Saturday, April 25, 2009

Primary sources

This week has produced very noteworthy primary sources about the Bush Administration’s torture practices: first, an extensive and very well documented Senate Armed Services Committee Report on torture at Guantanamo, and second, four extraordinary memos from within the Bush Justice Department explaining both what was done and how it was justified. Few journalists or citizens, alas, will take the time to read them all. They will eventually be the subject of lengthy books—along with other documents that are sure to emerge—and it would take a couple of months’ worth of weekend posts to do them full justice, but I have spent some time with them and will use today’s commentary to bring out some of the biggest questions and some of the most important points. The Senate Committee report is based on extensive testimony by participants, as well as a great deal of documentation. The Justice Department memos also refer to important previous documentation, including a CIA Inspector General’s report on CIA interrogations that may eventually rank as a historical document along with the IG reports on the Bay of Pigs (1961) and on the anti-Castro assassination plots (1967.) Both of those, however, took about thirty years to be released.
The ways in which the Justice Department memos—written in part by John Yoo, now a Law Professor at Berkeley, and Jay Bybee, now a federal appeals court judge—handle the legalization of torture I shall leave to another day—except to quote the succinct summary of their colleague Jack Goldsmith, who has now written a book about the process:
“[V]iolent acts aren't necessarily torture; if you do torture, you probably have a defense; and even if you don't have a defense, the torture law doesn't apply if you act under color of presidential authority. CIA interrogators and their supervisors, under pressure to get information about the next attack, viewed the opinion as a 'golden shield,' as one CIA official later called it, that provided enormous comfort.”
The Senate Committee report confirms much that we already knew and adds a great deal that we did not. It includes quite a few stories of lower-level officials—especially military lawyers—who tried to introduce some sanity into the proceedings, as well as instances of higher-ups who caved into Administration pressure and managed to forget that they had done so by the time they talked to the Committee. It is, however, only part of the story, because it has very little to say about CIA interrogations, which fell outside the committee’s bailiwick. Indeed, many passages apparently referring to CIA activities are still redacted—a practice with which I am very familiar from documents about earlier eras.
The summary of the report describes how all this began.
“On February 7,2002, President Bush signed a memorandum stating that the Third Geneva Convention did not apply to the conflict with al Qaeda and concluding that Taliban detainees (designated as '’unlawful combatants’ in the memorandum) were not entitled to POW status or the legal protections afforded by the Third Geneva Convention. 11 While the President found that Common Article 3 (requiring humane treatment) did not apply to either al Qaeda or Taliban detainees, his order stated that as ‘a matter of policy, the United States Armed Forces shall continue to treat detainees humanely and, to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of the Geneva Conventions.’
“The President's policy statement was directed at the United States Armed Forces.
The Committee is unaware of a similar Presidential policy statement governing other agencies' treatment of detainees. A February 2, 2002 State Department memo reflected that Administration lawyers involved in the discussion about the application of the Third Geneva Convention to the Taliban and al Qaeda had ‘all agree[d] that the CIA is bound by the same legal restrictions as the U.S. military. . .” The memo also stated, however, that ‘CIA lawyers believe[d] that, to the extent that the [Third Geneva Convention's] protections do not apply as a matter of law but those protections are applied as a matter of policy’ it is desirable to circumscribe that policy so as to limit its application to the CIA,,1 According to the memo,‘other Administration lawyers involved did not disagree with or object to the CIA's view.’
Months later, in an October 2, 2002 meeting with DoD officials at Guantanamo Bay, Chief Counsel to the CIA's CounterTerrorist Center (CTC) Jonathan Fredman reportedly stated that the ‘CIA rallied’ for the Conventions not to apply.”
The CIA, of course, successfully managed to get itself exempted from what minimal protection the President’s memorandum provided. Meanwhile, the Defense Department began to evolve its thinking. Under pressure from Washington to get better intelligence from detainees (of which more later), the commanders at Guantanamo sought help from the Joint Personal Recovery Agency (JPRA) at Fort Bragg, which for years has provided Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training to prospective pilots. Their training program was not designed to elicit information from captives, but rather to teach pilots to resist harsh interrogation tactics, specifically those which had led captured Americans to sign false confessions during the Korean war. These include sleep deprivation, nakedness, shackling, rough physical handling—and waterboarding. The latter was however kept within strict limits; no more than a pint of water could be used on any trainee. CIA interrogators later used as much as a gallon. During this process, several members of JPRA tried to get through to their superiors and clients at GTMO that they had no experience in interrogating prisoners, that history showed these techniques were at least as likely to elicit false as true information, and that they were not competent to administer them to hostile subjects. (Others, less heroic, retired and apparently started a private contracting firm specializing in interrogations—with what result the Committee did not report.) Yet not only did the use of such techniques go ahead at Guantanamo, but some of the highest legal officials of the Justice Department, including Counsel Joe Haynes and a deputy whom he ordered to contact JPRA, asked for help in developing a list of approved interrogation techniques as well during the summer of 2002. Although Haynes refused to be specific he did not deny discussing interrogation techniques with then-Presidential Counsel Alberto Gonzales, Vice Presidential staffer David Addington, and Jay Bybee and John Yoo of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Council. The next six months proved critical to the program—and raise the gravest questions about why it was undertaken in the first place.
To begin with, the Senate report makes clear beyond any doubt, the techniques that had been adopted at GTMO were exported by the Army to interrogation centers in Iraq and Afghanistan, including Abu Ghraib. President Bush’s statements that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were the work of a few junior personnel—the statements he relied upon to win re-election in 2004—are exposed as a complete falsehood. Given that several enlisted personnel were prosecuted for those abuses, and at least one served time, this is one instance, it seems to me, where the case for prosecution of senior officials is very strong.
Secondly, during the summer of 2002, the government apparently managed—or so it thought—to disrupt two plots. Jose Padilla, the American citizen suspected of planning to set off a “dirty bomb,” was arrested on May 8, 2002, and a reputed plot to crash airliners into Los Angeles targets was reportedly disrupted that summer. Most (though not all) of the detainees had been captured late in 2001 or early in 2002 in Afghanistan, and it seems hard to believe that anyone could have thought they still had important information about plots yet to take place, all the more so since their Al Queda colleagues knew they were in custody. But this was also the year in which the Administration—by the middle of the year, as the Downing Street memo shows—had decided to invade Iraq, partly because so many Administration figures—including Vice President Cheney and Assistant Secretary of Defense Feith—were convinced that Saddam Hussein had been behind the 9/11 attack. And indeed, sworn testimony suggests that attempts to prove that false assumption played an important role in the adoption of coercive interrogation tactics. The Senate committee report reprints testimony to the Army’s Inspector General from a Major Burney, who worked at Guantanamo:
“[T]his is my opinion, even though they were giving information and some of it was useful, while we were there a large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between AI Qaeda and Iraq and we were not being successful in establishing a link between AI Qaeda and Iraq. The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish this link .. , there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results.”
The report continues:
“GTMO Interrogation Control Element (ICE) Chief, David Becker told the Committee that at one point interrogation personnel were required to question [large redaction] but that he was unaware of the source of that requirement. Others involved in JTF-170 interrogation operations agreed that there was pressure on interrogation personnel to produce intelligence, but did not recall pressure to identify links between Iraq and al Qaeda.
“Mr. Becker also told the Committee that, on several occasions, MG Dunlavey had advised him that the office of Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz had called to express concerns about the insufficient intelligence production at GTMO. Mr. Becker recalled MG Dunlavey telling him after one of these calls, that the Deputy Secretary himself said that GTMO should use more aggressive interrogation techniques. MG Dunlavey told the Committee that he could not recall ever having a phone call with Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz or his staff.” Dunleavy did not recall a lot of things, like putting pressure on his MAJ of military intel above.”
In September of 2002, the month in which Dick Cheney began publicly beating the drum for war in Iraq, a large group of the most dedicated, ideologically committed second-level officials of the Bush Administration became directly involved in what was happening at GTMO. “On September 25, 2002, less than a week after GTMO personnel returned from the training at Fort Bragg, Counsel to the President Alberto Gonzales, Counsel to the Vice President David Addington, DoD General Counsel Jim Haynes, Acting CIA General Counsel John Rizzo, Assistant Attorney General of the Criminal Division [and future Homeland Security director] Michael Chertoff, and other senior administration officials traveled to Guantanamo Bay and were briefed on future plans for detention facilities as well as on intelligence successes, failures, and problems at the JTF.” [One would be interested to know who the “other senior administration officials were.] Jim Haynes apparently agreed with Major General Dunlavey that Dunlavey needed more authority to order more interrogations. They began drawing up a list of new permissible interrogation tactics, most of which is still classified.
In November 2002, Dunlavey was replaced by Major General Jeffrey Miller. Miller initially testified to the committee that he spoke to Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz on the phone once a week—later he said he had misspoken and only briefed Wolfowitz once every three months. By that time the Congressional elections, in which the Republicans regained control of the Senate, were over and the push for war was on full speed ahead.
Meanwhile, three “high-value” detainees—two of whom did not reach Guantanamo until years later—had been the subject of particular interest. Exactly what interrogators did to them, and what information they received in return, now lies at the heart of the escalating public controversy—stimulated by Dick Cheney himself—over whether waterboarding and other extreme measures worked. The three were Mohammed El Khatani, Abu Zubaydah, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Mohammed El Khatani was captured in Pakistan and turned over to American authorities in December 2001. Suspected of being the “twentieth hijacker” in the original 9/11 plan, he was questioned by the FBI from late July through late September 2002, using traditional interrogation methods which stress building a rapport with the prisoner and earning his confidence. Then, for reasons that are not entirely clear, GTMO secured custody of him and wrote up an interrogation plan with which the FBI did not want to be associated. Major General Dunlavey told the FBI that his own JAG had approved the plan, but she herself denied that. In an October 8,2002 email to his colleague, an FBI agent described Joint Task Force 170’s interrogation of Khatani, stating that DoD had tried "sleep deprivation," a dog [according to a Lt. Col. Phifer], "loud music, bright lights, and 'body placement discomfort,' all with negative results" and that DoD interrogators now planned to stop the interrogation. Interrogator David Becker told the Committee that the interrogation plan did not work and that JTF-170 ceased the interrogation after approximately a week and moved Khatani back to the Navy brig. “Another FBI agent reflected upon the failed interrogation in his own email of October 8, 2002,” the report continues, “observing that "I think we should consider leaving him alone, let him get healthy again. and do something 'different. "
Abu Zubaydah was captured after a gunfight at a safe house in Pakistan in 2002, after which he was eventually transferred to a CIA safe house in Thailand and interrogated. The CIA’s claims with respect to what he told them have surfaced in a Justice Department memo of May 30, 2005, which reads:
“Interrogations of Zubaydah—again, once enhanced techniques were employed—furnished detailed information regarding Al Qaeda’s ‘organizational structure, key operatives, and modus operandi’ and identified K[halid]S[heikh]M[ohammed] as the mastermind of the September 11 attacks. . . .You have informed us that Zubaydah also ‘provided significant information on two operatives [including] Jose Padilla[,] who planned to build and detonate a ‘dirty bomb’ in the Washington DC area.’. . .Zubaydah and KSM have also supplied important information about al-Zarqawi and his network.” [italics mine.]
Of these pieces of information, the only one that would qualify as a “ticking bomb” scenario, that is, an instance in which information gained through torture prevented a specific attack, would seem to be the reference to the dirty bomb. Now the wording with respect to Jose Padilla (in which the brackets are in the original) is rather confusing, and seems designed to avoid stating specifically either that Abu Zubaydah’s information had led to Padilla’s arrest, and perhaps even to avoid stating with certainty that Zubaydah had specifically given Padilla’s name. But chronology introduces a huge problem into this scenario. Jose Padilla was arrested on May 8, 2002, a maximum of two months after the arrest of Zubaydah, who had to recover from his wounds before he could be interrogated at all.
Padilla was already in custody, then, when Jay Bybee wrote a still-secret legal opinion on August 2, 2002, authorizing the use of specific interrogation techniques against Zubaydah. The Justice Department refused to release that memo to the Senate Committee. However, according to another Justice Department memo quoted here [I have searched through these memos but haven’t been able to locate this text myself,] Zubaydah was waterboarded at least 83 times during August 2002, that is, right after Bybee wrote that memo. Those interrogations could hardly have been designed to prevent Padilla from doing something since he was already in custody. [Former FBI Agent Ali Soufan has now stated that Zubaydah identified Padilla as a potential terrorist in response to traditional, non-violent interrogation methods during the first half of the year.] They do however immediately precede the Administration’s unveiling of the ad campaign for the Iraq war (as Andrew Card put it, you don’t introduce new products in August—but you can write your copy.)
The case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) raises similar problems. The mastermind of 9/11 was captured on March 1, 2003. Regarding his contributions, the Justice Department memo of 2005 states, “You [the CIA] have informed us that the interrogation of KSM—once enhanced techniques were employed—led to the discovery of a KSM plot, the ‘Second Wave,’ ‘to use East Asian operatives to crash a hijacked airliner into’ a building in Los Angeles. You have informed us that information obtained from KSM also led to the capture of Riduan bin Isomuddin, better known as Hambali, and the discovery of the Guraba Cell, a 17-member Jemaah Islamiyah cell tasked with executing the ‘Second Wave.’” The memo continues that KSM had led the CIA to one Malid Khan, who in turn led them to one Zubair, who was captured and gave information leading to Hambali’s arrest. This passage has now become a right-wing mantra to the effect that the waterboarding of KSM “saved Los Angeles.” (I heard Oliver North say this to Sean Hannity last week.) But once again the chronology raises huge problems. According to President Bush himself, that plot was disrupted in early 2002. According to the New York Times, KSM was waterboarded 183 times in March 2003—months after the Los Angeles plot (which would probably have been impossible to carry out anyway under post 9/11 conditions) had been broken up, but just weeks before the actual invasion of Iraq.
For more than three decades as a practicing historian I have warned against the argument that person X or government X would, or would not, have taken a certain act for a certain reason, because that would or would not “have made sense.” In fact both people and governments constantly do things that make sense all the time. What evidence we have, however—and more is appearing almost every day—is that torture, including waterboarding, never provided much critical information and never actually saved American lives. On the other hand, we have direct testimony that the Guantanamo interrogators were under great pressure to link 9/11 to Iraq. The biggest orgy of waterboarding that we know about took place just before the run-up to the war and just before the invasion itself. And lastly, there is the very troubling fact that the tapes of CIA interrogations (though not, perhaps, the transcripts) were destroyed. Undoubtedly such tapes would have been a terrible embarrassment and humiliation to the nation, but they would also have shown beyond question exactly what it was that CIA interrogators (who have NOT testified about any pressures they may have been under) were trying to find out. Perhaps, indeed, the Bush Administration was not so illogical as we have thought. Perhaps they were using torture for the only actual purpose it serves: to try to get captives to tell interrogators exactly what they wanted to hear. That is something we are entitled to find out.

[Tuesday AM ps: This remarkable story from theTimes this morning how one interview by CIA man John Kiriakou in early 2007 turned the waterboarding debate around, when he said that Abu Zubaydah cracked under waterboarding after 30 seconds. We know now that he was subjected to it 82 times. Kiriakou, the origins of whose story should now be investigated (he admits he wasn't an interrogator himself), became a media sensation and is still quoted almost daily by right-wing talk show hosts and columnists. As I discovered writing The Road to Dallas, when you give an Agency the right to keep its operations secret, it will exploit that right to look as good as possible.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Winter setting in

[Note to new readers: if you have found this blog after receiving an email that begins, "Something of historic proportions is happening--falsely attributed to me--please read the post below this one first. Thank you.]

That President Obama now faces the greatest challenges of any President since FDR or Lincoln is becoming generally acknowledged. Within another year, I predict, it will have become clear that he actually has more to deal with than either of them did--at least with respect to the range of problems he must try to solve. Although Lincoln had to fight put down a huge domestic rebellion, he did not at the same time face an economic crisis or a foreign war--the latter thanks partly to his own clever diplomacy. Roosevelt had first to deal with economic panic and crisis, and then, beginning six years later, with the onset of world war. President Obama already faces looming catastrophes on three fronts: economic, domestic political, and foreign. Getting on top of them all will require extraordinary skill and a lot of help.
On the economic front, as I have mentioned before, Obama does not enjoy FDR's freedom of action for several reasons--the most important being that we are nowhere near the bottom of the economic crisis. Things simply could not have gotten much worse in early 1933 when FDR took office, and that worked to his advantage in important ways. First, partly because the Republican Party of the 1930s still included a good many progressives, he had some genuine bipartisan support. Secondly, the nation's economic leadership was too desperate to argue over any of what he felt it necesary to do, especially during the first few years. And thirdly, no one could question the need for fundamental regulatory reform. Obama on the other hand faces an economic establishment, especially in the financial community, that remains dedicated to business as usual. Today's New York Times includes an appalling article about the profit and loss statements the major banks are issuing, all showing surprising profits over the last quarter. They have reached this result, it seems, by claiming as a profit the fall in the value of their debt--a strategy which, the Times notes, is perfectly legal. That sleight-of-hand accounted for more than the entire reported profit of the bank. This suggests part of the reason why it has proven so difficult realisticall to assess the net worth of the major banks: no one has known, or cared, what their real balance sheets look like for quite a few years now. Paul Krugman called a couple of weeks ago for a return to "boring banking," the well-regulated kind that gave us several decades of steady postwar economic growth. The bankers themselves have not gotten the message. A second, much larger question--exactly what kind of enterprises are going to provide work for millions of unemployed Americans now?--is only starting to be addressed.
The political crisis is more akin to that faced by Lincoln, except that this time the Union is not breaking up. I do not believe there has ever been a time in American history when the opposition party has been so monolithic. There were far more Union Democrats in the North and Border states, and perhaps even more Union men in certain parts of the South, than there are elected Republicans willing, today, to depart from the party line of total opposition. A substantial portion of the population has concluded that our new President threatens all of America's most fundamental values, and they can draw emotional sustenance 24 hours a day from Fox News and from talk radio. Texas Governor Rick Perry's flirtation with secession last week is undoubtedly a portent of things to come, although the red states should do a little math before they push it any further. According to the most recent figures (2005)from the Northeast-Midwest Institute, 33 of the 50 states get more from the federal government than they pay in. Texas is not one of them--it just missed the cut, receiving $.97 for every dollar it pays in taxes. But of those 33, 21 of them voted for McCain. (The top four, all of whom get about twice as much from Washington as they put in, are Mississippi, New Mexico, Bobby Jindhal's Louisiana, and--Alaska. Yup.) On the other hand, 16 of the 18 states who pay in more than they receive voted for Obama. In any event, if one spends a little time listening to Hannity or Limbaugh or watching one of the Fox shows, it is clear that for the foreseeable future, anything that the President does will be interpreted as a step towards radical socialism, a refusal to stand up for American values and interests abroad, and an expression of the President's purported "hatred" of the United States and its values, which, Limbaugh and Hannity constantly claim, he learned at the feet of William Ayres and Jeremiah Wright. This is bound to take its toll.
(The virulence and lunacy of these attacks, which have reached such a pitch in only three weeks, inevitably raises the question of how much role the President's race is playing. These are very difficult questions to answer, but I honestly believe that it is an insignificant factor. Had Hillary Clinton won the election I am sure the tone would be just the same, if not worse. Since 1968, when Richard Nixon began competing lustily for the supporters of George Wallace, social resentment has been at least as important as racial resentment in stoking the Republican fires. The real question is whether Obama and the Democratic Party can win over some portion of red state voters by actually doing something to help their lives.)
And meanwhile, in foreign policy, the Administration's good instincts are paying dividends in Latin America, where the 50-year freeze in our relations with Cuba--to which I referred on the last page of The Road to Dallas--seems likely at last to come to an end. The withdrawal from Iraq is also hopeful--but the renewed effort in Afghanistan and Pakistan seems to me only likely to make the situation in Pakistan even worse, possibly culminating in a fundamentalist coup that might trigger an effort to seize Pakistan's nuclear weapons. And elements within Israel are once again attempting to intimidate the US into blessing or aiding in a strike against Iran--a step which I can only compare to the Austro-Hungarian attack on Serbia that triggered the First World War, since I think it would begin an indefinite conflict, fought by all means available, between much of the Muslim world on one side and Israel and the US on the other. The Bush Administration's policies have established a powerful momentum in the region which the Obama Administration has not been able to reverse--if indeed it even wants to do so.
In 1996, when I reviewed Strauss and Howe's The Fourth Turning, I commented that I was excited by the possibility of living through another era of great events. Now it feels more like a very regrettable necessity. Despite having known about the theory of crises for 15 years--during which it has proven itself out in dozens of ways--I cannot accept the coming crisis as anything more but a most regrettably necessary evil. Now it is here: a grave illness which our domestic and international body politics must endure, if only to clear away dead tissue and give new life the opportunity to begin the process over again. It is the fourth and most dramatic act of the 80 year drama which was destined, for those of us born in the wake of the last crisis, to coincide with our lives--and it can only make it easier to endure to appreciate it as such.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Life in the Blogosphere

[Addendum, November 3, 2012: This post is linked in tomorrow morning's New York Times by "the other David Kaiser," an MIT professor who wrote an op-ed about the hoax email that I first discussed below more than three and a half years ago. Reasonable men and women can differ over the wisdom and propriety of his decision to write the piece and the Times's decision to run it, especially on the very eve of the Presidential election. The author might also have mentioned that the screed made its first appearances, unattributed, in blogs by two especially nasty right wingers, Pam Geller and Pat Dollard. The author remains unknown. May I say to the unknown individual who first put my name on it, you may be having the best day of your life right now, but tomorrow you'll still be a liar and a jerk.

Now that new readers are here I invite you to browse. This weekend's post is a good place to start, and I also recommend "George W. Bush, Man of the Sixties," which appeared on October 21, 2004; "The Regeneracy May Not be Televised," from July 5, 2010; reviews of more or less recent books by Robert Caro and James McGregor Burns, which you can find by searching for their names; my obituary for George McGovern on October 22 of this year; "Struggle," from May 19 of this year; and last, but hardly least, "Ayn Rand's America," which appeared on September 28. Posts appear every weekend.]


During the past seven days this blog has had about 1100 hits, which may be a record. I do hope some of my new patrons will return, but the reason for the outburst of interest is quite ironic: the fraudulent attribution to myself of a piece of right-wing hysteria which continues to circulate around the net. Snopes.com, a site which specializes in exposing fraud, published this almost immediately when I called it to their attention, and during the past ten days 168 hits on historyunfolding.com have come from there. They have traced it to an anonymous comment on a right wing blog last November. It has been misattributed to a couple of other people since then. In addition, another David Kaiser--a scientist at a well-known university--is receiving an average of about one piece of fan mail a day from around the world, praising his perspicacity. (His university publishes his email address on its web site; mine does not.) We have been in touch, and he has a form letter which he uses to reply, making it clear that 1) he isn't the David Kaiser they are looking for and 2) that the David Kaiser they are looking for didn't write it, either. I have queried at least half a dozen of his and my "fans" asking them who sent the article to them, in an effort to start tracing the fraud back to its source, but that seems to be a fruitless endeavor--only a couple have replied and in both cases the trail immediately went cold.
I suppose it's another indication of the world that we are living in that, after a remarkably steady readership of about 800 readers a week for the last few years, the hits could have increased by about 40% thanks to my association with right-wing paranoia. (The full text is available, among many other places, here. This has not actually disturbed me very much. Perhaps because I have taken so much heat for things I actually did say, especially over the last year, I am merely amused by the interest in something that I did not say. But this piece of anti-Obama lunacy--so similar to much of what circulated in the 1930s about FDR, and probably to things written about Lincoln as well--has resonated among a measurable segment of the population, it seems, in a way that the kind of commentary that appears here every week does not. I should not be surprised. Crisis eras bring crazies out of the woodwork. So far we, unlike the French in the 1790s or the Germans in the 1930s, have been able to avoid having them in charge--may it continue to be so. Now, back to work.

Bernhard von Bülow, born in 1849 to a noble German family of diplomats and soldiers, served in the latter stages of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-1, spent more than twenty years in the diplomatic service, and became German Foreign Secretary in 1897 and Chancellor in 1900, holding that position for the next nine years. After the Emperor William II asked for, and accepted, his resignation in 1909 (more later), he went into retirement, but returned to the government as Ambassador to Italy in 1914-5 (he had an Italian wife) in an unsuccessful attempt to keep Italy from entering the war on the side of the allies. In 1917, when his successor, Bethmann Hollweg, fell from power, some thought that he would return, but instead the Emperor picked a cipher who essentially fronted for the High Command, who ruled Germany, in effect, for the last disastrous 18 months of the war. In the 1920s Bülow published four volumes of memoirs, one of the most sensational such works ever issued in the western world. They were translated into English and published in the United States, and in the early 1990s, shortly after returning to New England, I found a full set among the library of William Langer, for many years a distinguished Harvard professor (who coincidentally retired the year before I arrived there), whose books were on sale at the late, lamented Pangloss book store. (When I was a grad student there were at least four major used bookstores in Harvard Square; now all have disappeared.) I have read a volume from time to time and am now in the middle of the third one, chronologically, which covers most of his time as Chancellor.
Bülow's memoirs caused an uproar for two reasons. Because the Versailles Treaty had not only blamed Germany and its allies for the war, but imposed reparations upon the Germans for that very reason, it had become an article of German national faith during the 1920s that Germany was not to blame for the conflict. But Bülow put the blame squarely upon his successor, Bethmann Hollweg, for whom he had nothing but contempt. He also reproached the government for its failure to make peace until it was too late, arguing at one point that Germany should even have willingly given up Alsace-Lorraine, the spoils of the war in which he himself had been fought, if necessary to secure a compromise. Having himself steered Germany through two major crises without war--the Moroccan Crisis of 1905-6 and the Bosnian crisis of 1908-9--he felt no need to make excuses for anyone else or spare his countrymen any unpleasant facts. Knowing every major European language fluently, having lived much of his adult life abroad, and having read widely in both the ancient and modern languages (although, most untypically for a German, he had no interest in music), he balanced his passionate loyalty to his own country with an acute sense of its strengths and weaknesses in comparison to others. Here, for instance, is a characteristic passage about German attitudes towards Britain and France:
"Even those Germans who were familiar with England's long and successful history, and who were not so naïive in judging her unlimited political egotism as the majority of their fellow countrymen, had only an incomplete idea of the strength of the English people and of the English national character generally. The old German mistake of interpreting important questions of international policy and events on the world's stage and the peoples of the world in the light of narrow German Party politics also affected the Germans' judgment of hte English. The German Democrat, and particularly the German Social Democrat, looked at Tsarist Russia with grim eyes; his thoughtful forehead grew red with 'angry indignation' when good or will more intimate relations with this 'barbaric country' were suggested to him. For a long time many democratic Germans judged all Frenchmen in the light of the Dreyfus affair. . . .German conservatives, on the other hand, regarded the 'nation of shopkeepers' [Britain] with contempt. They looked with mocking eyes upon Wellington who, when he was surprised by a sudden rain while he was conducting a parade, quickly opened an umbrella which some one handed to him, and they scorned a country where the sons of dukes became clerks in banking houses."
Although Bülow never seems to have visited the United States--certainly not before the First World War--he had a keen sense of our potential importance on the world stage, and, as he explains, worked for good relations with the US as feelings between Britain and Germany became worse. "Kaiser William II," he wrote, "was not difficult to win over to my standpoint and my efforts to promote it. The active, enterprising, daring and unwearied American was a type who by reason of his very individuality was bound to appeal to His Majesty the Kaiser. The American multi-millionaire, who was then beginning to come over to Europe more often, pleased the German Emperor in a veyr high degree. . . .Theodore Roosevelt, the President of the United States, exercised a quite particular fascination over the Kaiser. 'That's my man!' he used to say, as soon as the name of Roosevelt was mentioned. He read in dispatched from our ambassador that Roosevelt performed feats of riding equal to those of a cowboy, that he could hit the bull's-eye with deadly marksmanship at a prodigious distance, that his spirit was unquenchable, fearless, and ready for anything. But, as was often the case with William II, the danger of exaggeration marred ideas that were correct enough in their inception."
Bülow's relationship to his sovereign, indeed, provides most of the drama of the two middle volumes of the memoirs. Reading about William II, and thinking meanwhile of American Presidents like Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush, it seems astonishing how little influence forms of government, whether democratic or monarchical, seem to have upon the personalities of those who, by such different routes, become heads of state. (Of course, in Bush's case the results were not altogether different from those of a European monarch.) The split between Bülow and William was largely generational. Bülow, who in the Franco-Prussian war had participated in the last act of Bismarck's creation of the German Empire, and who had spent the first twenty years of his career as a diplomat under Bismarck, was as devoted to the memory and the legacy of the Iron Chancellor as LBJ was to that of FDR. He shared Bismarck's view that Germany was already large enough--indeed, perhaps a little too large--and that there was nothing to gain from any European war. He also understood the domestic compromises between absolutism and constitutional government that Bismarck had forged, and knew that the German people, while loyal to the monarchy, no longer had any use for absolutism. But William II (like Theodore Roosevelt and Wilson) had been merely a child during his country's last great crisis, and made up for his lack of actual military experience with emotional bombast. His lack of self-restraint, like Johnson's, Nixon's, and (as I believe we shall eventually learn) Bush's, gave his subordinates many difficult problems to solve. Again and again Bülow listened to William make an impromptu and indiscreet speech on the danger of foreign war or the divine right of kings, and hastened to plead with any reporters present not to report the Emperor's remarks until he, Bülow, had had a chance to edit them. I always feel that Bülow's memoirs resemble what Henry Kissinger's might have been had he been willing to tell the exact truth about his own head of state. And never is Bülow, the combat veteran, more scathing than when he dismisses his chief's warlike statements and marginal notes on diplomatic documents. "William II," he wrote, "did not want war. He feared it. . . .William II did not want war, if only because he did not trust his nerves not to give way in any really critical situation. The moment there was danger, His Majesty became uncomfortably aware that he could never lead an Army in the field. He knew that he was neurasthenic, without real capacity as a General, and still less able, despite his naval hobby, of commanding a squadron or even captaining a ship."
One does not have to look far, indeed, for passages reminiscent of recent American history. "[William II] never understood that one cannot imitate genius. He wanted to substitute genius by 'Divine Right,' but the latter cannot be acquired by force, even if the ruler, who craves divine grace, proclaims himself again and again to be an instrument of heaven and a keepr of God's household. There were times when William II, as the son of his rationalist mother, believed that considerable innate talents, activity and English common sense played a greater role in the world than genius. If necessary, he would attain his ends by force, by the police and the army. Kaiser William II's megalomania was encouraged by flattering courtiers and, regrettable as it is, by unscrupulous scholars as well, just as the megalomania of other rulers, such as blind King George of Hannover, as the Stuarts in England, and the Bourbons in France, was encouraged by their entourage."
Bülow's fall, ironically, took place largely because he failed in 1908 to perform his most critical task, and allowed an interview William had given to a British correspondent of the Daily Telegraph to be published without having gone over it himself. In it, the Emperor took credit for having given the British the plan that had enabled them to win the Boer War, thereby enraging not only the British public, but his own, since Germans had almost unanimously sympathized with the Boers. The storm of protest threatened to bring down the monarchy, and William, who did not feel that Bülow had taken enough of the responsibility for the disaster, took the next opportunity to accept his resignation.
The qualities of real statesmanship to which Bülow so often refers--especially the need to see the world as it is, to understand the thoughts of feelings of other nations, and realistically to assess the needs of one's own nation--seem to be both rare, and distributed more or less at random throughout the human race. To have such a person actually ascend to a position of great power seems to be a fortunate accident--and such men and women, like all the rest of us, eventually fall from power and die. Thus it behooves us both to study and to understand them. That is why it is so sad that college history students are given so little opportunity to do so now.
This blog is about current and historical events, not the state of academia, but I have referred frequently to the decline of my profession, an opportunity has now arisen for me to let readers see what I am talking about. During the last month there has been another controversy about the state of history on the internet list, H-Diplo, which deals with the history of international relations, and on which I have been a very regular contributor for about 15 years. The thread can be followed on the net--it begins innocently enough here, but eventually becomes quite a bit more heated and revealing. It will give any lay person, I think, a good idea of what is going on in the halls of academe, which in my opinion are every bit as much in need of a housecleaning and a re-orientation as Wall Street.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Two Crisis Presidents

For the better part of the last year I have been researching a new book, on the entry of the United States into the Second World War. That project has involved reading virtually every public word uttered by President Roosevelt from the middle of 1940 until the end of 1941, and that has been an extraordinary experience. It has confirmed, to begin with, that FDR intuitively understood his place in history as defined by Strauss and Howe: again and again he compares the age through which the American people are living to the Revolutionary War and Civil War periods and draws analogies between them. The book will focus on foreign policy, but given the similarities between the 1930s and the present day, Roosevelt's speeches inevitably make one wonder whether President Obama, beginning at a similar point of departure, will be able to make similar ones eight years hence. FDR gave a particularly striking speech on November 1, 1940, in Brooklyn, at the end of his campaign against Wendell Willkie for a third term. He had done relatively little campaigning that fall, pleading the pressing business occasioned by the world crisis, and making a pledge never to travel more than twelve hours away from Washington by train, which he kept; but he made a flurry of addresses during the last week, of which this was probably the most notable. Here are some extensive excerpts.


Back in the 20's, in the years after the last World War, Americans worked and built many things, but few of our people then stopped to think why they were working and why they were building and whither they were tending.
Those were the days when prosperity was measured only by the stock ticker.
There were the factory workers forced to labor long hours at low wages in sweat-shop conditions. They could look forward to no security in their old age. They could look forward to no insurance during periods of unemployment.
There were the farmers of the Nation, overburdened with debt and with farm surpluses, their income vanishing, their farms threatened with foreclosure.
There were the natural resources of the land, being wasted-soil, forests, minerals and water power.
There were millions of workers, unable to organize to protect their livelihoods, unable to form trade unions.
There were the small businesses of the Nation, threatened by the monopolies of concentrated wealth.
The savings of the many were entrusted to supposedly great financiers, who were to lose those savings in fantastic adventures of giant holding companies and giant investment trusts.
The crash came as it had to come. And then for three years the American people waited and suffered. For three years the American Government did nothing to help.
In 1933, the American people began to bestir themselves. They had come to learn that inaction offered no escape from the problems of a troubled and changing world.
The American people determined then and there that what could not be done by individual effort could be done through joint effort; that what the industrial and financial leaders could not do, or would not do, a democratic Government could do and would do!
You all know the history of recovery, beginning in 1933, and progressing ever since.
Our economic system began again to function. Then came the suggestion from onopolistic finance that while the Government had done a good rescue job, the best thing it could do at that point was to forget all about it, and to turn the whole economic system back to Wall Street to run again.
But they little knew the temper of the American people. The New Deal was no mere rescue party to restore to a chosen few their old power over the people's savings, the people's labor, the people's lives.
We had seen social unrest at home and abroad— the frustrated hopes of common men and women, the apathy which is the forerunner of cynicism, the despair which dissolves civilization. What this Administration was determined to do was to save America from that frustration and from that despair.
We all remember how negligible was the opposition that this Administration met in the early days when it was cleaning up the wreckage, which had come from the era of speculation.
The bitter opposition from Republican leaders did not come until a little later. It came when this Administration made it clear that we were not merely salvaging a few things from the past, but that we were determined to make our system of private enterprise and private profit work more efficiently, more democratically, to fill the demands and needs of all the people of this land.
We understand the philosophy of those who offer resistance, of those who conduct a counter offensive against the American people's march of social progress. It is not an opposition which comes necessarily from wickedness—it is an opposition that comes from subconscious resistance to any measure that disturbs the position of privilege.
It is an unfortunate human failing that a full pocketbook often groans more loudly than an empty stomach.
I am, as you know, a firm believer in private enterprise and in private property. I am a firm believer in the American opportunity of men and women to rise in private enterprise.
But, of course, if private opportunity is to remain safe, average men and women must be able to have it as a part of their own individual satisfaction in life and their own stake in democracy.
With that in view, we have pushed ahead with social and economic reforms, determined that this period in American life should be written down as an heroic era—an era in which men fought not merely to preserve a past, but to build a future.
You and I have seen nations great and small go down in ruin, or get backed up against the wall, because the reactionary men who led them could not see the real danger that threatened. They were afraid of losing their own selfish privilege and power. They feared the legitimate forward surge of their own common people, more than they feared the menacing might of foreign dictators.
From them, we in the United States take warning.
Most Republican leaders in our own country for the last seven years have bitterly fought and blocked that forward surge of average men and women in their pursuit of happiness. And let us not be deluded that overnight those leaders have suddenly become the real friends of these average men and women.
Do you believe that the bulk of the money to finance this vast Republican campaign is being provided by people who have the interests of the common man at heart? You know, very few of us are that gullible.
Oh, they may say at election time that they approve the social gains and social objectives of the last seven years. But I say that these men have not yet proven that they even understand what these social gains or social objectives have been.
The people throughout this country know how many and how difficult were the battles that we have fought and won in the last seven years.
Do you want to abandon the protection of people's savings from fraudulent manipulators, the curbing of giant holding companies that despoiled investors and consumers alike, by delivering them into the hands of those who have fought those reforms?
Do you want to abandon the responsibility for the well-being of those who live and work on the farms of the Nation to those who fought against the farm program every inch of the way?
Do you want to abandon collective bargaining, the outlawing of child labor, the minimum wage, the time-and-a-half for overtime, the elimination of sweat-shop conditions, by turning them over to the proven enemies of labor?
Do you want to hamstring the old-age pension system, or unemployment insurance, or aid for children, or maternity welfare, or vocational training for the physically handicapped, or financial aid to the blind by delivering them into the hands of those who have fought and misrepresented those reforms?
Do you want to abandon slum clearance to those Republican leaders who have fought against every appropriation for decent housing?
Do you want to turn over your Government to those who failed to have confidence in the future of America and who now preach fear for the future of America? As an example of that doctrine of fear, certain insurance companies are now sending letters to their policyholders, warning them that if this Administration is retained in office, their policies will shrink in value.
That is just another form of things we have seen before, another form, for instance, of that pay-envelope campaign—that campaign of fear of the last week of 1936.
The fact is that the very existence of most of these insurance companies I speak of was saved by this Administration in 1933. They are today more solvent than they ever were before.
If there were a vestige of truth in these dangerous forebodings, the bonds of the United States Government would be selling at a very low price, instead of well above par. Why, it was only last week that the Treasury of the United States sold some one-year bonds, to pay for public housing—one hundred million dollars worth of them at an interest rate of only one-quarter of one per cent.
And I must not forget to mention that that bond issue was over-subscribed eighteen times. That certainly indicates the solidity of the credit of the United States. And if you need further proof, take a look at the statement of the Commonwealth and Southern System. There you will find that they have bought and hold twenty-one million dollars of United States Government bonds! [Willkie, FDR's opponent, was the lawyer for that system.]
Our program in the past, our program for the future, is, as you know, equality of economic opportunity. Such a program calls for many things. It requires an orderly settlement of industrial disputes not by those devoted to company unions, but by agencies alert to the requirements of labor and mindful of the responsibilities of industry.
This program entails old-age insurance and unemployment insurance, operating on an increasingly wider base, so that eventually it will include every man and woman in the country.
It makes available cheap credit to impoverished tenants, to consumers, and to small business. In fact, it has always seemed to me that our program starts with small business, so that it may grow and flourish.
It curbs the old predatory activities of high finance and monopoly practices.
It guarantees that our national resources are used for the benefit of the whole people—and not exploited for the benefit of a few.
It provides for the resettlement of farmers from marginal lands to richer lands, and for farm ownership for enslaved tenants.
Monopoly does not like this program. Certain types of high finance do not like it. Most of the American plutocracy do not like it.
But the vast majority of American business, the backbone of American business, continues to grow and flourish under it. For that business is interested in reasonable profits, not in promoters' tribute. That business is interested in freedom from monopolistic restraints and economic imperialism. That business knows that the farmers and the workers, the great mass of our citizens, have never asked for more than equality and fair play.


Roosevelt had such success politically and left such an enormous legacy behind because of his focus on essential principles, laid out, again and again, in the short paragraphs--often ladened with key statistics--that he loved. The latest cover story of Time argues that the current crisis may be good for us because it will restore many forms of discipline to American life--and that, in many ways, was what Roosevelt was talking about: the need to discipline the powerful, in particular, to open up rewards and opportunities for the many. President Obama obviously feels the same way. He faces a similarly negative Republican opposition--more negative, as I have pointed out, than FDR's was at the outset of his Administration. But his real problem, at this point, it seems to me, is in his own party and his own Administration.

Roosevelt and his contemporaries, the Missionary generation, had spent their young adulthood during the Progressive era, a liberal era politically. Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had introduced the idea of government regulation of the economy into American political life, although their actual steps in that direction had been quite modest. The era of reaction against their efforts had lasted only eight years before the Crash of 1929. Roosevelt had a cadre of middle-aged reformers upon which to draw when he put the New Deal together.

Our own Awakening (about 1965-84) was very liberal socially, but politically it marked the shift from the Democratic majority created by FDR to the new Republican one created by Nixon and solidified by Reagan. There has been no serious effort to reform the economy on behalf of the less well off since the 1960s in the United States. And as a result, President Obama, whose instincts seem to be very good, is relying upon an economic team led by Tim Geithner and Larry Summers, each of whom is deeply implicated in the economic changes of the last fifteen years or so, and neither of whom has shown much interest in fundamental reform. I am deeply troubled that the maverick economists that have kept older traditions alive--the Paul Krugmans, Joseph Stiglitzes, and James K. Galbraiths--unanimously feel that the Administration's rescue plans have not found the right path.

No President can move faster than history is ready for, and it may be, sadly, that further disasters will be necessary to discredit what has become the conventional wisdom. Both FDR and Lincoln frequently disappointed their more radical supporters in their first years in office. But sadly, the diseases of the last thity years have infected nearly our entire leadership class. The public is ready for a new one. The problem is to provide it.