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Sunday, December 30, 2007

A last Silent gasp?

About a year ago I memorialized the political death of the Silent generation (those born 1925-1942), on the occasion of the release, and dismissal, of the Baker-Hamilton commission report. Composed entirely of Silents, that commission had given up the Messianic Iraqi enterprise as a bad job and returning to traditional diplomacy among the Arab regimes--something in which the Bush Administration could not have been less interested. I do not think that I rang those bells too early, but it seems there may be at least one more drama to play in which two Silents may play a leading role--this Presidential election. One is John McCain, of course, whose campaign seems to have returned from the brink of disaster, and who may win in New Hampshire even though he has no chance in Iowa. I do not think McCain can win the Republican nomination because of some of his generational attributes--he is too sensible and too non-ideological for today's Boomer-led Republican party. But the second, now running under the radar, is Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, who has evidently been contemplating an independent Presidential bid.

Washington Post reporter David Broder reports a forthcoming meeting at the University of Oklahoma to discuss not only a Bloomberg candidacy, but a "government of national unity." The roll call of attendees reads like a Silent generation Who's Who, including David Boren, Sam Nunn, Christie Whitman, Chuck Hagel, Charles Robb, Gary Hart, and John Danforth. All of those people have the same thing in common: they quit, or were driven out of, politics, usually because they could not get along with Boomers. (This applies to the two Boomers on the list, Whitman and Hagel, both moderate Republicans, as well.) I have heard other rumors about Bloomberg's plans and I would not be surprised to see this happen, because it would be so generationally in character. The same thing happened for twenty years leading up to the civil war, when the Compromiser Generation, led by Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, and including the last prewar President, James Buchanan, sought vainly to avoid the final break between the North and the South, increasingly led by Prophets like Charles Sumner, Robert Toombs of Georgia, Ben Wade of Ohio, and Jefferson Davis, men who neither asked for nor gave any quarter. Their last gasp was the Crittenden Compromise, proposed during the winter of 1860-1 by Senator John Crittenden of Kentucky. Crittenden, born in 1786--three years, that is, before Washington's inauguration-- proposed six permanent amendments to the Constitution designed to protect, but also freeze, slavery south of the line of the Missouri Compromise, the limit the Compromisers had initially fixed in 1820. Both the North and South, however, were now led by men committed either to the eventual abolition of slavery or to its extension throughout the country, and his proposal had no chance. Crittenden had two sons, who appropriately fought on different sides in the civil war.

Bloomberg is a "last wave" Silent in the same way that the Crittenden was a "last-wave" Compromiser--born in 1942, he could only have the barest memories of V-J day. But his life history makes it clear that a real chasm divides him from Boomers only a couple of years younger. He graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1964, that year of nearly overwhelming consensus, and went straight to Harvard Business school, graduating two years later in the spring before the first stirrings of revolution hit Cambridge. (I know--I was there.) From there he went immediately to Salomon brothers, rising through the ranks. He married relatively late for this generation, waiting until he was 33. Silents tend to believe that a calm, unemotional, data-based approach can solve any problem--and so it can, in certain periods of history. Unfortunately, as more and more Boomers (such as Paul Krugman and John Edwards) are beginning to realize, we now live in a world of all-out political war in which trying to understand the other side's position has become a waste of time.

Bloomberg's possible candidacy highlights another key aspect of the disintegration of American politics since his graduation from college: the importance of private fortunes. Worth more than $10 billion himself, he can run a campaign equal to that of either of the two major parties. He might actually be able to affect the outcome, and I suspect that he would be more likely to help a Democrat than a Republican. The electoral votes of at least 40 states, I would guess, can pretty definitely be predicted right now--I would put Ohio, Florida, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Iowa, and New Hampshire in the undecided column, but I'm not sure how many other states belong there--and it strikes me that Bloomberg might poll well among Silents in Florida who would hesitate to vote for a conservative Republican.

There is of course one huge anomaly from the Silent generation playing a leading role today--Dick Cheney, a year older than Bloomberg, but possessed of every bit as authoritarian, uncompromising and intolerant an attitude as any Boomer. His biography, however, explains how that happened. Most young men born early in 1941 were well established in their careers by the time the late 1960s hit, but Cheney was not. Leaving Yale after only one year in 1960, he apparently spent the next three years working blue-collar jobs and raising hell (he was arrested twice for DUI.) He returned to college at Caspar College in 1963, left for unexplained reasons, and got a B. A. and M.A. from the University of Wyoming in 1965 and 1966. His next stop, where he was in 1967-8 (as far as I can make out), was the University of Wisconsin, a revolutionary hotbed, where he spent one year as a doctoral program before leaving for Washington during the Nixon era. In short, Cheney saw the New Left first hand, went to work for one of its biggest targets--Nixon--and has evidently carried the contentious atmosphere of those times with him ever since. Life cycle, as well as birth year, is important.

Other candidates are taking very different views about the kind of world they hope to govern. Hillary Clinton, of course, is also trying to strike a relatively conciliatory tone in her campaign, and actually promises us to return us to the Silent-dominated 1990s--a promise she will not be able to keep even if elected. Barack Obama also talks of trying to move beyond partisanship, and John Edwards, whom I just glimpsed on Face the Nation, replies that corporate power cannot be conciliated, it must be defeated--a view with which I agree. Mike Huckabee, alone among the Republican Boomers, favors a less confrontational tone, and it will be interesting to see whether this helps him or not. The Bloomberg boomlet and the Hillary Clinton campaign, however, are two indicators that we have not really reached the new crisis in our national life. Krugman and Edwards, I think, are right--the center, such as it is, will be co-opted by the more politically effective side, as it was by Lincoln in the North and by FDR over most of the country. That may however take some time--we may flounder around for at least another four more years. Roosevelt took office in 1933, 68 years after the end of the civil war. 1945 + 68 = 2013. We'll see.

It seems only right to note another piece of news from this week--Bill Kristol, whose advocacy of the Iraq War I explored at length here a few months ago, has been hired as a weekly columnist for the New York Times. I do wish the editors could have read my blog. . .Next week I'll discuss the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and what it means, in my opinion, in the context of American foreign policy.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Bill Strauss, 1947-2007

This has been a very sad week for me because of the death on Tuesday of my friend, college classmate, and intellectual inspiration Bill Strauss, who lost an eight-year battle with pancreatic/liver cancer that began in 1999. I first met Bill at our 25th reunion in 1994, although I had already read and taught his first book, Chance and Circumstance, about the Vietnam-era draft, during the 1980s. By that time he was also the producer of the Capitol Steps comedy troop--which has been the focus of the obituaries that have appeared in both the Washington Post and the New York Times this week--and the co-author, with Neil Howe, of the book Generations, of which I was vaguely aware. It was perhaps a year later, I think, that I picked a copy of Generations off the shelf of my school library and sat down to read it. I was so excited that I could hardly sleep for the next several nights.

Being amateur historians, Bill and Neil had retained the right to think big. As they explained it to me much later, they began the book simply as a discussion of what different generations had contributed to American life, but in the midst of their work--under circumstances which they could never fully remember later--they had a striking epiphany. They suddenly saw a recurring pattern both of generations and of eras in American life, linking contemporary events and individuals with different eras in the past. As I have explained many times here, it revolved around an 80-year cycle in national life, punctuated by the great crises (1774-1794, 1857-1868, and 1929-45) that had redefined the nation. And already, in the early 1990s, they foresaw a new crisis coming during the next twenty years. There was much about which one could argue in Generations. Strauss and Howe had done plenty of reading and had an eye for a revealing quote or fact, but I did not think they had researched the various periods of American history as thoroughly as I had done for various crisis eras in European history in my book, Politics and War, which had taken about a decade to write. They had insisted upon strict boundaries between generations, and I thought (and still think) that they had some of them wrong. Like the Prophets they were, they stated their conclusions vigorously, leaving them open--then and later--to lots of carping reviewers who simply didn't believe that they could have discovered this new America that had been right under all our eyes. For some reason, I did not have that kind of jealousy. I experienced a kind of excitement that only one other contemporary has been able to give me--Bill James, when I picked up his first widely published Baseball Abstract in 1982. I felt immediately that they were more right than wrong, and that they had opened up enormous avenues for future research--and not only in American history. Two years later they came out with a new book, The Fourth Turning, and I reviewed it for the Boston Globe. (Even then I had had, I think, only one phone conversation with Bill about Generations.) Here is the review, which makes interesting reading today.

Six years ago, in ``Generations,'' Strauss and Howe laid out a provocative and immensely entertaining outline of American history, based on a four-stage cycle of generations and historical periods. Now, in a somewhat shorter, more focused and even more provocative sequel, they have recast their argument with an eye on the immediate future. There, they see an inspiring, chilling era of tragedy and triumph. The ``fourth turning'' to which their title refers is nothing less than a national crisis on the scale of the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Depression or the Second World War -- and they expect it to arrive sometime during the next decade. That crisis will be the climax of the fourth great ``saeculum'' in American national life -- they employ the Latin word referring to the span of a normal long life, that is, between 80 and 100 years. Their argument can be understood only with reference to history, but space does not allow all four of the great cycles of US history to be laid out. We can,
however, understand their view of the current saeculum, which began around 1964, by analogies with two previous, completed ones: the (somewhat accelerated) Civil War saeculum from about 1822 through 1886, and the Great Power saeculum from 1886 through 1963.

Like every other saeculum, they argue, this one began with an Awakening --in this case, the consciousness revolution of the 1960s and '70s, parallel to the Transcendental Awakening of the 1820s and '30s (which gave rise to abolitionism, among other movements), and the Missionary Awakening of 1884-1908 (which focused on social issues). All Awakening eras feature social activism among the young, increased substance abuse and an emphasis on women's and minority rights. They are driven by young adults (most recently, the baby boomers) who are rebelling against the consensus of the ``High'' periods in which they grew up -- the Jeffersonian High of roughly 1800-1820, the post-Civil War High of 1865-1885 and, most notably, the ``American High'' of 1945-1963, whose consensus atmosphere is so deeply
missed by so many older Americans today.

Awakenings, however, produce ideological ferment rather than ideological consensus, and lead directly not to the golden age foreseen by the young people they stir but rather to an Unraveling in which divisions over values become worse and worse, and the glue that holds society together rapidly weakens. Few will be inclined to dispute the authors' contention
that we now find ourselves in an ``Unraveling'' that began around 1984, parallel to the pre-Civil War crisis of 1844-1861 and the turbulent era of 1908-1929. Both these periods were marked by a general loosening of moral standards and a strong backlash in response; a splitting of the electorate along religious, ethnic and racial lines; an increasingly contentious tone in politics and a growth in votes for third parties; an explosion in crime; and an outburst of nativism in response to the new immigration. Sound familiar?

Another political parallel is equally chilling. From the 1830s through the early 1850s, the great ``Compromise Generation'' of Webster and Clay held things together until the eve of the Civil War. Its present-day generational counterpart is the Silent Generation (born 1926 through
1942), who have generally played a conciliatory political role, but who have never made it to the White House and are now fleeing the Congress in droves (see Sens. Nunn, Cohen, Heflin et al.), leaving national leadership to the more contentious baby boomers. Indeed, the authors openly hope for the election of a more conciliatory ``Silent President'' in 2000, perhaps to postpone the crisis for a few more years and give us time to prepare.

Unravelings have always had interesting effects within American homes, the authors also argue, and here, too, contemporary history is bearing them out. The generations with the most difficult childhoods are born during Awakenings and grow up during the Unravelings: the Gilded Generation that had to fight the Civil War, the Lost Generation (born 1883-1900, according to the authors, though the latter date should perhaps be 1905) and now Generation X, whom Strauss and Howe prefer to call the Thirteenth Generation. These young contemporaries of ours went through childhoods featuring an explosion of divorce, abortion, drug use, crime and a well-publicized erosion of educational standards.

Yet even six years ago, the authors' first book suggested that something had changed dramatically around 1982, when society took a renewed interest in children, and movies began featuring cuddly infants rather than monsters (as in ``The Exorcist,'' ``Damien'' or ``Rosemary's Baby''). Now, of course, younger children have become the focus of the nation's
political life, and their nurture and discipline have moved onto center stage of the national agenda. Boomers never asked their parents to help them do their homework; Generations Xers had little homework to do; but the new generation of Millennials asks for, and gets, help on their assignments almost every night of the week.

This is essential, as well as natural, the authors argue, because the Millennial Generation will inherit the task of their ``GI'' grandparents and great-grandparents: that of dealing with the next great crisis. Like those born from 1905 through 1925, they will be team players, able to band together to handle any task during their youth (building dams in the 1930s, winning World War II in the 1940s), and carrying the same can-do attitude through their middle years (roughly 2023-2045), which -- provided they and their elders do successfully resolve the crisis -- will be the scene of another great American High of confidence, rebuilt infrastructure
and stable families. Nothing lasts forever, though, and when new and troubling events disturb the consensus, the children of the new High will begin a new Awakening, and aging Generation Xers and midlife Millennials will finally see firsthand what their parents went through in the famous 1960s.

``The Fourth Turning'' is weakest on the point of greatest practical interest: what, exactly, the new crisis is likely to involve. The authors present a series of scenarios combining, in various ways, a financial crisis, a collapse of federal authority, a racial or regional civil war,
or an international crisis perhaps involving terrorism -- but none of them seems completely convincing. Yet here, too, history is on their side. No one in the 1760s would have predicted the American Revolution; almost no one in 1928 would have foreseen either depression or world war. Only in the 1850s was the shape of the coming crisis fairly clear, and even then
few if any would have predicted war on such a scale, fought to such a drastic conclusion. We must watch, perhaps, for problems that fashionable solutions can only make worse, since these are the ones most likely to spin out of control.

As a baby boomer like the authors, I put down ``The Fourth Turning'' with a mixture of terror and excitement. Despite the turbulence of the last 30 years, most of us born during the High have lived relatively comfortable and rewarding lives, free of serious economic or physical threats to our well-being. It requires a big leap to believe that all this could change.
Yet at the same time, my pulse quickens as I think that the next two decades could see the kinds of apocalyptic events in whose shadow I was born, and about which I have read all my life; that somewhere in my generation may lurk a Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt who will lead the nation through the crisis; and that if I live to be 100 -- as hundreds of thousands of my contemporaries are expected to do -- I might even get a glimpse of the new Awakening. Strauss and Howe have taken a gamble. If the United States calmly makes it to 2015, their work will end up in the ashcan of history, but if they are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets. And they have given themselves and their contemporaries
plenty of time to find out.

Given the events of the last ten years, I am proud that that was the only really appreciative review that the book received in any mainstream outlet. Neither contemporary academia nor contemporary journalism is very receptive to genuinely new ideas. But the authors also started a website, www.fourthturning.com where a group of diligent and enthusiastic amateurs--joined by two professionals, myself and David Krein--set to work elaborating the implications of what they had to say both for the United States and for Europe. For a couple of years it was the most exciting intellectual community to which I had ever belonged, thanks to Lis Libengood, Stanley Alston, Matthew Elmslie, and Bill himself, to cite only a few of the leading historical lights. Meanwhile, the theory found its way into my next book, American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War, which, I now realize, became a love letter to an age of innocence, the postwar High, and which concluded with a warning of the crisis to come.

To mark Bill's death I have decided today to do something somewhat different--rather than once again recapitulate some of the major conclusions he and Neil helped me to reach, I am going to show how it has broadened my view of daily life. For the last ten years I have reflexively seen many things through generational glasses, and today is no exception. Let me simply refer to three news items and explore their generational implications.

Page 1 of today's New York Times includes a story on troubles inside US Air, which has been going to pieces since its merger with America West. Our arlines' problems have a distinctly generational flavor. Aviation was a new, protected industry during the High and into the Awakening. The CAB set fares, one could fly non-stop between any pair of major cities and eat real food, and every job was unionized, protected, and highly paid. De-regulation ushered in successive rounds of cost-cutting, the mantra of Boomer capitalism, and led to a world of much cheaper fares, hubs, frequent stops, and inedible snacks. Now even cheap fares are threatened because energy prices have doubled for the second time in my lifetime (the first being in the 1970s.) In the 1970s people still cared about the effects of energy costs on average Americans and grown-ups ran the government, and we cut energy consumption 30%. In the last six years we have hardly cut it at all. The Times also notes that the pilots of America West and US Air have been unable to reach a compromise on the allocation of seniority and the rights that go with it within the new merged airlines. Mediation and arbitration have both failed and a lawsuit has resorted. I have to believe the more cooperative GI generation would have worked this out forty years ago (although seventy years ago, one should note, jurisdictional fights between the AF of L and CIO often became quite violent.)

A feature about Mike Huckabee is also interesting. Of course, Huckabee's very candidacy is an indication of how much has changed--an Arkansas Republican who rejects evolution would hardly have found his way onto the political map forty years ago, but now looms as one of the most possible Republican candidates. But the feature shows that, behind his bland and charming exterior, Huckabee is 100% Boomer, for better or for worse, distinguished, like so many of us (yours truly included) by a terrifying belief in his own opinion. As governor he raised taxes, tried to close rural schools, and pardoned violent criminals, just because he thought it was the right thing to do. He also showed a healthy concern for his economic well being, creating a wedding registry at Target (he had been married for many years at the time) to enable his friends to help furnish the governors' mansion and frequently having difficulty distinguishing campaign, personal, and state funds. If it felt good, in short, he did it.

And then there is the most recent set of Zogby polls, showing Barack Obama beating all the major Republican candidates in a trial heat, and Hillary Clinton losing to several of them--including Huckabee. (Bill Strauss would have gotten a kick out of that. A man of very strong moral convictions, he had a very low opinion of Senator Clinton's husband and told me in one of our last conversations that he would vote for Obama, but not Hillary, against Huckabee.)
A substantial portion of the population is clearly already sick of the Clintons and will become much sicker of them if Senator Clinton actually wins the nomination. In a party nominated by professional politicians this would doom her candidacy even if she genuinely had extraordinary qualifications--which she does not. But that will not deter her or her supporters from pushing on to the end out of a sense of entitlement. Worse, if she is nominated and loses--as I fear she would--her acolytes will simply take that as one more proof that the country isn't ready for some one as enlightened as they are.

As I understand the idea of the Crisis or Fourth Turning, the bulk of the nation (though never all of it) pulls together and mobilizes to solve problems that have simply become too big to ignore. Perhaps it will take a real economic collapse or another and more serious terrorist attack to bring us to that point. There are other possibilities as well; Russia is already well into its crisis but has found no unifying or inspiring mission for its people, only a depressing mix of authoritarianism and runaway capitalism that could, alas, be a major wave of the future. But we must not despair, remembering those who despaired in 1857 (after the Dred Scott decision) or in the depths of the Depression in 1930 or in Britian after the fall of France. Sadly, we need catastrophe to bring out greatness. Inspired by Bill Strauss, I am not willing as yet to give up on our own.

Thank you, Bill. We'll miss you.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

What's happening in Iraq?

Iraq has been my most frequent topic here, and something undoubtedly has changed during the last few months. It is time to record this and to speculate about what it means.

To begin with, after eight months of very high casualties from January through August of this year, American deaths have dropped precipitously, falling to 40 in October and November and to less than one a day so far this month. Numbers of wounded are also down, although not that much. This could not, it seems to me, represent the purely military effect of the surge (which in fact initially increased casualties.) A 20% increase in forces could hardly translate into a 50-60% drop in casualties. Many of our enemies have either been driven underground or have decided to lie low. Meanwhile, Iraqi casualties have been reported to have fallen as well, but it is much harder to say how much. The respected military analyst Andrew Cordesman has raised questions about the statistics issued by the authorities, claiming that their definition of political violence is too narrow. Simultaneously, US forces and their allies have arrested and incarcerated thousands more Iraqis.

We have scored some important political successes in Sunni areas, but we must understand what they mean for the long run as well as for the short. The United States has established relationships with a number of tribal leaders in some of the most violent Sunni areas, and those leaders have turned against some more militant elements, including Al Queda in Iraq. This looks like a good thing, but it is not laying the foundation for a stable, free and independent Iraq. We have purchased the loyalty of these tribes with money and arms, in classic imperialist fashion, signing up hundreds of Iraqis into new local police forces at relatively handsome salaries. We shall presumably have to continue to do so to keep things quiet. Meanwhile a number of our new allies have been assassinated, showing that the battle is not yet over.

More importantly, as a recent Los Angeles Times survey pointed out, this has done nothing to bring Iraq's warring factions together. The Shi'ites and the Shi'ite-dominated national government do not approve of what we are doing and do not want to integrate the new forces we have sponsored into the national army or police. Meanwhile, different Shi'ite militias are struggling for power all over southern Iraq (where the British are about to pull out of Basra.) The Kurds and the Sunnis are girding for a big battle over Kirkuk. One Iraq observer characterizes the new Iraq as a failed state in which the government enjoys no power outside the Green Zone. Oddly, the United States still seems to view the Sunnis as our natural allies--and wants to rely on them regionally to contain Iran--but has, of course, empowered the majority Shi'ites by liberating the country from the Ba'athist regime. It is hard to see how that circle will ever be squared.

Meanwhile, there seem to be discussions--and a lively argument--about a formal agreement to establish a long-term American presence in Iraq. The Associated Press quoted a couple of Iraqi government sources a couple of weeks ago to the effect that such talks were moving ahead, but more recently the Iraqi National Security Advisor proclaimed loudly and publicly that Iraqis did not want such a presence. Moqtar Al-Sadr, who has been lying low, also seems to oppose it. In my opinion this will eventually lead to a serious political crisis.

We have no idea now what the Bush Administration's long-term plans are--perhaps it is safe to say that they have no plans lasting beyond the next thirteen months. US troop strength will fall somewhat during the next year, but I predict that it will not fall to pre-surge levels. Violence may increase during the summer in an effort to put pressure on the Presidential candidates to commit to an end to the war. (Such offensives are frequently misunderstood--the North Vietnamese did not in my opinion undertake huge offensives in 1968 and 1972 to influence whom the American people would elect, but rather to commit both candidates to an end to the war. They succeeded.) I would not indeed be surprised in the Bush Administration reached some agreement for an indefinite American presence between November and January of next year and dumped it in the lap of its successor. I do not believe, however, that an indefinite American occupation of Iraq can work because I do not believe that the Iraqi people will ever accept it.

American troops proved in Vietnam from late 1969 through 1971 that they could pacify contested areas, and violence in Vietnam during those years fell at least as much as it has fallen in Iraq in the last few months. The problem on the ground, however, as detailed in particular by Eric Bergerud in his excellent study of one province, The Dynamics of Defeat, was that the average Vietnamese never had any confidence in what would happen after the Americans left. When they did, and when North Vietnam launched its new offensive in 1972, many of the gains evaporated. We will probably face another version of the same dilemma in Iraq. The American army will have proven once again that it can conduct pacification operations, and conservatives will once again be able to blame eventual setbacks on Americans who refused to fight forever.

Meanwhile, we have supposedly restarted the Middle East peace process, an attempt to create a Palestinian state led by US-supported Abu Mazen, who has totally lost control of Gaza and is threatened with the loss of the West Bank. The press coverage of Annapolis ignored that President Bush in 2004 endorsed the maximum Israeli position on two key issues: the Palestinians will have no right of return into Israel (a key issue whether or not they are actually allowed to return, on the one hand, or offered compensation, on the other), and Israel will be able to take advantage of "facts on the ground" and keep any territory it has settled in a new agreement. That did not stop the Administration from staging a media event, but it will stop the parties from making any progress. (The Israeli government has rammed home the point by starting up new construction in East Jerusalem, creating a new "fact on the ground." How such facts are created in the West Bank, incidentally, can be followed in a recent article by an Israeli peace activist in The New York Review of Books.

A footnote to last week's comments on Hillary Clinton: I regret offending fellow Democrats, but I am calling them as I see them. The new Clinton campaign tactic (actually pioneered by Michael Dukakis in the last desperate stages of his 1988 campaign) of having campaign workers raise negative issues about Barack Obama (that he is a secret Muslim, that his admission of cocaine use will become a campaign issue), followed a day or two later by stories of that worker's resignation and comments from leading campaign staffers that of course the Clinton campaign will not raise issues of Obama's religion or drug use, would surely do credit to Tricky Dick. And when I said that Nixon, like Clinton, occasionally had friends emerge to say that he was really a charming and relaxed man in private, I was not suggesting that those friends were telling the truth. The most revealing portrait of Hillary, I suspect, remains Joe Klein's "Susan Stanton" in Primary Colors, which is worth a re-read about now. But don't get me wrong--if she's the nominee, I'll vote for her, and if she's elected, I'll hope for the best.

Sunday, December 09, 2007


The New York Times's commendable decision to print parallel passages from Mitt Romney's speech last Wednesday and JFK's famous address to Texas Baptist Ministers in 1960 did a commendable service by reminding us of just how far we have come--or how low we have sunk. Too many leftist Americans today remember the 1950s and early 1960s--the High, as Strauss and Howe would put it--only as a repressive time that ignored the claims and visions of women, minorities, and gays. The paradox, of course, is that at no other time in history, perhaps, have American politicians spoken so boldly of an America in which no distinctions should divide citizens--including, or especially, religious ones. No generation has taken assimilation more seriously than the GI or "greatest" generation--and they fittingly produced the first (and still the only) non-Protestant President, who stated his beliefs, on that famous occasion, in these words.

"Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end--where all men and all churches are treated as equal--where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice--where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind--and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.

"That is the kind of America in which I believe. And it represents the kind of Presidency in which I believe--a great office that must neither be humbled by making it the instrument of any one religious group nor tarnished by arbitrarily withholding its occupancy from the members of any one religious group. I believe in a President whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.

"I would not look with favor upon a President working to subvert the first amendment's guarantees of religious liberty. Nor would our system of checks and balances permit him to do so--and neither do I look with favor upon those who would work to subvert Article VI of the Constitution by requiring a religious test--even by indirection--for it. If they disagree with that safeguard they should be out openly working to repeal it.

I want a Chief Executive whose public acts are responsible to all groups and obligated to none--who can attend any ceremony, service or dinner his office may appropriately require of him--and whose fulfillment of his Presidential oath is not limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual or obligation.

"This is the kind of America I believe in--and this is the kind I fought for in the South Pacific, and the kind my brother died for in Europe. No one suggested then that we may have a "divided loyalty," that we did "not believe in liberty," or that we belonged to a disloyal group that threatened the "freedoms for which our forefathers died."

"And in fact this is the kind of America for which our forefathers died--when they fled here to escape religious test oaths that denied office to members of less favored churches--when they fought for the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom--and when they fought at the shrine I visited today, the Alamo. For side by side with Bowie and Crockett died McCafferty and Bailey and Carey--but no one knows whether they were Catholic or not. For there was no religious test at the Alamo.

"I ask you tonight to follow in that tradition--to judge me on the basis of my record of 14 years in Congress--on my declared stands against an Ambassador to the Vatican, against unconstitutional aid to parochial schools, and against any boycott of the public schools (which I have attended myself)--instead of judging me on the basis of these pamphlets and publications we all have seen that carefully select quotations out of context from the statements of Catholic church leaders, usually in other countries, frequently in other centuries, and always omitting, of course, the statement of the American Bishops in 1948 which strongly endorsed church-state separation, and which more nearly reflects the views of almost every American Catholic."

Yes, in those days a member of a minority faith who aspired to high office had not only to talk a different talk--proclaiming his devotion to civic, rather than religious principles--he had to walk the walk, voting, as Kennedy had done, against measures that would have favored his religion (and, one might add, huge numbers of his constituents.) To ask for tolerance for himself he had to show tolerance for others. But times, alas, have changed, as reflected in the following passage from Mitt Romney's speech.

"It is important to recognize that while differences in theology exist between the churches in America, we share a common creed of moral convictions. And where the affairs of our nation are concerned, it's usually a sound rule to focus on the latter – on the great moral principles that urge us all on a common course. Whether it was the cause of abolition, or civil rights, or the right to life itself, no movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people.

"We separate church and state affairs in this country, and for good reason. No religion should dictate to the state nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion. But in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America – the religion of secularism. They are wrong.

"The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation 'Under God' and in God, we do indeed trust.

"We should acknowledge the Creator as did the Founders – in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places. Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our Constitution rests. I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from 'the God who gave us liberty.'

"Nor would I separate us from our religious heritage. Perhaps the most important question to ask a person of faith who seeks a political office, is this: does he share these American values: the equality of human kind, the obligation to serve one another, and a steadfast commitment to liberty?

"They are not unique to any one denomination. They belong to the great moral inheritance we hold in common. They are the firm ground on which Americans of different faiths meet and stand as a nation, united."

Romney's campaign, and his repudiation of various stands that enabled him to become Governor of one of the nation's most liberal states, has clearly established him as a man with few principles, and perhaps we should not take anything he says too seriously. Yet it seems appalling to me--and I think I would find it even more so were I a Republican--that he, unlike Kennedy, is trying to do to things at once: to claim tolerance for his particular religion while proclaiming almost complete intolerance for those millions of Americans like myself who have no religion at all. The passages I have italicized seem to imply that for Romney we do not even exist, or that we are indeed less than full Americans, since we have no sense of the origins (as he understands them) of our most deeply held beliefs as citizens. And incidentally, he is wrong--neither Adams nor Jefferson nor Washington nor Hamilton would qualify as sufficiently religious to seek the Republican nomination today. That is why the word "god", while appearing on our currency and (since 1955 or so) in the Pledge of Allegiance, does not appear in the Constitution of the United States. And while Kennedy could claim quite truthfully in 1960 that he had voted against religion--his own religion--on certain public policy questions, Romney eagerly promises to appoint federal judges who will have an unconstitutional respect for the importance of faith.

Meanwhile, as a non-believer with a lively intellectual interest in religion, I would be curious to be enlighted as to the source of President Bush's frequent claim--echoed here by Romney--that the Almighty, the Christian God, is the source of political freedom in the world. The founders referred not to a "creator" in preference to a god was not an attempt to reconcile denominations, it reflected Jefferson's deism. The old Testament God did not give the Jews freedom, he gave them the obligation to live according to his commandments for his greater glory, and there is little indication that I can see in the New Testament that Christ was espousing political freedom, either. "Americans acknowledge that liberty is a gift of God, not an indulgence of government," says Romney. No--Americans recognized liberty as a right that had to be preserved against the inevitably despotic ambition of rulers--including, or especially, rulers who claimed divine authority for their acts, as neither Lincoln nor John F. Kennedy ever did.

p.s. Today's New York Times leads with an interesting portrait of Hillary Clinton. It emphasizes her tight control of her emotions in public, while noting the testimony of a few close friends that she is a completely different person in private. It notes how difficult it was for her to become a public figure, and how sensitive she is (not, one must note, without good reason) to criticism from the press, which she does not trust. It might also have noted that she is surrounded by a closed coterie of totally dedicated adherents who carefully keep the rest of the world at arm's length.
It behooves historians to rise above issues of gender, generation, and even political persuasion to identify important similarities between political figures. The above paragraph could apply almost perfectly another famous politician, Richard M. Nixon. Caveat voter.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Lessons of the Iranian NIE

In the spring of 1969 I was about to graduate from college. This was, of course, a significant achievement and was in theory supposed to be a joyous occasion, but I can see now that it was not. I didn't want to leave the first place that I had felt totally at home, and the future in any case was totally uncertain because of the looming draft, which eventually resulted in my enlisting in the Army Reserves. But as often happens for me, the intellectual world provided various escapes. I was finishing the popular course on modern France given by Stanley Hoffmann--then as now one of the giants of the Harvard landscape--and the reading period assignment was Alexis de Tocqueville's The Old Regime and the French Revolution. It turned out to be one of the most intensive and influential reading experiences of my whole life.

Tocqueville wrote that book in the 1850s as the first volume of a study of the French Revolution--one which he was unable to complete because of his death. ("The best excuse," I once heard a fellow academic comment, and one we shall all one day have an occasion to use.) Its real subject was the bureaucratization of French political life--a development he traced back to the reign of Louis XIV and followed through the eighteenth century. Step by step, he showed how power once exercised by the aristocracy, town governments, and, in various ways, even the common people, had been drained by officials appointed and maintained by the Crown. Moreover, he argued, the French Revolution had only briefly interrupted this process, which under Napoleon had resumed with a vengeance and, half a century later, Tocqueville, living under the new Empire of Napoleon III, found things worse than ever. (Professor Hoffmann frequently pointed out to us that things hadn't changed much during the following century either; different Republics came and went, but the centralized bureaucracy remained.) Tocqueville contrasted his native land unfavorably with both Britain (his wife's homeland) and the United States. In Britain, he argued, the aristocracy had continued to govern by maintaining a variety of links with the common people and paying more than its share of taxes, and the people of the United States, while lacking any aristocracy, governed themselves at the local level with hardly any other central government as well.

I was stunned by all this because, as a good mid-twentieth century student, I had grown up learning to idealize the growth in power of central governments, not least in the United States. Tocqueville presented his arguments with an appealing combination of data, logic, and personal fervor. I can see now, thanks to Strauss and Howe, that those traits appealed to me (more than to most of my professors, except Hoffmann) because he was a fellow Prophet, born in 1802, just as things had settled down in France under Napoleon. (Not until 1814-5 did war reach France itself again, and that interlude was brief.) I was also struck by his belief in aristocracy as a superior form of government, simply because aristocrats could provide an alternative power center to the state and thus a source of support for average folk. But I knew that Tocqueville did not believe that any nation could return to aristocracy--he had seen democracy in action across the Atlantic, and while he worried that it could easily lead to despotism, he knew that it was the wave of the future and that the past would not return.

Having lived his entire life under the stultifying burden of a bureaucracy that did not even allow free speech or assembly, Tocqueville had come by his views honestly. Max Weber, who came from the next batch of European Prophets and lived under the equally strict bureaucracy of imperial Germany, made similar complaints. The bureaucracies of totalitarian states did frightening and horrible things in the first half of the twentieth century. But bureaucracy also stands for something positive--indeed, indispensable--in western life. Because it runs on rules, it is the repository of rationality. It generally attracts men and women who prefer stability to risk, and who remain at their posts long enough to build up an institutional memory. And bureaucrats are, in their own way, problem solvers--and nowhere more so than in the diplomatic world, where they are trained to understand the point of view of the other side.

And thus, for the last seven years, a battle has been raging between the bureaucrats of our national security establishment on the one hand--the CIA, the Pentagon, and the State Department--and the ideologues of the Bush Administration on the other. The battle has been one sided, largely because of the determination, it would seem, of one man, Vice President Cheney. In 2002 the political leadership and neoconservative ideologues managed to corrupt and intimidate the intelligence process in order to fight a war to eliminate Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that did not exist. (To do so they also had to discount the warnings of international bureaucrats Hans Blix and Mohammed El-Baradei, who were slowly and carefully doing their job in Iraq and who would in a few months have been able to reassure the world that Iraq had no such weapons.) The State Department, led by Colin Powell--himself a military bureaucrat--was generally ignored by the White House, especially with respect to the Middle East. Indeed, opposition to the bureaucracy has been a neoconservative principle for 30 years. Neocons have always attacked the intelligence analysts of the CIA for being too sanguine about possible threats, be they from the Soviet Union or Iraq, and State Department diplomats for being too pro-Arab. For the last seven years they have had their way.

Last week one important part of the bureaucracy fought back, when the Board of National Estimates finally released its long-delayed NIE announcing that Iran's nuclear weapons program had been suspended four years ago. (In so doing, we should note, it confirmed what Mohammed El-Baradei had been saying--that there was no clear evidence that such a program existed.) Despite (or because of?) two changes of leadership at the CIA since the Tenet regime had buckled in 2002, the men and women who had to make this judgment on behalf of their fellow citizens did their jobs and finally managed to get their conclusions published. (I suspect that involved quite a struggle about which we may eventually hear.) This has already provoked howls from necons like John Bolton and Norman Podhoretz (the latter needed less than 24 hours to accuse the intelligence analysts of trying to undermine the President's policies.) It has also probably made it impossible for the President to build some kind of bipartisan consensus for an attack on Iran, or to get any significant international support for one. But it has NOT changed the President's own views at all--and that is a good illustration of why we need intelligent and courageous bureaucrats.

"Nearly everyone now agrees that Monday's National Intelligence Estimate takes war with Iran off the table. Even those who lament the fact, or who question the NIE's findings, realize that the case for airstrikes has just gone up in smoke," Fred Kaplan wrote in Slate on Wednesday. I immediately emailed him that I was quite sure President Bush would announce at his press conference later that day that nothing had changed, and I turned out to be right. In fact, the NIE has provided another service--it has shown what the Administration's policy towards hostile regimes really is. It is based less on non-proliferation than on thoughtcrime. All a regime has to do to be worthy of sanctions, American attacks, and renewal, is to combine opposition to American policies and values with thoughts about having nuclear weapons or exploratory research programs. And indeed, the President's own rhetoric, as a few people noticed, had shifted in that direction in the last few months, most notably during another press conference on October 17, when he was asked once again about the danger.

"I think so long -- until they suspend and/or make it clear that they -- that their statements aren't real, yeah, I believe they want to have the capacity, the knowledge, in order to make a nuclear weapon. And I know it's in the world's interest to prevent them from doing so. I believe that the Iranian -- if Iran had a nuclear weapon, it would be a dangerous threat to world peace. But this -- we got a leader in Iran who has announced that he wants to destroy Israel. So I've told people that if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon. I take the threat of Iran with a nuclear weapon very seriously."

The President and I are almost the same age, and we have both been heard a great deal about the possibility of a nuclear Third World War for the first half-century of our lives. Older generations, however, trusted that deterrence could prevent one--and they were right. But the President, as I've remarked so many times, shares the Boom generation's disregard for anything its parents believed, and like his neocon mentors, he rejects the whole idea of deterrence, preferring enforced American restrictions on what weapons other nations can have. This statement, however, also provides a clue to another current mystery--that of when the President knew about the intelligence community's new conclusions. Seymour Hersh reported them in the New Yorker a whole year ago. The White House now claims that the President heard in August only that the CIA had unspecified new information about the program, but it does not seem possible to me to believe that the President's change in rhetoric in October--from claiming that Iran's nuclear program had to be stopped, to claiming that Iran had to prevented from acquiring the "knowledge" to build a nuclear weapon--had nothing to do with new information.

The CIA is also under attack now for destroying video tapes of interrogations--but that involves the covert, operational branch of the CIA, which is not really a bureaucracy in the classic sense of the term. Bureaucracies run on the exchange of written information; covert intelligence agencies write down as little as possible and share as little as possible both with the outside world and among themselves. (That conclusion emerged from my research into my new book, which shows CIA agents freely concealing important information from their own director.) Bureaucracy has been under bitter Republican attack for almost three-quarters of a century, since the beginning of the New Deal, and in the last three decades the attack has been extraordinarily successful. The size of our domestic bureaucracy and of our armed forces have been drastically reduced, and most civilian federal pensions have been cut in half (though supplemented by an IRA program), making federal service less attractive. But only in the last seven years has foreign policy been turned over to ideologues. The results, I suspect, would make even my old friend Tocqueville think twice.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Publishing announcement

The first review of The Road to Dallas, my new book on the JFK assassination, has appeared in Publisher's Weekly, even though the book won't be available until some time in February. Here it is. You may order it by clicking the link at right. . .

The Road to Dallas: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy
David Kaiser. Harvard/Belknap, $35 (468p) ISBN 978-0-674-02766-4

While plenty of authors have argued that the Mafia and anti-Castro Cubans were behind the assassination of President Kennedy, few have done so as convincingly as Naval War College history professor Kaiser (American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War). Kaiser bills this as “the first [Kennedy assassination book] written by a professional historian who has researched the available archives,” and his attention to detail and use of recently released FBI and CIA files put this analysis ahead of many of its fellows. Kaiser focuses on the tantalizing testimony of Cuban exile Silvia Odio, who claimed to have met Lee Harvey Oswald in the company of Cuban activists, and on the U.S. government’s efforts to kill Castro and Robert Kennedy’s crusade against organized crime. By taking Oswald’s guilt as a given and focusing on the people he crossed paths with and their motives and connections, Kaiser mostly succeeds in avoiding complex and narrative-derailing forensic discussions. This is a deeply disturbing look at a national tragedy, and Kaiser’s sober tone and reasoned analysis may well convince some in the Oswald-was-a-lone-nut camp. 30 b&w illus. not seen by PW. (Mar.)

See another new post, below.

Descending into anarchy

I am giving a broad lecture on the Second World War this week, and as always that sets me thinking about the world that war created, the way my entire (and subsequent) generations have benefited from it, and the issue of whether its legacy might finally be lost along with the generation that lived through it with young adults. As I have noted here before, the 2000s are looking more and more like the late 1920s and early 1930s in many respects, and two small, relatively unnoticed events this week have set off some alarm bells in my unconscious.

The extraordinary achievement of the Second World War, in retrospect, was to bring nearly the entirely industrialized world into a single community led (but not really dominated) by the United States. After a century without a general war (1815-1914), nationalism and imperialism had wreaked havoc in Europe and Asia and had drawn in the United States for the next thirty years. True, the war ended with another totalitarian movement, Soviet Communism, controlling Europe westward to central Germany, and a Communist revolution in China soon followed. The East-West confrontation generated tens of thousands of nuclear warheads, huge armed alliances, two medium sized Asian wars, and countless smaller conflicts and civil wars, but the leaders of the Soviet Union and the United States, who remembered the tens of millions who had died during their youth, ultimately kept the peace. That more than anything else allowed my generation in its youth to focus upon other areas of life—especially, in the U.S., after the end of the Vietnam War—and to improve its quality, if not its politics.

In the 1920s Europe and the world were reeling from the First World War and truly attempting to lay the foundation for a lasting peace. A host of theoretically democratic states emerged from the ruins of the German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires. Thanks in part to Woodrow Wilson, the Versailles Treaty specified that the disarmament of Germany and its allies was only the first step towards general disarmament, and the British in particular wanted to carry that mandate out. The major naval powers signed naval limitation treaties in 1922 and 1930, and, after unfortunate delays, started working on land and air disarmament as well in Geneva in 1932. By that time, however, the Depression was putting increasing pressure on elected governments, especially in Germany. Hitler took power in 1933 and the disarmament talks collapsed a year later when the French government refused to allow the Germans to increase their army from 100,000 men to 300,000. One democratic government after another fell to some form of authoritarian rule, beginning with Italy in 1922 and continuing through Germany in 1933 and nearly all of eastern Europe by the late 1930s. On the other side of the globe, Japan, which since 1867 had carefully watched its relations with the major western powers, seized Manchuria in 1931 and left the League of Nations a year later. Hitler finally tossed away the Versailles Treaty in 1935 and 1936, building an air force (heretofore prohibited) and remilitarizing the Rhineland. He then set about dismantling the postwar settlement in Eastern Europe as a first step towards the conquest of the Soviet Union.

Disarmament was once again an official priority of the victorious coalition in the Second World War, and both the United States and the Soviets demobilized most or much of their armies in the years after that conflict. The United States also proposed the international control and eventual abolition of atomic weapons, but Stalin preferred to build his own. After the Korean War both sides built up again in preparation for the war in Central Europe that never came, and the nuclear arms race began. But the 1963 Test Ban Treaty was a serious step to control atomic weapons, and the 1969 non-proliferation treaty followed. As I have noted many times, that treaty commits those signatories who do not have nuclear weapons not to seek them, and commits the nuclear powers eventually to get rid of them.

The first SALT Treaty followed only three years later but immediately became a principal target of the emerging neoconservative movement. Arms control, to them, implied that we could trust the Soviets not to unleash a general war—a view that both ideologues like Richard Perle and politicians like Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush totally rejected. Only superiority and the willingness to use it if necessary, they believed, could guarantee our superiority. But when Gorbachev gave clear evidence of a new direction in Soviet policy, Reagan (led by George Schultz) resumed arms control, at least in Europe. We have forgotten—and Arthur Schlesinger’s journals provide us with a reminder—how many neoconservatives opposed that change right up until 1991, when Gorbachev barely survived a coup attempt.

The post-cold war era of the 1990s looks a lot like the 1920s now, even though it was a much more prosperous economic era. Every major power drastically cut back its military forces. The United Nations in 1990-1 actually did what it was meant to do, undoing Iraqi aggression against Kuwait. Russia seemed ready to join the western family of nations. But neoconservatives—a presence in the first Bush Administration, and increasingly the dominant foreign policy element in the Republican Party during the 1990s—had no faith or interest in a world ruled by law and general agreement among nation states. The United States, Paul Wolfowitz wrote in 1992, should take advantage of this moment to establish complete, permanent military supremacy and establish its will all over the world. It should also continue the development of missile defense, even at the cost of the ABM Treaty of 1972, the work of those unreliable détentistes, Nixon and Kissinger.

The selection of George W. Bush by the Supreme Court and 9/11 gave the neocons—of whom the President was now clearly one—their chance. Only the naked application of American power in defiance of any restraints, they believed, could solve this new problem (even though no sane person could possibly compare the threat of Islamic terrorists to those posed by the Nazis, the Japanese in the 1930s, or the Soviet and Chinese Communists.) In 2003 the United States defied the majority of the United Nations, which we had so proudly created, and invaded Iraq. That invasion now reminds me more and more of the Japanese seizure of Manchuria. First, both powers claimed, in effect, to be restoring order to a troubled region (and both made false claims.) Secondly, both defied the existing world organization and world opinion. And last but hardly least, both conflicts had the power to trigger broader ones. Manchuria lead six years later to the Sino-Japanese war, while our presence in Iraq, which the Administration now wants to make permanent, threatens to lead to war with Iran.

So what were the two events of last week that brought this whole pattern into sharper focus? First, Russian President Putin—who has restored authoritarian rule to Russia and is publicly rehabilitating the Soviet period—signed a law allowing him to disregard the Conventional Forces Treaty of 1990, which had assured all Europe against a new war.. He did so in response to the Administration’s denunciation of the ABM Treaty and its insistence upon putting missile defense installations in Eastern Europe. In the short run this has no particular significance—Russia’s army today probably isn’t all that much stronger than Hitler’s in 1936. But as another step away from the dream of a secure Europe in which all respect one another’s interests, it may loom much larger in years to come. Belarus is already very close to resuming its status as a Soviet satellite, and the Russians have intervened frequently in the politics of Ukraine. We cannot tell where all this will end, but we must note that another major power has joined the United States in tearing down the structure of peace that the two sides worked so hard to create.

And on the same day—Friday—it emerged that China has now rejected two U.S. requests to have naval vessels make port calls in Hong Kong, as they have frequently done in recent years. The Chinese made no public announcement, but “sources” say they are unhappy about the American government’s decision to honor the Dalai Lama (the kind of slap in the face to foreign governments that neocons always love) and unspecified arms sales to Taiwan. Dana Perino at the White House got a question about this in a briefing yesterday. Here is her response:

“No, I -- what I'm expressing is what the President believes, which is that we have lots of different areas of cooperation with China. We have a complicated relationship in some regards. We're two big countries. We have lots of issues regarding trade; we're working with them on a variety of issues at the U.N., including the issues regarding Iran; we have military-to-military exchanges that we're working towards. And this relationship is growing and maturing, and this is something that two nations should be able to work through, and I don't think escalating it everyday is necessary. We've asked for a clarification and we have a -- we are communicating with them both from here and also at DOD; they're talking to their counterparts as well.”

She got no question about the Russian move.

Historically, world order (and often, domestic order) has often been established with the help of a massive exertion of force. (That is simply another way of restating the idea of a crisis every 80 years—even though some such crises do not involve widespread violence.) Those explosions put an end to anarchy and can create as many as six decades of stability. That is what the Second World War did; but it also proved (especially at Hiroshima and Nagasaki) that the world could not afford to go through another conflict like that one. I am very concerned at how little of the American political class seems to understand this, and appalled that this time, my own government has taken the lead in tearing down the structures that our parents bequeathed to us.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

From a Lost World

This may sound rather odd, but my principal complaint about Arthur Schlesinger's Journals, 1952-2000 is that they are much too short at 858 pages. His editors--two of his sons--explain that they culled them from about 6000 pages, and I suspect I would have been delighted to read every one of them. Bowing presumably to the brass at Penguin, they have also slanted the editing heavily to appeal to younger readers. There are only 60 pages on the 1950s, 260 on the 1960s, and 160 on the 1970s, while the 1980s and 1990s get 265 and 180. Forty years ago such a book (like the British Harold Nicolson's diaries, which have some important similarities to these ) would have come out in several volumes. Given that the author was a historian who frequently discusses the need to preserve sources (he was appalled to learn that a member of the Truman family had managed to destroy Harry's weekly epistles to his mother and sister), I am confident that his heirs have made arrangements to deposit the full text in an appropriate archive--perhaps the JFK library--where they will be opened at a suitable moment. (This morning's New York Times reports that they have been sold to the New York Public Library and should be available in a couple of years. Anyone want to put me up?)

Schlesinger was born in 1917, making him an exact contemporary of John F. Kennedy, although he was Harvard '38 and JFK was Harvard '40. He made an early splash as an American historian with The Age of Jackson and in the 1950s became one of two Harvard historians to begin grand-scale biographies of Franklin Roosevelt (Frank Friedel was the other.) Neither of them ever got close to a conclusion, but Schlesinger's three volumes (The Crisis of the Old Order, The Coming of the New Deal, and The Politics of Upheaval), appearing in the late fifties, became Book-of-the-Month Club selections and best sellers and inspired the new generation of Democrats of which he was a part. His real love, however, as he freely admits, was politics. He regarded teaching as a painful necessity (I suspect, actually, that he was somewhat better at it than he lets on), wrote prolifically (but more effectively, in my opinion, about the present than about the more distant past), and hated academic environments per se. Like Henry Adams--with whom I feel even more in common--he inevitably gravitated to Washington under Kennedy, and thence to New York, where he lived out his last forty years in the midst of literati, glitterati, and politerati. It seems rather fitting, as well as enviable, that he died of a heart attack at a New York restaurant last fall just before reaching the age of 90. (The last entry published is from 2000, and I was very sad not to see any post-9/11 comments on the Bush Administration--it is not clear whether any were written or not.)

Interesting from many points of view, the journals struck me above all as a generational portrait, chronicling the progress of the moderate left wing of the GI generation. The 1950s section poses a mystery that I have often pondered--the extraordinary adulation that a whole generation of liberals bestowed upon Adlai Stevenson, who invariably seems even in their own accounts to have done so little to deserve it. Yes, Stevenson was very charming (Schlesinger's friend John Kenneth Galbraith wrote that few men possessed in equal measure the talent of making one feel that there was no one to whom he would rather be speaking at this moment than one's self), clever with words, urbane, and eminently successful on foreign policy issues. Yet he was not much of a liberal domestically, especially on civil rights (as Schlesinger amply documents), and his tendency to deny his own ambition was the despair of his supporters as well as the ruin of some of his own hopes. In 1952, 1956, and 1960 he declared again and again that he did not want his Presidential nomination, forcing his party practically to get on its knees and beg (as it did, twice, with disastrous results.) Had he simply bowed out and endorsed JFK in 1960 he might well have become Secretary of State--where he and Kennedy might actually have worked very well together--but instead, his coyness made the Kennedys so angry as to rule that out. As late as the spring of 1960, even Schlesinger, who already knew Kennedy and who retrospectively has been viewed as the Kennedys' court historian, endorsed JFK only with public regret that Stevenson was not running. Schlesinger had a moment of which he was particularly proud in the fall of 1960, when both Kennedy and Stevenson asked him to write their speeches for the same event, the Liberal Party dinner in New York. "I could not resist the thought of doing both, so I did," he wrote, "a fact I have carefully kept secret from everybody (especially the two principals). . .[Stevenson's] speech was a great success in the evening, but so was Kennedy's."

Schlesinger had written speeches for Stevenson, and speechwriting remained his principal political role--literally, it turns out, until at least 2000. Kennedy brought him into the White House as a special assistant both to write speeches and offer political advice and to help on some policy matters, especially with respect to Latin America. He was one of a few major figures to oppose the Bay of Pigs, but that didn't increase his influence very much. As I discovered writing American Tragedy, he was rarely if ever involved in policy towards Southeast Asia, and he was not part of the Excom during the Cuban missile crisis. Thus he seems to have been genuinely unaware that the Administration had covertly promised to withdraw American missiles from Turkey to settle the crisis. Kennedy evidently regarded him as his contact with liberal intellectuals, about whose attacks he frequently complained. Schlesinger, not unreasonably, replied that such attacks should give the President more flexibility, since they tended to portray him as a centrist.

Although Schlesinger periodically demonstrates some capacity for hatred--Richard Nixon was, understandably, his favorite target, leading to amusing complications in the 1980s when Nixon bought the house behind his own on the upper East Side--he generally remains rather calm and unemotional. At one point, he muses perceptively about the difference between the New Deal and the New Frontier. "The New Dealers were always great talkers and philosophizers. . .Moreover, the New Deal had its distinctive rhetoric. [New Dealers] could talk about 'the people,' about their ultimate wisdom, and about the importance of doing things for them in a way quite alien to the New Frontier. The heart was worn much more on the sleeve then. The New Frontier has a deep mistrust of what it regards as the pat liberal sentimentalities and cliches of the thirties. . . .The difference in rhetoric does probably signify a deeper difference in commitment--a change, in a way, from evangelists who want to do something because it is just and right, to technocrats who want to do something because it is rational and necessary. The New Frontier lacks the evangelical impulse--in part no doubt because there is no audience for it." Thanks to Strauss and Howe, I immediately recognized that as perfect characterization of the difference between a Prophet generation (like Roosevelt's Missionaries, born from the mid-1860s to the mid-1880s, or the Boomers) and a Hero generation like the Republicans (Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison and company) or Schlesinger's own GIs.

Yet Schlesinger was overcome by his emotions after the death of JFK--and in a most unfortunate way. Like Robert Kennedy, to whom he immediately became closer, he simply could not in his heart accept the idea that Lyndon Johnson was now President and that there was nothing they could do about it. (The contrast in this respect between him and figures like Galbraith, Bundy, and McNamara is noteworthy.) Although Schlesinger did not deny LBJ's legislative achievements he clearly never saw the man as Presidential timber, and more importantly, he encouraged RFK's belief that Johnson might be pressured into making RFK the Vice-Presidential nominee-which, of course, he could not be. Sadly, Schlesinger's resentment of Johnson even corrupted his work as a historian. In A Thousand Days, he propagated the myth that Kennedy had not really meant to select Johnson as Vice President--that he had half-offered him the job as a courtesy, only to be amazed when Johnson jumped at it. There is nothing in his contemporary journal entry (p. 76) to support that--only confirmation that, after JFK had decided on the selection (for, as it turned out, excellent political reasons), RFK tried to talk Johnson into backing out--the beginning a long and bitter hatred into which Schlesinger allowed himself to be drawn after November 22, 1963.

Schlesinger's most endearing quality, for me, is his consistently sensible attitude about foreign policy. He is skeptical about foreign intervention throughout, and was an early opponent of escalation in Vietnam. (As excerpts in the New York Review of Books showed, Robert McNamara began telling him as early as 1966 that he opposed escalation and wanted a negotiated settlement--something which would have come as quite a surprise to McNamara's fellow Administration heavyweights at that time, since he expressed no such sentiments to them for more than another year. He reports long conversations with George Kennan in 1961-2, when Kennan was Ambassador to Yugoslavia, about the danger of the Berlin crisis spilling into war. (By the time of Kennedy's death, Kennan had become a great admirer of the President's foreign policy.) During the Nixon Administration Schlesinger allowed Henry Kissinger, who had apparently been a protégé of his when a grad student (albeit in another department), initially to persuade him that Kissinger wanted a more rapid winding down of the war, even telling Schlesinger after the Cambodian invasion that he had wanted to resign over it but could not do so yet. Gradually, however, he acknowledges that Henry is obviously telling him what he wants to hear.

Schlesinger returned to the political wars, of course, in 1968 on Robert Kennedy's behalf, and was even more devastated by his assassination than by his brother's. The denouement of that year's campaign was surely a shock. In an extraordinarily ironic entry written in November 1962, Schlesinger recounted both Nixon's California defeat and apparently permanent eclipse ("you won't have Nixon to kick around anymore"), and the funeral of Eleanor Roosevelt, which Hoover, Eisenhower, Truman and Kennedy all attended. "As we drove from the church to the grave," he wrote, "I reflected that, if anyone had said in 1940 that the next three Presidents of the United States would be Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, it would have provoked total incredulity. . . .I swore not to hazard any predictions about the man who will be inaugurated in January 1969." He certainly would not have had Nixon on his list. In his last entry for 1969 he referred to the sixties ad "the worst and saddest decade of one's life, that 'slum of a decade,' as John Updike has called it, the decade of the murder of hope." Once again, generation is everything. From his perspective that reaction was perfectly understandable and I knew many of his contemporaries who felt the same way; but I although he and I would have agreed on most things about politics (and he gave American Tragedy a nice blurb in 2000), for me and my contemporaries the 1960s will always be the decade in which we discovered ourselves, our feelings, and what made life worth living. (Actually I enjoyed the 1970s even more.) But he is right--American politics have gone downhill ever since.

During the next three decades Schlesinger was consulted again and again by various candidates, including George McGovern (for whom we share a very high regard), Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, and even, to my astonishment, Al Gore in 2000. (Apparently Democratic Boomer politicians, at least, had some conception of how much they could have used their elders' counsel.) In 1988, in the last week of his disastrous campaign, Dukakis finally declared himself a liberal in the tradition of Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy--something Schlesinger had called upon him to do privately on September 1 of that year and publicly on October 21.) It was much too late. Clinton often asked for his advice but rarely followed it. His conversations with Gore are among the most humorous of the book. In a private meeting right after his vice-presidential selection in 1992, Gore talked about "values." "Our duty is not just to what helps us as individuals but to what is good beyond ourselves. . .People living unto themselves feel that their lives have no meaning. We must work to reestablish the balance of nature, and we must work to reestablish the balance of society. . ." "All this had become urgently clear to him," Schlesinger continues,” as a result of his son's accident. When the little boy was struck by an automobile and nearly killed, 'it forced me to think again about life and to focus on what is really important and vital.' He went on about regaining authenticity in living by getting back in touch with nature, his discourse had a holistic, even mystical fervor. I began to wonder what this sort of talk reminded me of. Suddenly the name swam into my consciousness: Henry Wallace." Wallace FDR's visionary Vice President from 1941 to 1945, whose Progressive Party candidacy in 1948 fronted for the Communists and cost Truman the state of New York. Schlesinger's biggest arguments with my generation were culinary rather than political. As the decades wear on he increasingly bemoans the proliferation of political and social occasions where no hard liquor is served. While I have never drunk as much as he did, generally confining myself to pre-dinner and eschewing pre-lunch, I agree with him on that one.

Meanwhile Schlesinger's continuing contacts with Kissinger remained valuable historically if not politically. Nixon, Kissinger told him in 1975, "was both more evil and better than people supposed. He was at his best when he was under pressure and cornered. That brought all his faculties into play. . ..It was a great myth that he was a hard worker. He was one of the laziest men I have ever seen. I don't think he ever read the Vietnam armistice agreement, for example, or the SALT agreement, or the preliminary papers on China. He worked in spurts of energy, as at the time of Cambodia or Laos or the mining of the North Vietnamese harbors. Then he would collapse into a condition of lassitude that would go on for weeks. His work habits were very much like Hitler's as described by Speer." (In the same conversation Kissinger admitted that he had favored both the Cambodian invasion and the mining of Haiphong.) And on June 14, 1989, Schlesinger had a rather extraordinary conversation with Julie Nixon Eisenhower, who favored "the complete abolition of the CIA on the ground that it has become a dangerous source of secret power in our democracy. She also said that the ovation for Goldwater at the last Republican convention almost made her change her registration from Republican to Democratic--though this may be a reflection less of liberal views than of the fact that Goldwater has described her father, to whom she is devoted, as the most dishonest individual he has ever met. She is easy to talk to, and her friendliness suggests that she has never read anything I have written about Daddy."

Schlesinger was appalled by the renewal of the Cold War under Reagan and enjoyed confronting his Harvard classmate Cap Weinberger about it. (Weinberger insisted that the Soviets were bent upon world conquest.) He amply documents something that has been almost completely forgotten: how conservatives young and old (including Richard Nixon) insisted as late as 1989 that Gorbachev only sought to make the Soviet Union a more dangerous adversary. And one of his best entries is from October 1983. "On Tuesday, the 25th, Reagan invaded Grenada. An enormous triumph for the republic--a nation of 230 million launching a surprise attack on a small island of 110 thousand. Fortunately we won. This will certainly make the Russians think twice." But he quickly adds that when he conveyed these thoughts to "a group of IBM executives and customers," the talk went down with a "dull thud. It is obvious that the Grenadan victory fills many Americans with enormous pleasure and pride. The polls report intense approval."

One Democrat did not consult Schlesinger: Jimmy Carter. And the New Yorker returned the snub with interest, refusing to vote for him either in 1976 or in 1980--the first time, he claimed, because Carter had declared his belief in the literal truth of Genesis. (He did not vote for President in 1976 and voted for John Anderson in 1980.) In retrospect that looks to me like a relatively rare lapse in judgment. But it also encapsulates the tragedy of Schlesinger and the whole bicoastal liberal movement of which he was such a part.

To those born from 1905 or so until 1925 or so, the New Deal and the Second World War had proven the validity of liberal Democratic values, grounded in a mixture of identification with the common man and rational policy analysis. Their mistake--parallel to the mistake of the Midwestern Republicans who had fought and won the civil war eighty years earlier--was to believe that those triumphs had established the truth of their beliefs for all time. In fact the United States would never have had anything like a New Deal (and the subsequent GI Bill, progressive tax structure, and cheap credit) without a catastrophic depression and a huge war. Moreover, both Southern whites and Republicans always resented what Roosevelt and Truman had done, and passed their resentment on to later generations. By 1968 the New Deal coalition had been reduced to less than 45% of the vote. In my opinion Schlesinger was wrong not to vote for Carter in 1976 because Carter, who carried the South, was the only Democrat who could have won that year, and wrong again in 1980 because Carter was indeed better than Reagan. (Ironically, I must admit that the world might have been better off had Ford, not Carter, won in 1976; but that wasn't Schlesinger's view.)

Like the Republicans who never stopped frothing at the mouth over the New Deal, Democrats of my age or older who will die longing for the good old days are arguing with history. Certainly events of the 1960s--notably the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam--accelerated the collapse of liberalism, but I now believe the backlash was inevitable. The baseball theorist Bill James once defined the law of competitive balance. Winners and losers, he argued, pursue different strategies for the future, the net effect of which is to benefit losers. For the last forty years Republicans have aggressively sought new votes where they could find them while Democrats have tried to live off the past--even while one of their most important constituencies, organized labor, has withered away. Republicans have held the White House for 28 out of those forty years. (Their "victory" in 2000 was largely the result of a more determined attitude and an obsession with winning at all costs.) The question now is whether liberalism can revive during the next ten years, or whether generations as yet unborn will revive it after several decades of Republican ascendancy. I hope that if necessary I can eventually reconcile myself to either outcome.

P.S. Cliopatria, a site run by historians, is accepting nominations for the best individual historical blog of 2007. Anyone wishing to make one can go to: