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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...

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Does Democracy Depend on Literacy?

 My new book in progress, States of the Union, 1789-2021--a concise political history of the US based on presidential addresses--is now complete in draft form through Herbert Hoover, and I am working on the research for FDR, focusing so far on the New Deal and his various attempts to reshape the economy before 1940.  Coincidentally, President Biden and the Democrats are trying to push a kind of new New Deal through Congress, including both an infrastructure package and redistributive measures dealing with health care, child care, and the tax code.  FDR had the advantage of huge Congressional majorities.  1930 through 1936 represent the only time in American history when the same party--the Democrats--gained strength in four consecutive presidential elections--although their greatest majority, the 1936 one, suddenly proved elusive during 1937.  He also enjoyed the support of some very liberal Republicans such as George Norris of Nebraska and Robert Lafollette of Wisconsin.  I am struck, however, by the difference in the kind of debate the country was having then and what we are having now.  The country debated many complex issues in a very sophisticated way in the 1930s--and we don't seem to be able to do that anymore.

For at least the first 160 years of our history, our leaders spoke frequently about the great democratic experiment that we had undertaken, and what it would take to make it succeed.  They took their mission very seriously--and so did the country.  Every significant newspaper (and some insignificant ones) printed major presidential addresses in full, and without radio, the movies, or television before 1920, the people had little choice but to read them, and they did.  The length of the State of the Union message grew steadily during the 19th century, partly because presidents didn't deliver it in person, and it peaked with Theodore Roosevelt, who annually sent messages of 20-25,000 words.  Woodrow Wilson brought the annual address into the modern era by drastically reducing its size and delivering it in person, and that has been the norm ever since.  FDR, despite the extraordinary breadth of his program, also kept his addresses relatively short, and he supplemented them with one or two radio Fireside Chats lasting 30-60 minutes each year, which also explained how he saw the nation's problems and what his administration and the Congress were trying to do about them in some detail.  In my earlier book on 1940-1, I found that evening radio addresses by major political figures had been another key forum for political debates.

By contrast, it seems to me that neither President Biden nor any other leading Democrats are making a sustained, detailed effort to explain what they are trying to do, what it will cost, and what effects they expect it to have to the American people.  If we read the newspapers and listen to a little cable news we know that a $550 billion infrastructure bill has already passed the Senate, and that the Democrats have an addition $2.5 trillion bill for child care, medicare expansion, and environmental measures under consideration, whose cost is likely to shrink to $1.5 trillion or less to get Senators Manchin and Sinema on board.  Checking, I find that the $550 billion infrastructure bill is for five years--$110 billion a year--whereas the $2.5 trillion infrastructure bill is for ten, another $250 billion a year.  Federal expenditures currently are about $6.6 trillion annually.  While I am not a domestic policy wonk, I think I'm better informed than average, and I have very little understanding of the details of either bill, how they will change the US, and what economic effects they are expected to have.  No one seems to be making much of an effort to let us know.

This must in part be the fault of our politicians.  Given that they are more or less required to spend several hours a day fundraising with wealthy donors and institutions, they don't have that much time for communicating with the public at large.  But it is also the fault of the media, which have transformed our political landscape.  I can't remember the last time that a Senator, a Congressman or a cabinet member made a major impression on the country with an hour long speech on some policy--perhaps because they do not think that significant numbers of Americans would watch or read such a speech.   The media runs on sound bites.  And broadcast media--television and talk radio--no longer sees its role as the vehicle for politicians to reach the country.  Rather than market our political leaders or our political process, the TV networks market themselves.  Even on NPR's News Hour--easily the most serious tv news broadcast available now--one sees many times as much of Yamiche Alcindor and Lisa Desjardins than one does of any political figure from Joe Biden on down.  That  problem is even bigger on the private cable networks.  The consequences of this trend emerged in dramatic, horrifying fashion in 2016, when a reality TV star defeated the leading candidates of both parties in the presidential election.  Our political leaders still hold our destiny in their hands, but we no longer pay them nearly as much attention as we did in the first two-thirds of our history.  The media used to tell us what politicians said and what they were doing--leaving the citizenry to decide how they felt about it.  Now they spend most of their time telling us what to feel about it.  

Democracy, the founders understood, required an informed citizenry.  That is why several early presidents, from Washington to John Quincy Adams, called frequently for a national university in Washington--a proposal Congress never adopted.  Perhaps American democracy grew and thrived largely because of a nationwide thirst for the printed word, then almost  the only form of entertainment.  Now books play much less of a role in our lives, the newspaper audience has shrunk, and the newspapers have cut way back on conveying complex information in favor of fanning approved emotion.  That is why even I had to look up the total of federal revenues (about $3.6 trillion) and expenditures (about $6.6 trillion) lately.  The cyberworld has been a godsend for me because it makes so much information instantly available--but one has to have the curiosity to find that information, and the framework in which to integrate it.  We don't teach those things anymore, and we are suffering for it.

Saturday, October 09, 2021

A Brief History of the Nobel Peace Prize

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to journalists from the Philippines and Russia this past week piqued my curiosity about what sort of person has generally received it in different eras.  With help from Wikipedia, I found that the answer was in some ways more interesting than I had expected.

Great wars, of course, mark appropriate dividing lines for a history of a prize devoted to peace.  The first thirteen years of the prize (1901-13) set the pattern for the future. Of the 18 persons or organizations awarded the prize during those years--multiple awards have always been common--15 of them had worked in  some national or international organization working for peace, such as the Interparliamentary Union or the International Peace Bureau.  Of the remaining three, two were American statesmen--President Theodore Roosevelt, recognized for mediating the peace negotiations between Russia and Japan in 1905, and former Secretary of State Elihu Root, who had worked for international arbitration.  The third was a German novelist, Bertha von Suttner, recognized for her pacifist and feminist novel Lay Down Your Arms. These three categories--individuals or organizations working for peace, statesmen who have done much to bring it about, and authors with a political bent--have remained the most popular kinds of selections ever since.

Only once during the First World War in 1914-18 was the prize awarded, to the International Red Cross-which has won three times--in 1917.  Peacemaking became the leading task of statesmen after that war, No less than ten leading politicians or diplomats won between 1919 and 1939, beginning with President Woodrow Wilson, justly regarded as the founder of the League of Nations.  Others in this group included the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany in 1924-5--Sir Austen Chamberlain, Aristide Briand, and Gustav Stresemann--and the American diplomat and soon-to-be Vice President Charles Dawes, who concluded the Locarno Treaties and reached a settlement of the reparations question during those years.  In 1936 the Argentinian foreign Minister Carlos Saavedra Lamas won for mediating a war between Paraguay and Bolivia. A new kind of winner, the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen, won in 1922 for work among refugees, and the organization bearing his name won again for similar work in 1938.  Six individual activists for various causes related to peace won in this period, including the American social worker Jane Addams and a German journalist, Carl von Ossietzky, who had exposed Germany's secret rearmament.  The winners also included the British author Norman Angell, who had correctly predicted in his 1913 book The Great Illusion that great power war would be economically disastrous, falsely trusting that this would prevent the powers from embarking upon it.

The prize was not awarded from 1939 until 1944, when the International Red Cross won for the second time.  Long-time Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who won in late 1945 for helping to bring about the United Nations, was I suspect a stand-in for Franklin Roosevelt, who had died in April of that year (the prize has only once been given posthumously.)  In the years 1946-89--the era of the Cold War--23 activist individuals or organizations have won, including two Quaker organizations, the missionary Albert Schweitzer, Dr. Linus Pauling for his campaign against nuclear testing, Martin Luther King, Jr. , Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov, the Polish labor leader Lech Walesa,  the Dalai Lama, and the South Amnesty International, Africans Albert Luthuli and Desmond Tutu.  The ten statesmen or diplomats who won during this turbulent era included Secretary of State George Marshall (for the plan that bore his name); the American Ralph Bunche and the Canadian Lester Pearson for stopping wars in the Middle East in 1948 and 1957;  German Chancellor Willy Brandt, for the agreements with Poland and East Germany that ended the critical period of the Cold War in Europe; Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho (who declined the award) for negotiating the 1973 Vietnam agreement; UN Secretary General Dag Hammerskjold, awarded the prize posthumously in 1961; Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat (but not Jimmy Carter) for the Camp David agreements of 1979; Prime Minister Eisaku Sato of Japan, who renounced nuclear weapons for his country; and Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, for attempts to bring peace to Central America, in 1987. They also included Mikhail Gorbachev, who did the most to bring the Cold War to an end.  

The post-Cold War period is now about thirty years old.  Initially, the end of that long conflict led to determined and sometimes successful attempts to settle longstanding conflicts.  Frederick Willem de Klerk and Nelson Mandela shared the prize for ending apartheid in South Afirca in 1993, and Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres won for the first major Israeli-Palestinian agreement in 1994.  Like Answar Sadat, Rabin also paid for his peacemaker's role with his life. Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta shared the prize for work to free their native East Timor in 1996, and South Korean President Kim Jae-Dung won for ultimately unsuccessful efforts to reconcile with North Korea in 2000.  John Hume and David Trimble, two Northern Irish politicians, won for helping to pacify their country in 1998.  Kofi Annan won for his work as UN Secretary General in 2001, and former President Carter won for numerous diplomatic efforts in 2002. Since then, however, the only two heads of government to win have been Juan Manuel Santos of Columbia, for helping to end his country's long civil war, and  Barack Obama, who received the award within months of taking office and did very little to justify it in his eight years as President.  His only major diplomatic achievement, the Iran nuclear agreement, did not survive the change of administration.  25 activist individuals and groups have won since 1991, including Al Gore for his work on global warming, three separate groups of women's rights activists in the Third World in 2011 (Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leyman Gbowee, and Tawakkul Karman), 2014 (Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai), and 2016 (Nadia Mursa and Denis Mukwege), four Tunisians who helped set up a democratic government in their country after 2011, and this year's two journalists, Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov.

Nine years ago, I concluded my last lecture at the Naval War College with the following quote from Clausewitz.

"“In war, as in life generally, all parts of a whole are interconnected and thus the effects produced, however small their cause, must influence all subsequent military operations. . .In the same way, every means must influence even the ultimate purpose. . .thus we can follow a chain of sequential objectives until we reach one that requires no justification, because its necessity is self-evident.  In many cases, particularly those involving great and decisive actions, the analysis must extend to the ultimate objective, which is to bring about peace.”

Rabin, Arafat and Peres won the Nobel for the Oslo Accords in 1994.  Those accords did not ultimately bear fruit, and since then, no head of state, head of government or foreign minster has won the Nobel Prize for actually settling an international conflict, and only one, in Colombia, has won for settling a civil war.  The major nations of the world--including, I regret to say, my own--have evidently forgotten that the task of statesmanship is to bring about peace.  Despite--and in some ways, because of--the two world wars, the dream of world peace dominated the 20th century.  We need to revive it in the 21st.

Wednesday, October 06, 2021

Sunday, September 26, 2021

The End of an Era

 Everyone seems to believe that the withdrawal from Afghanistan is in some sense the end of an era, and I am trying to figure out what that era was.  Here are some thoughts, inspired in part by reading the remarkable book by Craig Whitlock, The Afghanistan Papers. 

This era began, clearly, not long after the collapse of Communism in 1989, which put an end to the Cold War as we have known it and seemed to leave the United States without serious political rivals on the world stage.  In academia, Francis Fukuyama announced that the Hegelian "end of history" had arrived--a position he has since reconsidered.  At the Pentagon, Paul Wolfowitz wrote that the United States must now try to make sure that no new "peer competitor" emerged to replace the Soviet Union, and he has since been quoted as saying that the US had ten or fifteen years to eliminate smaller hostile regimes like Iraq before a new peer competitor emerged to defend them.  The new era coincided with a generational shift in American leadership.  While some members of the Silent generation like Colin Powell, Warren Christopher, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Madeleine Albright remained important figures in new era, GIs like George H.  W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft gave way to Boomers like Bill and Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush,  Wolfowitz, and Condi Rice.  They were in power when 9/11 gave the foreign policy establishment a new mission.

I honestly cannot think of a single individual who did more to change the world in his time than Osama Bin Laden.  Operating on his own, he led the world's leading nation onto a disastrous course of action that continues to this day, twenty years later.  Al Queda was not the first international terrorist movement that the western world has faced.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, European anarchists killed a Russian Czar, an Italian King, the Empress of Austria, a President of the United States, and many others.  As late as 1920, anarchists perpetrated the Wall Street bombing in New York, killing thirty people and wounding hundreds--but none of these events led to international crusades.  9/11 did, because the US leadership was already looking forward to a dramatic extension of American power.

My current book project has taken me through a tour of the renewed growth of western imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly as it related to the United States. The North Atlantic nations began interfering in what we now call the third world for several reasons, but failures to observe international law and keep order ranked high among them.  Such failures included outrages against foreign life and property, as in China in 1900, and failure to pay foreign debts, which brought the British into Egypt in the 1880s and the US into various Caribbean nations early in the twentieth century.  When William McKinley in 1898 decided to go to war against Spain in Cuba, he cited the need to stop a cruel war, in which the Spaniards had resettled tens of thousands of Cubans into concentration camps.  European nations began trying to intervene in the Ottoman Empire on behalf of its endangered Armenian minority in the 1890s, without much success.  Partly, perhaps, because universities don't spend much time on such history anymore, we haven't seen many analogies between the early 20th and the early 21st modes of imperialism, but they are there to be made.   Because of its own anti-colonial tradition, the United States did take the lead in one respect.  After 1898 it left Cuba independent--albeit while reserving a right to intervene to keep the government in friendly or competent hands--and although it brutally suppressed a Philippine insurrection, it took quite seriously, I have found, the task of preparing the islands for self-government. That in fact became a party issue, which Democrats favoring relatively rapid independence while Republicans found excuses to postpone it, but by the 1930s the US had promised Philippine independence by 1946, and it kept that promise.

During the Cold War, of course, any threat of Communism--or even supposed threat of Communism, as in Iran in 1953--became an excuse for American intervention, political or military, to install and maintain a friendly regime.  That rationale changed governments in Iran, Guatemala, Brazil, British Guyana, and Chile, and tried and failed to do so in Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Syria, and probably other places as well.  "Nation-building," or attempts to make client governments more responsive to their peoples' needs, accompanied military intervention in South Vietnam, without much success, and later played some role in El Salvador in the 1980s, where a friendly government settled a war with Communist guerrillas after the Cold War was over.  The Reagan administration also started and supported costly guerrilla wars against pro-Moscow regimes in Nicaragua, Angola, and Mozambique, with no immediate success.  Bloody internal conflicts, meanwhile, rarely led to calls for foreign intervention, such as those in Nigeria and Indonesia in the mid 1960s.

In the early 1990s, after Communism's fall, pressure arose to intervene to stop mass killings and ethnic cleansing both in the former Yugoslavia, which immediately broke  up after Communism fell, and in Rwanda.  Western governments rarely showed enough commitment and resources actually to try to stop it, only setting the Serbian-Bosnian conflict after the Serbs had achieved many of their objectives and the war had run its course, and ignoring Rwanda.    Meanwhile, the neoconservative sector of the American foreign policy establishment was increasingly opposed to allowing anti-American dictatorship in the Middle East to remain in power.  9/11 provided them with the excuse to try to implement this policy.  American forces easily overthrew the governments of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and tried to turn them into western-style democracies.  In both cases these efforts turned out to be bad jokes.  Iraq descended into religious civil war within a few years, and that war has never been settled.  The new Shi'ite government we helped create allies itself with Iran.  As for Afghanistan, Whitlock in The Afghanistan Papers draws on hundreds of after-action interviews with American military and civilians to show that our ideas for its future never had a chance.  They pretended that we could eliminate competition among warlords and the drug trade, key elements of Afghan politics and the Afghan economy.  Our attempt to spread western ideas about women's equality made many friends in urban areas but alienated much of the countryside--just as a very similar Soviet attempt had twenty  years earlier.  We appropriated billions more than the country could possibly absorb, and the profits went to contractors and well-placed Afghans who immediately moved the money overseas.   Our military tactics killed thousands of civilians, and we tried, and failed, to train the Afghans in the use of modern weapons despite their illiteracy and innumeracy.  I shall return to another even more depressing aspect of the adventure momentarily.

Incredibly, the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan under Bush did not prevent Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton from ramping up the Afghanistan war despite the warnings of the American Ambassador that more troops would do more harm than good, or from extending similar policies to Syria and Egypt after the Arab Spring broke out.  In Syria we could not depose the tyrant whom we had identified as the problem, merely encouraging hopeless resistance against him.  In Egypt, after the Muslim Brotherhood won the first free presidential election the country had ever had, we cooperated with the Egyptian military to restore dictatorship.  In Libya the Obama administration intervened to depose Muhammar Qaddafi, and that country also sank into chaos.  The policy created millions of refugees who are still fleeing to Europe, with serious social and political consequences there. 

The Whitlock book, sadly, suggests that our military and foreign policy bureaucracy will not only undertake any mission civilian leaders give it, but will also refuse seriously to re-evaluate it when it goes badly and will publicly defend the indefensible for as long as higher authority needs them to do so.  Whitlam lays out the continually, absurdly optimistic statements of successive military leaders in Afghanistan in excruciating detail.   Whitlock's book puzzled me in one respect.  Like his fellow Gen Xer Barack Obama--whose leadership in Afghanistan comes across as disastrous--Whitlock apparently doesn't want to compare Afghanistan with Vietnam, but the parallels are endless.  We did not understand the politics of either nation; we thought they could adopt western-style institutions; we didn't understand the depth of corruption in either one; and we used tactics that inevitably alienated the people were were supposed to be trying to help.  In neither case could we create a client regime that would fight on without us.  This time, however, the American people remained surprisingly detached from what was going on in this new theater of war, and Congress and the press did not fundamentally challenge the administration's rosy requests.  Indeed, it is astonishing how much the American press and the Congress deferred to both the Bush II and Obama administrations--opening up, as it turned out, the opportunity for Donald Trump to win the White House in 2016 and embark upon the destruction of American democracy.

From 100 to 140 years ago, imperialist nations did frequently restore order to parts of the third world.  I do not think that they can do so any longer, even in a good cause.  The biggest single reason is probably population.  Iraq had about 1.5 million people when the British took over in the early 1920s; both Iraq and Afghanistan have tens of millions now.  Western armed forces have shrunk.  And western institutions and ideas do not enjoy the prestige they did around 1900 in most of the world, because they haven't been working especially well.  The foreign policy establishment seems to be shifting its attention to Russia and China, but there, too, it is drawing on earlier traditions from the Cold War that may not help us move into a new world at all.  We are long past the point where we could live off the achievements of the middle of the twentieth century.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

What General Milley did

 During the more than twenty years that I taught strategy and policy at the Naval War College, I had many occasions to think about the military plot that attempted to assassinate and overthrow Adolf Hitler in July 1944.  That plot actually went back at least until 1938, when some high-ranking officers discussed overthrowing Hitler to prevent a disastrous war with Britain and France. The plot revived again after that war broke out in the fall of 1939, but it collapsed completely after Germany defeated France.  It revived in 1943-4 when the war against the USSR began to go badly and the British and Americans had landed, first in Italy and then in France.  While the most senior officers involved had already lost their commands, many others were still active.  They paid for their complicity with their lives.  The question I wondered about from time to time--but never, I think, raised in class--was, if the American presidency had fallen into comparably evil hands, would senior American officers be willing to do something similar?  I was not confident that they would, because of the respect for civilian authority that is so much a part of their outlook.

Things never got anywhere near that far under Donald Trump, partly because he is clearly a coward who would shy away from actual military action or even a declaration of martial law.  He did however exercise disastrous leadership on a variety of fronts.  It now turns out that at the turn of the year 2020-2021, after Trump had lost the election, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley, worried that Trump might begin war with China to try to save his presidency.  Bob Woodward has now reported--and Milley has not denied--that Milley made two calls to a senior Chinese general to try to avoid a Chinese reaction to a possible US attack. In the first call, he assured the general that no attack would take place.  In the second he assured him that if an attack was imminent, he, Milley, would let the Chinese general know in advance.  We shall see that Milley was not simply worried that the Chinese might falsely believe that war might be imminent, and that he took the possibility of American military action seriousy.  I do not agree with Republicans who suggested that these calls were treasonous.  The Constitution defines treason as giving aid and comfort to the enemies of the United States, and I interpret enemies to mean nations with whom the US is at war. We were not at war with China.  I am very curious to know exactly why Milley was worried about what Trump might do, and I hope that Senators will ask him that in detail when he testifies before them later this month. I do not think, though, that he found the appropriate means to  try to head off a possible war waged for political purposes.

A little less than two years ago, I discussed the issue of how senior military officers should have responded to the Trump presidency here, describing a public exchange I had at the JFK School of Government at Harvard with General James Mattis (retired), who at that time had just stepped down as Secretary of Defense.  I argued that I had been taught both during my own military service in the 1970s and again at the War College that if a soldier is serving under a commanding officer who is behaving in an illegal or disastrous manner, that soldier has not only a right but a duty to let higher authority know about what is happening. I had confirmed that belief with some of my old colleagues who were still serving officers.  If the commanding officer were the president of the United States, the higher authority would be either the Congress--which retains the power to remove him--or, in an election year, the American people.   Mattis made clear that he did not agree with me, but this is still what I think.  Donald Trump was trying to stage a coup in late December and early January, and Milley feared that he might use war to help make it happen.  He owed it to his countrymen to let us know. Had he done so, it might even have persuaded Mitch McConnell to vote for conviction in the subsequent impeachment trial, thus relieving the nation of the nightmare of Trump's threatened return to office.  But he didn't.

It seems that Milley genuinely worried that Trump might initiate war, including nuclear war.   According to an AP story, "Milley, according to the book, called the admiral overseeing the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, the military unit responsible for Asia and the Pacific region, and recommended postponing upcoming military exercises. He also asked senior officers to swear an “oath” that Milley had to be involved if Trump gave an order to launch nuclear weapons, according to the book."  That was important because Milley himself had no authority to stop anything that Trump ordered.  None of the press accounts of this incident that I have seen have mentioned this, but under the Goldwater-Nichols Act, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, while designated the president's senior military adviser, is not in the chain of command.  The chain of command runs directly from the President to the Secretary of Defense, and then to the local theater commander--in this case, the commander of what is now the Indo-Pacific Command (formerly CINCPAC), headquartered in Honolulu.  That was Admiral Philip S. Davidson, who should also appear before the Senate to give his perspective. 

Milley did apparently discuss Trump's deteriorating mental state with Speaker Pelosi, although it's not clear that he mentioned his fear of war.  The AP story also suggests that one US military exercise in the Far East was canceled.  But like General Mattis as Secretary of Defense, or one-time White House Chief of Staff General John Kelly, or National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, he did not share his concerns about Trump's leadership with the American people, and preferred to try to avert disaster behind the scenes, both within the miltiary chain of command and in conversations with a foreign general.  In so doing, I think, he contributed to the catastrophic decline of American democracy, which still threatens us with authoritarian rule in another few years.