detailed how a big administration-encouraged industrial project, a nest of chip factories near Columbus, Ohio, isn't winning local voters over to him, partly because he described the site--where some homes have been bulldozed to make room--as "an empty field of dreams."  Kevin McCarthy made it clear over the weekend that the Republicans are quite likely to impeach Biden.  Unlike every really successful president, Biden has failed to design and communicate an effective message to the American people.  And his weakness is not all that we have to worry about.

In 2019-20 Kamala Harris opened her own presidential campaign attacking Biden for is opposition to school busing for integration back in the 1970s.  Her campaign did not catch on and she dropped out before the New Hampshire primary, which Biden also lost.  Biden revived his campaign in South Carolina thanks to Harris's withdrawal and James Clyburn's announcement--and he has foolishly rewarded South Carolina by making it the first Democratic primary state. (The Democrats should not begin the campaign with a primary in a state they cannot possibly win.)  I think we will eventually find that Biden's campaign had promised Harris the vice presidential spot in return for dropping out.

In the Democratic Party, the Vice President immediately becomes the next front-runner for the nomination--see Mondale, Walter; Gore, Al; and Biden, Joe (who initially yielded the spot to Hillary Clinton, perhaps the most establishment candidate of all.)  I am now seriously concerned that Biden actually knows that he cannot run again, but that he is holding off the announcement until it is too late for anyone but Harris to mount a campaign.  As some of you may have seen, Governor Gavin Newsom of California--the most prominent Democratic governor in the country by far now--is negotiating to debate with Ron DeSantis.  NBC news reports that this plan is making some people close to Harris very unhappy, although some Biden advisers welcome Newsom's contributions as a surrogate.  

Kamala Harris has conspicuously failed to connect with the American people either as a presidential candidate or as vice president.  Her demographics appeal to many Democrats but would not be an asset in a general election.  I think there is an excellent chance that she would lose any Republican candidate if she replaces Biden on the ticket--and polls show a real chance that Biden could lose to Trump, too.  And thanks to the Republican debate, we know that a new Republican administration would start just where the last one left off.

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Postscript to this week's post

 According to Russian sources, Viktor Prigozhin was a passenger on a plane that has crashed near Moscow.  All ten people on board died.  Wallenstein would not be surprised.

Monday, August 21, 2023

Back to the 17th Century?

The New Yorker of August 7 includes a superb article by Joshua Yaffa on the Wagner military group in Russia, it's leader Viktor Prigozhin, and the remarkable, if ultimately unsuccessful, mutiny which they mounted earlier this summer.  I learned a great deal from the article and will now share what I learned with you.  Then, returning to the subject of a thirty-three-year-old book, I will argue that one can find parallels to this situation in the history of early modern Europe, and that it shows that the great tendency of the seventeenth century through most of the twentieth--the strengthening of the state--has definitely been reversed, with probable worldwide consequences. 

Yaffa recounts that the Russian government, following the US example, decided in the early 2000s that it could make use of private military formations similar to Blackwater.  Such formations played a key role in the intervention in eastern Ukraine in 2014, and Wagner was one of them. Prigozhin was not initially its commander. Born in 1961, he went to prison for his part in a mugging in 1980 and spent nine years there. Then he went into the hot dog business, and expanded after the fall of the USSR into restaurants and supermarkets. In 1998 he opened a fancy restaurant on an island in the Neva River, and Putin began bringing foreign leaders there. He began catering government functions and the Russian military, on a very large scale, and became very rich. Branching out, he founded the Internet Research Agency, a troll farm, in 2013. 

Wagner was not a particularly important force in the Donbas war that began in 2014.  Several commanders of more important units apparently became too big for their britches during that conflict and were killed or murdered--some think, by Wagner.  Then Wagner in 2015 sent 1300 men to Syria, with the right to make its own energy deals on the scene. By the end of 2017 Wagner had units in Sudan, where he got control of gold mines. It got deeply involved in the Central African Republic in 2018-19.  They have also been involved in Libya, Mozambique, and Mali. In 2018, Wagner forces in Syria attacked a Kurdish position supported by Americans and were beaten very badly.  The Kremlin did not react to the American victory at all. 

Wagner was not initially involved in the invasion of Ukraine in 2022 but outperformed regular Russian forces when it was sent in after the initial setbacks. These fight well because they face the punishment of death if they do not. During the last year their recruits have gotten older and less effective. (Many come right out of prison.) Some of their soldiers have deserted--one such is interviewed in the article.  Wagner took very heavy casualties around Bakhmut--which had become a new Verdun, simply a battle of attrition.

Prigozhin, who interestingly enough appears to have no real military background of his own,  in May began threatening Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valerii Gerasimov on social media, blaming them for his casualties and the misdirection of the war. Putin, many thought, tolerated this because Prigozhin got results. Wagner captured most of Bakhmut, but then the Ukrainians began gaining all around it. Eventually the Wagner forces did take the whole city, and then withdrew to regroup.  Observers believe that Putin thinks he must tolerate Prigozhin's insubordination because he needs his troops.  Prigozhin's mutiny initially looked like a spectacular success, but he seems to have lost his nerve and it collapsed quickly.  Nonetheless, Putin met with him and his top commanders after the mutiny, and he remains at large. 

The general Albrecht von Wallenstein (1583-1634), the leading military leader within the Holy Roman Emperor in the early stages of the Thirty Years War (1618-48), played a key role in my 1990 book Politics and War, and he immediately came to mind when I first read about Prigozhin and his mutiny.  Like Prigozhin, he was a master at acquiring wealth and influence within his own unique environment, and he too became so indispensable as to threaten his sovereign's authority.  He is no longer the kind of figure that many people know anything about, but he may indeed be turning into a more important archetype as the twenty-first century wears on.

Born a Bohemian Protestant in 1583,  Wallenstein had converted to Catholicism in 1606 for purely political reasons while a junior officer in the Hapsburg imperial army. In 1608 he married a very wealthy heiress, giving him control of large estates.  In 1618 the Protestants of Bohemia and Moravia (the key regions of today's Czechia) revolted against the Catholic Emperor, marking the beginning the Thirty Years War.  Wallenstein initially raised troops for the Moravian estates, but double-crossed them and went over to the Emperor.  After the imperial army defeated the Protestant rebels at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620, he managed to acquire a very large share of the estates confiscated from the rebels, partly by loaning the Emperor money. The war entered a new phase when the King of Denmark intervened on the side of the Protestants in 1625, and Wallenstein raised his own army of 20,000 men.  He persuaded the Emperor to create a new Duchy of Friedland incorporating his huge new Bohemian properties, and he enjoyed sovereign power as Duke.  In 1627, after the Danes had been defeated and the Emperor controlled all Germany, Wallenstein also managed to become the Duke of Mecklenburg on the Baltic and began building a Navy.  And like Wagner in Africa, he used his army's territorial control of various areas to extract money from them. 

In contrast to Prigozhin, however, Wallenstein had a highly realistic view of the political situation in the Empire and a good idea of how the war might be ended. While the Catholic party around the emperor and some other Catholic princes wanted to regain total Catholic control of the whole Holy Roman Emperor, he realized that this was impossible, and favored a compromise peace.  He had no personal animosity against Protestants and employed some as officers in his army.  Partly as a result, he was dismissed from the imperial service in 1630,  He had become too powerful.

A year later, King Gustav Adolph of Sweden brought his own army into Germany on behalf of the Protestants, and he crushed the Imperial Army--without Wallenstein--in the fall of 1631.  The Emperor Ferdinand had no choice but to recall Wallenstein and ask him to reconstitute his own army, with suitable rewards.  Wallenstein confronted the Swedish Army during 1632, and eventually fought it to a draw at Luetzen in November--where Gustav Adolf was killed. Then he began negotiating covertly both with leading Protestant princes and with French envoys, whose chief Richelieu was preparing to intervene in the war as well.  Wallenstein offered very generous terms--terms which the Emperor would not accept.  The emperor decided to rely on the extreme Catholic party and on Spain, which was also thinking of intervening, and in February 1634 accused Wallenstein of a treasonous conspiracy to overthrow him and ordered his troops not to obey him.  Wallenstein fled to organize resistance, but one of his leading subordinates authorized his assassination.  He was vindicated, politically at least, when the emperor had to agree to compromise terms with the Protestants, but the war dragged on, for various reasons, until 1648.

I learned in detail about Wallenstein during the 1980s, writing Politics and War: European Conflict from Philip II to Hitler.  He was a central figure in the first of four parts of that book, covering the century from 1559 to 1659, which I christened the general crisis of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  That was an age of ambitious monarchs whose great projects consistently failed because they did not dispose of the necessary material and moral resources--that is, the loyalty of their subjects--to impose their will. Great aristocrats refused to recognize their ultimate authority and themselves had the resources to resist it--especially when they got help from other monarchs, as they often did.  The next section, on the era of Louis  XIV (1661-1715), showed how Louis and  his fellow monarchs successfully established what we now call a monopoly on the legitimate use of force--paving the way for two or three centuries of progress on economic, cultural and intellectual fronts.  The section on the revolutionary and Napoleonic era (1789-1815) showed how the ideas of the Enlightenment removed traditional restraints on state power and allowed states to mobilize unprecedented resources, and the last section on the era of the two world wars (1914-45) showed how war became too expensive for European states to wage. 

Over the last ten or fifteen years I have begun to realize that the process I described over those four centuries began to reverse itself around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Putin's reliance on Wagner--which he can no more do without than the Emperor Ferdinand could do without Wallenstein at certain critical moments--shows that his oligarchy is a poor shadow of the Soviet state, and perhaps even of the earlier Russian empire.  He relies largely on oligarchs who can turn against him and who might well be vulnerable to corruption by foreign powers.  And something similar has been happening all over the world, as conscription has become the exception rather than the rule among modern states and the power of governments over economic institutions has declined.  Media moguls like Silvio Berlusconi and media celebrities like Donald Trump have become better known and more powerful than any politician.  That, to me, is the real lesson of the Wagner mutiny, and it does not promise better times in the west unless we can find a way to reverse this new long-term trend.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Journalism and Politics Again

Donald Trump liked to brag that the media depended on him.  He was right, and the second act of a terrible drama is now underway.

Trump, let us face it, re-ignited interest in American politics in 2016.   Thanks to The Apprentice he was already a national celebrity, and he captivated the country--and not only his supporters--by saying outrageous things that no one else would say.  His election shocked the left, but the media quickly managed to integrate his presidency into one of their longstanding SOPs.  Since Watergate, uncovering government wrongdoing has become the media's favorite kind of story--whether there was really anything important to uncover or not.  (See Clinton, Bill.)   As a New York Times editor admitted after the special counsel's report essentially cleared Trump of being a Russian agent, that paper--and not only they--had committed themselves to a narrative focused on the destruction of Trump's evil presidency.  Then came the Zelensky phone call scandal and impeachment of 2019, and the election controversies of 2020.

Mitch McConnell, more than anyone else, deserves the blame for Trump's continuing presence in American politics.  With a little courage, he could have rounded up enough Republican Senate votes in early 2021 to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial and disqualify him from holding federal office--but he didn't.  The Biden Administration apparently also assumed that Trump was effectively finished, and its Justice Department did not start investigating Trump's attempts to overturn the election results until a House Committee pushed them into it two years later.  Now, fifteen months before the election, three (and probably four) indictments fill the front pages of our newspapers and our cable newscasts with an endless round of stories, enlivened by Trump's hysterical comments on social media.  Coverage of the Republican campaign is also focusing on Trump, who certainly seems certain to be nominated.  "A Day at the [Iowa State] Fair" is Trump's Show," a Times headline reads this morning, inspiring me to write this post that has been on my mind for some time.

The Times and other mainstream outlets, as observers have begun to realize, are pitching to a particular demographic of younger, mostly progressive readers who, they have decided, hold their future in their hands.  They hate Trump and all that he stands for, and the media think (perhaps rightly) that they will enjoy 15 more months of all Trump, all the time.  They ignore the risk (as the prosecutors did) of assuring Trump's place as the most famous political figure in America, as well as of energizing his base and encouraging it to keep funding both his legal defense and his campaign.  And it is anything but certain that either the prosecutors or the media will be able to bring him down.  Even if he is convicted he will surely remain free on appeal during the election and he will campaign asking for the presidency and the pardon power to end his legal "persecution."  Don't get me wrong, he is guilty, but that doesn't mean that prosecuting him will in the end serve the national interest.

The Times story about Trump in Iowa is in column one of the front page. In column 5 we find, "Political Burr Still Sticking to President: Hunter Biden's Case Drags into Campaign."  Hunter Biden has been all the rage in rightwing media and in House committee hearings for months, but the MSM has mostly ignored him--until now.  We will be hearing more about him soon.  And this is what our politics now largely revolves around: dueling scandals, real and imagined.  

In other critical periods of American history, presidents have managed to create new and inspiring stories.  Andrew Jackson mobilized troops to force South Carolina to give up its intention to nullify federal laws.  Abraham Lincoln rallied the nation around the defense of the Union and the abolition of slavery.  Wilson proclaimed a crusade to transform international politics.  Franklin Roosevelt rallied the nation behind a great attack upon the Depression and economic injustice, and then mobilized us to fight and win the Second World War.   Presidents from Truman through Reagan rallied the country around the spread of Communism, although Vietnam undermined the consensus on that point.  Reagan also created a new majority that supported dismantling Roosevelt's New Deal.  

No president since Reagan has managed to do anything remotely comparable, although Bush II, Obama, and Trump have tried.  Joe Biden got some important legislation through the Congress, but he has been the least communicative president of my lifetime.  I believe that he has given exactly one nationally televised address per year.  He has nothing like Trump's social media presence and he has not created any phrases to associate with him or his administration.  His team seems very content to try to reelect him on the grounds that he is not Donald Trump--but polls show them in a dead heat.  I sometimes wonder whether Biden actually plans to drop out of the race, but is delaying his announcement until it will be impossible for any other candidate to mount a challenge to Kamala Harris.   And I very much doubt that she could win election.

For about two hundred years, presidents helped the nation believe that we were engaged in a great democratic experiment.  That is the topic of my new forthcoming book.  They seem to have lost the ability to do that, and the media no longer seems to believe it either.  I can much more easily imagine a very bad outcome to the next eighteen months than a good one.