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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...

Saturday, July 24, 2021


 The next history unfolding post will appear on Monday or perhaps Tuesday, July 26-7.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Afghanistan and the Boom Generation

 According to the more sophisticated definition of Baby Boomers--those born from 1943 through 1960--the youngest of them are turning 61 this year.  They make up a substantial portion of the Biden cabinet, but unless Donald Trump wins another term in 2024, their time in the White House itself appears to be over.  In a situation without precedent, three of the most powerful people in Washington--President Biden, Speaker Pelosi, and Minority leader McConnell--belong to the even older Silent generation.  John Boehner will almost surely be the last Boomer Speaker of the House.  Boomer influence on our politics peaked, I would argue, under George W. Bush, and I still think he did more than any other president to create the unfortunate world in which we live now.   The war in Afghanistan, now near its end, exemplifies his legacy and its catastrophic effect.

I doubt that George W. Bush ever read The Fourth Turning, but I would be very surprised if Karl Rove did not. Some years ago, writing a long post about our great crisis, I called Rove's office to ask them about this, but they declined to answer.  Rove clearly wanted to transform American politics and create a lasting Republican majority.  He and Bush seized upon 9/11 to unite the country behind them, and they were spectacularly successful initially.  The whole country supported the invasion of Afghanistan, and I was one of very few people publicly to express reservations about the project. The country, including nearly all of the prominent politicians of the Boom generation such as Hillary Clinton, also fell behind the invasion of Iraq about 18 months later.  By the time Barack Obama took office in 2009 Afghanistan had become the new "good war," in contrast to the bad one in Iraq, and Obama re-escalated the former while getting out of the latter.  Donald Trump emerged as the first opponent of the Afghanistan war in the White House, and Joe Biden has decided to follow in Trump's footsteps.

The Afghan war is now ending as the Vietnam War did in 1974-5.  It seems almost certain that the Taliban will take over the country within months after the US departure is complete, rather than the two-plus years it took for South Vietnam to collapse.  How did leadership from the Boom generation--supposedly shaped by Vietnam--manage to repeat their elders' greatest mistake?  Well, to begin with, the neoconservatives who dominated foreign policy under Bush thought that Vietnam was not a mistake, but that we had not fought hard or long enough.  Defense intellectuals had also convinced themselves that new technologies could allow us to fight any war cheaply, and thus did not care that Afghanistan had three or four times as many people in it, spread over an enormously larger territory, than South Vietnam did.  It took us many  years to acknowledge a fundamental strategic fact in Afghanistan: that the Taliban enjoyed sanctuary in, and support from, our supposed ally Pakistan, which wanted to keep Afghanistan in friendly hands. We tried to avoid one supposed mistake in Vietnam, our decision to bless a coup against Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963.  Hamid Karzai, our first chosen leader, obviously had problems but we were determined to back him until the end.  Like Diem, he also had a very unpopular and troublesome brother, Walid Karzai.  Americans like Edward Lansdale had persuaded themselves that Diem would do just fine if he could dispense with Ngo Dinh Nhu, his brother, but Diem would never do this.  In Afghanistan we got to rerun this experiment when Walid Karzai was assassinated, but that did not help.  Hamid Karzai eventually left office anyway.  Despite tens of thousands of training troops and billions of dollars, we never built up a reliable Afghan army, much less one that could hold its own without American air support. Now that we are not coming to their rescue, the Afghan forces are melting away.

In retrospect, the committed or ambitious members of the Boom generation took one of two paths.  One large cohort, influenced by the late 1960s, renounced traditional avenues to power and became activists of one kind or another, or went into academia.  Those have now succeeded in transforming many values of our society, first within academia and now in major institutions.  The second type, including leading political figures and defense intellectuals, went into government or business and transformed existing institutions to suit their own ambitions.  That is what Bush, Paul Wolfowitz, Condoleezza Rice, Douglas Feith and the rest were doing in their plans to use military force to transform the Middle East, and that is what their contemporaries did on Wall Street. They took advantage of the dominating military establishment that earlier generations had built up during the Cold War, and of the post-Cold War environment in which the United States did not as yet have a real peer competitor.  Wolfowitz, apparently, said frankly that the US had only a relatively brief time to eliminate hostile regimes like those in Iran, Iraq and North Korea before a peer competitor emerged.  He had failed to push this view through during the Bush I administration, but by 2001 it reigned supreme.

In Afghanistan and most of the rest of the Middle East the Bush II policy--continued, in Egypt and Libya, by his successor--has been a disaster.  Democracy has not caught on, except perhaps in Tunisia.  Iraq and Libya are riven by civil war. Iran is at least the equal of Saudi Arabia as a regional power. But that is not all.  The utter, undeniable failure of this initiative has destroyed the link between our elites and our people on foreign policy.  Donald Trump realized that, and it helped him reach the White House.   

In 1774-1794, 1861-65, and 1929-45, the US government demonstrated its ability to undertake and complete great tasks that required the mobilization of much of the population, economic sacrifice, and a disciplined population.  In the crisis that began in 2001 we have failed to do any of that repeatedly, most recently during the ongoing pandemic, in which our contempt for authority has cost us many tens of thousands of lives. Not only have we failed to solve great problems, but we have also lost the common identity that came from belonging to one strong and effective nation--an identity which in early periods extended even to what we now call marginalized groups.  The whole basis of our government is now threatened in many ways. On the right, the gun rights movement denies the government the power that Max Weber defined as the essence of the modern state: the monopoly on the legitimate use of force.  On the left, various movements argue that our founding principle have never been anything but a sham.  Effective use of government power, at home or abroad, may be the only antidote to diseases like these.  We have missed it for too long.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

The Woke Rule the Media

 When the words "woke" or "wokeness" come up on facebook, many people immediately declare them meaningless, simply right wing epithets designed to discredit leftists.  Liberals who are not woke, however, such as myself, are reminded every morning that wokeness rules our major urban newspapers and most of the television news operations, as well as academia.  Yesterday the New York Times provided an excellent concise example of wokeness in a column by op-ed regular Gail Collins about presidential rankings.  Historians have just generated a new set--because I have never been designated a "presidential historian," I was not consulted.  Collins commented on the list from her perspective, and I am going to quote some of her comments in detail for non-commercial use only.

Here is her first substantive paragraph.  

 "Of course, Abraham Lincoln came in first. Lincoln almost always wins. After that, reservations begin to rise. George Washington came next, as usual, but you can’t ignore the slave-owning. Then it’s Franklin Roosevelt (depends on how much you like the federal government) and Theodore Roosevelt (depends on how much you like imperialism)."

Now as it happens, I do think that ranking Theodore Roosevelt fourth is much too high.  Having researched his presidency myself now, I think his primary contribution had to do with how he taught Americans to think about the great issues of the twentieth century.  He recognized excessive corporate power as a serious danger, although he proposed rather tentative solutions and had relatively little impact on our economic structure.  He correctly identified the US as a great power in a world of great powers that might have to fight in a great intercontinental war at some point in the future. He pursued various forms of imperialism in Latin America, although he didn't annex any new territory and regarded our possession of the Philippines as temporary.  As for Franklin Roosevelt, he not only vastly expanded the federal government, but also did more than any other President to reduce economic inequality and created the postwar world as Collins (born 1945) and I have known it all our lives.  Given that our own generation has undone most of his legacy, it is not too surprising that she doesn't value it any more. 

Collins then says that she has "always really disliked Thomas Jefferson.  (Yeah, yeah, I know, the Declaration of Independence.)" The first reason she cites is a pair of very sexist comments in letters to two different women, one of them his own daughter.  The second involves Sally Hemmings and I'll take that one up in a moment.

This is a fine example of a woke feminist perspective.  Collins doesn't care that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence (which, of course, he did not do as President).  She also doesn't care--and may not even know--that Jefferson brought to an end our first era of truly bitter partisan political conflict, one perhaps as bad as the one we are in now.  Nor does she care, apparently, about the Louisiana Purchase, or Jefferson's attempts to find a way to protect America's interests during a world war without going to war, or that he signed the law outlawing the importation of slaves from Africa that Congress passed just as soon as the Constitution allowed it to do so.  Because Collins is a woman, apparently, she thinks she has a right--if not a duty--to judge Jefferson mainly on his attitudes towards women--even if those attitudes were anything but unusual in his time.   Jefferson remains a key historical figure because his ideas on other topics--such as how societies should be governed--were unusual.  Nor is it far to say that he contributed nothing to women's rights. The idea of equal rights between women and men, I would suggest, was inconceivable so long as society was divided into different orders with different rights.  That was the idea that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution struck down.  And contrary to what many wokesters will tell you, as soon as they did so, both women and others who did not yet enjoy those writes began pointing to the language of those documents to argue that they should be included, and within another 142 years, they were.  None of that could have happened if Jefferson and the other founding fathers had not taken the crucial first step.

Collins continues as follows: "Take that, Thomas Jefferson. And, of course, I haven’t even gotten around to the part about fathering at least six children with Sally Hemmings, a woman he had enslaved."

The substitution of "enslaved persons" for "slaves" had become fashionable by 2015, although it was still controversial then.  It is now mainstream, justified on the grounds that it gives slaves more dignity.  The use of "enslaver," or phrases like "a woman he had enslaved," goes further, and seriously distorts history.  To say that Thomas Jefferson "enslaved" Sally Hemmings would imply, to me, that she was originally a free person whom he personally turned into a slave.  Of course he did not.  She was the daughter of a slave (and, as it happens, of Jefferson's father-in-law), and thus, under the laws of Virginia at that time, she was born a slave.  No one in colonial America had the right to turn a free person into a slave.  Collins herself refers correctly to Washington as "slave-owning" rather than "enslaving," but Jefferson doesn't get the same courtesy.

 The old phraseology--that men including Washington, Jefferson and James Madison owned slaves--remains more accurate because it describes legal reality, however repugnant we find that legal reality today.   Wokeness, however, has no respect for law as such, only for morality as it is now understood.  Laws contradicting that morality are unworthy of mention, much less obedience. And if men violated present-day morality--e.g., by owning slaves--nothing else they did can be very significant.

Collins concludes by comparing John Quincy Adams to Joe Biden.  "John Quincy Adams was our sixth president, who came into the job with a strong history in foreign affairs and diplomacy. He won an election that left the opposition irate — Andrew Jackson’s fans never quit complaining about the 'corrupt bargain.'”  Well--not exactly.  Adams lost the popular vote to Jackson, failed to win an electoral college majority, and was chosen by the House of Representatives after Henry Clay swung his supporters to Adams. Adams then made Clay Secretary of State, and his popularity never recovered. And after Jackson defeated Adams in 1828, he immediately asked Congress to abolish the electoral college!  Adams was the first of five presidents--Trump was the last--to win election while losing the popular vote. It would be foolish, however, to expect an editor at today's New York Times to know anything about this--facts are quite passé. 

The essence of wokeness is self-centeredness based on race, gender, and sexual orientation.  It stems from the postmodern idea that those attributes determine everyone's perspective. Originally it held that every perspective is equally valid, but now it privileges [sic] the perspectives of oppressed groups, since oppressors--straight white males--supposedly never think about anything but maintaining themselves in power.   It thus denies the very idea of universal principles such as those reflected in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  It also denies the relevance, really of any history before the great awakening of the late 1960s, except as a record of what we should not be. In so doing, it threatens to sweep away the whole legal and political basis on which modern society--including the idea of equality--was built.  This is a huge risk for all of us, and particularly for the less powerful.  All our major intellectual and artistic institutions are now contributing to that risk.

Saturday, July 03, 2021

Blunt talk about voting rights

 I suspect that some readers will disllike this post, but in the midst of a crisis over democracy, we all need to speak our minds. That is especially true for  those of us who reject most of the propaganda now emanating from both sides of the political fence--and if you've been here long, you know that I count myself among those.

On the last day of its session, the Supreme Court upheld Arizona laws requiring particular procedures to vote.  One threw out votes cast at the wrong precinct; another bans the collection of large numbers of mail in ballots by private parties.  Virtually every red state is now passing such laws in response to controversies about the 2020 election, and the court system is evidently not going to overturn them.  It was thirteen years ago that the court upheld voter ID requirements at the polls.  Democrats up to and including President Biden call these laws "voter suppression" and compare them to other measures in effect during the Jim Crow era.  

Let me say before going any further that Republican legislatures are also passing another kind of election law that does represent a serious and unprecedented threat to our democracy.  These laws authorize state legislatures, most of which are now dominated by Republicans, to resolve disputes over election results, and thus, potentially, to declare Republicans winners on very dubious grounds.  They are a real danger in purple states and must be fought in purple states.  On the other hand, I simply do not believe that laws like the Arizona ones that the court just sustained really fit the definition of "voter suppression," and I think that the Democratic Party, rather than wring its collective hands and declare the death of democracy, should simply get to work on readily available means of counteracting them.

To Republicans, I suspect, the Democratic attitude seems to be that giving everyone the same right to vote, and the same access, is not enough: states must take affirmative action to make it easier for people to vote.  That is what mail-in voting--a target of many of the new laws--does.  It certainly seems to have worked very well last fall, and states seemed, in fact, to have devised excellent procedures to make sure that only valid votes were cast.  Yet mass mail in voting--as opposed to absentee ballots for people who literally cannot be at the polls on election day--is a very recent innovation, one which we managed without for centuries.  It did create significant vote-counting problems, since counting mail-ins didn't begin until the polls closed, delaying a final count in key states for many days.  And whether or not mail-in voting and the private collection of votes actually led to fraud last year, it doesn't seem unreasonable to me, in these polarized times, to think that they might--on the Republican side, if not the Democratic.  To put it another way, mass mail-in voting will inevitably create huge controversies and problems for as long as the nation remains as divided as it is today.

Among Democrats, I think, we are seeing the results of a strategy that they have pursued for about 70 years: the use of the federal court system to secure their objectives.  The Supreme Court from the 1950s through the 1970s outlawed school segregation, banned school prayer, expanded the rights of defendants, legalized birth control and abortion, ordered all states to create legislative districts of equal populations, blessed affirmative action in college admissions, and legalized school busing for integration.    More recently it legalized gay sex and gay marriage.  Some of these decisions enjoyed majority support among the electorate, others did not.  Many involved new interpretations of various parts of the Constitution, some more obvious than others. They had two unintended effects.  First of all, these decisions mobilized certain constituencies such as white southerners and religious conservatives for the Republican Party.  Secondly, they inspired a Republican counter-offensive designed to reverse many of these decisions by filling the Supreme Court and the other federal courts with conservative justices.  What nine men and women could decide, another nine justices could overturn.  We have now seen that happen with respect to gun rights, the Voting Rights Act, and many economic issues, and it may not be long before it happens with respect to abortion rights.  The enormous power of the Supreme Court on highly sensitive political issues, in fact, has made judicial appointments the most important domestic presidential power, and a completely partisan issue.

One op-ed after another is now declaring that the Democrats have lost the Supreme Court as a means of "protecting" voting rights and stopping "voter suppression."  I would argue, however, that the only votes that the Arizona laws "suppress" are those of people who couldn't be troubled to find out where their proper polling place was--not an unreasonable obligation, it seems to me, to place on adult citizens of a democracy.  Truly disabled people, as far as I know, still have the right to vote from home.  In short, the Democratic Party could respond to the curtailment of mail-in voting simply by making a more determined, well-organized effort to get its voters physically to the polls and procure them whatever identification they need.  They should begin that effort now, in preparation for the 2022 elections, and if those elections reveal that some areas don't have enough polling places to accommodate their voters, there will be time to exert effective pressure to correct that before the critical year of 2024.  Democrats must recognize that they will not be able to count on the Supreme Court to enact their agenda for the foreseeable future.  That means they have to use other, more fundamental democratic tools, led by getting voters to the polls.   That is not a challenge that any serious political party should be afraid to accept.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

A New Take on a Classic Movie

N.B. The original post had a serious mistake which has been fixed.

 Last week, a film group I belong to watched the Akira Kurosawa classic, Rashomon.  It concerns the apparent murder of a samurai and rape of his beautiful young wife by a bandit.  In  a trial, both the bandit and the wife tell the story of what happened, and the samurai does as well, speaking through a medium.  Meanwhile, an old woodcutter, who found the body, watches in horror.  As he explains to a priest and another man a day later, in a pouring rain under Rashomon Gate, he saw the whole thing, and his version is very different as well.  Critics usually cite the film as a meditation on the relativity of truth.  I had seen it only once before, sometime in the 1970s, and that was all I had seen in it then. This time I saw something completely different.

The film opens with an extraordinarily bleak shot of the rain and the gate, and the credits mentioned that it dated from 1950.  That was about five years earlier than I thought it was, and it set me thinking.  1950 was only five years after the end of the Second World War, and the American occupation was continuing as it was shot.  Although the plot appears to be set centuries earlier, the sense of devastation in the opening shot could not help but evoke the devastation wrought by the war all over Japan.  I began to think that the plot might be an allegory for the war, its aftermath, and the Japanese peoples' inevitable tortured confusion over who was to blame, and where their allegiances lay now.

I must first summarize the stories the four witnesses told.  The bandit explained that he had seen the samurai and his wife passing by, and had been excited by her beauty.  He lured the samurai deeper into the forest with a tale of buried valuables, and then fell upon him, overcame him, brought him back to his wife, and tied him up.  Then he began to rape the wife, but, as he told the story, she suddenly was seduced by him and welcomed him.  Afterwards, she was filled with shame, and demanded that the bandit untie her husband and fight him to the death to determine which would keep her. He does so, and after a long sword fight, he kills the samurai, only to find that she has run away.

The wife, who testified next, said that the bandit had raped her and then left.  She begged her husband's forgiveness but he looked at her coldly.  Filled with shame, she begged him to kill her, but he merely looked at her with contempt, and she fainted, holding a dagger in her hand.  When she awoke, he was dead with the dagger in his chest.  She then tried and failed to kill herself.  

The samurai's testimony, delivered through a female medium, is a dramatic highlight of the film.  After he had been tied up and the bandit had raped his wife, he says, the bandit asked her to travel with him (promising even to stop being a bandit.) She agreed, and then asked the bandit to kill her husband since she could not belong to two men.  Instead, the bandit offered the samurai either to kill the woman or to let her go.  The samurai told the court that he had been willing to pardon the bandit for what he had done.  But the woman fled, the bandit set the samurai free, and the samurai killed himself with his wife's dagger.

The woodcutter then announces to the priest and the third man that he has lost all faith in humanity because everyone had lied.  He had not merely found the body, he had seen the whole incident. He said that after the rape, the bandit had begged the woman to marry him, but she freed her husband instead.  He did not want to fight for the honor of a despoiled woman, but she taunted him into doing so.  The fight in this version is very tentative and both men seem terrified, but the bandit eventually won and killed the ceremony.  Again the woman fled.

It occurred to me that from the Japanese perspective, the bandit might represent the United States and the samurai the government of imperial Japan.  The wife and the woodcutter might represent the people of Japan, both as victims of the war (the wife) and observers (the woodcutter.)  The wife's equivocal behavior towards the bandit represents the equivocal feelings of the Japanese (including Japanese women) towards the American occupation.  The question of whether there was more shame in surviving than dying in battle for the samurai--that is, whether the imperial government should have surrendered at all--comes up repeatedly.  Whose fault, ultimately, was the death of the samurai and the rape of the woman?  How should she have lived the rest of her life?  These stand for the bigger questions of who was really to blame for the war--imperialist Americans or a rogue Japanese government?  And to whom, now, should the ordinary Japanese took for guidance and inspiration?  All these were very much unanswered questions in the Japan of 1950.  And that is not all.  Responding to the woodcutter's tale, the priest beneath the gate talks about the state of his country. "War, earthquake, winds, fire, famine, the plague, year after year it’s been nothing but disasters. And bandits descend upon us every night. I’ve seen so many men getting killed like insects, but even I have never heard a story as horrible as this … This time I may finally lose my faith in the human soul."  No Japanese in 1950 could hear those words without thinking of the world around them.

It turns out that at least two Americans deeply familiar with Japan, a State Department official and an academic, recognized the postwar implications of the movie at once. They however seem to have focused on one specific postwar episode, the American war crimes trials of Japanese leaders for specific atrocities.  A Japanese critic noted that the judges in the court are never shown in the film.  That is a telling point, but I still prefer to focus on the overall responsibility for the war and the predicament of the helpless Japanese people in its wake.  In another telling incident, it turns out that the valuable dagger that plays such a big role in the story has disappeared.  One cannot help but think that the woodcutter stole it and sold it--a metaphor for the ways in which some Japanese benefited from the occupation.  And in the very last scene, the woodcutter, claiming to have six children of his own, takes a baby abandoned at the gate home with him--a symbol of hope for the future in a devastated land.  Rashomon is surely a profound historical work.