Featured Post

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, May 01, 2010

Liberty vs. authority

One of the great dramas of western history is playing out before our eyes--one which could conceivably compare, centuries hence, to the fall of the Roman Empire. For the second time in a century, the whole edifice of western civilization threatens to break apart. When nineteenth century civilization collapsed in large parts of Europe in the early twentieth century--first in the former Russian Empire, and then in Central Europe--totalitarian movements with contempt for human life filled the vacuum. The US intervention in the Second World War saved western Europe for a new and enhanced form of civilization, and the ravages of time eventually put an end to Communism. Europe, which had suffered so much from the cataclysm of 1914-45, responded by putting aside the national antagonisms of the previous three centuries, a process which reached its climax a little more than ten years ago with the creation of the Euro. Now a new economic crisis and the coming to power of European generations that have grown up in peace and affluence are threatening that achievement, while in the United States the whole idea of authority is coming under a new attack that threatens to tear parts of the country apart while making it impossible to cope with our own economic crisis.

My current research, as I have mentioned before, deals with the American response to the world crisis of 1940-1, and will focus largely on the almost unbelievable organizational effort that enabled us to win the war in Western Europe and the Pacific and create the world in which I have my whole life. Yesterday I had to lecture on the long-term impact of the Vietnam War, and pointed out that it turned out to mark the end of an entire era of warfare, and, in a sense, of civilization. It was the last major war fought with draftee armies and using massive, indiscriminate firepower, including bomb tonnages many times those of the Second World War. A new generation, it turned out, was unwilling either to submit to conscription or to tolerate destruction on that scale. In succeeding decades the American military, as a percentage of our (and the world's) population, has gradually shrunk until it is only marginally larger than it was in early 1940, when the US was effectively disarmed, at least on land. The military we have relies increasingly on precision weaponry, which, although it still kills innocent people, kills them by the dozens rather than by the thousands. And the United States in this respect has led the way. By the same measure of proportion of population, the armies of the world's other leading states, including China, India, Russia and the nations of Europe, are even smaller than ours. By historical standards the only remaining heavily militarized nations are the two Koreas, Israel, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. And for some time the United States has been the only nation to regard war as a normal instrument of national policy--and our recent wars have been designed to stabilize non-western states.

In the 1820s, when Clausewitz described a similar decline in the size of European armies and the role of warfare during the 19th century, he remarked, "All the world rejoiced at this development." In the same way, I still believe that we should rejoice at the one we have lived through. The dream of peace among industrial nations inspired millions in the early twentieth century, especially in the United States. It did much to bring about American entry into the First World War, and its evident failure after that war turned many Americans into non-interventionists when the Second World War broke out in Europe and Asia. After 1945, and for 45 years, Americans argued bitterly over whether peace with the Soviet Union and Communist China was possible, and prepared for the most destructive war of all, one that never came. But then, to paraphrase Pasternak, as suddenly as the appearance of the leaves in spring, the threat vanished in the 1990s. The terrible ethnic wars of the Balkans in the 1990s were, in a way, a measure of how far the industrial nations had come in 80 years. The outbreak of those wars represented a breakdown of law and civilization, but this time--unlike in 1914--the Russian, German, French and British governments saw no need to become involved in them themselves, with the single, brief exception of the Kosovo war in 1999, by the US.

It will be a great achievement if we can get through the next two decades without a major war, and I think it is quite possible that we could. I will be quite happy to die without ever seeing the world's richest nations once again mobilize their youth by the millions for another series of immensely costly conflicts, probably involving the use of nuclear weapons. But the ebbing of governmental power that has had other far less inspiring consequences as well, suggesting that we still face an enormous challenge of finding a workable balance between our enhanced liberty and the authority we need.

Here in the United States, an Administration that is simply trying to fix a few of our crumbling institutions--such as our financial markets and our health care system--faces a sustained, ferocious attack from about 45% of our population and the most vocal segments of the media. Meanwhile, deregulation has made certain corporate interests (including the big banks and health insurance companies) sufficiently powerful, it seems, make it very difficult, if not impossible, to institute effective reforms. Thirty-five years of endless anti-government rhetoric have made quite effectively discredited the idea that government can provide an essential counterweight to private power. The federal government has also failed to write laws reflecting the reality of immigration into the United States, creating both an underground economy and another source of popular resentment, one into which state and local politicians are beginning to tap, as the new law in Arizona shows. In much of the country basic public services are threatened by the combination of the anti-tax movement and the economic crisis.

Although Europe is also suffering severely from the economic crisis, its political crisis is nowhere near so far advanced as ours. That is because Western Europe took about a decade longer than the United States to emerge from the Second World War, put its new institutions on a secure footing, and start its generational cycle over again. (This is very clearly reflected in European birth rates. No baby boom occurred in Europe until the late 1950s, and even then it was much more modest than our own.) But postwar Prophets like Brown, Sarkozy and Angela Merkel now rule Europe, and it is not clear that they can keep their parents' institutional achievements alive. The Greek financial crisis has aroused voices in Germany arguing that the Euro was a mistake, since it made German economic health and financial stability hostage to the behavior of less responsible nations in other parts of Europe. Merkel herself, in a dreadful failure of leadership, allowed the situation to drift for weeks in hopes of getting through a key local election first, and thus has made it much worse. Britain is likely to elect a hung parliament for the first time in 87 years (interesting number, that!). The new democracies created in Eastern Europe in the 1990s have fared better than their counterparts from the 1920s had at this stage, but those created out of the former Soviet Union have not done well at all.

I have been reading about previous crises all my life, well before Strauss and Howe put them all in historical context. George Orwell despaired of the future of Britain and of the world in 1938, and Harold Nicholson documented his increasing despair during the winter of 1939-40, as well as his excitement when the catastrophe of France's fall drove Britain out of its funk. Solzhenitsyn spent the last twenty years of his life trying to document the collapse of his own country during the First World War, a tale without a happy ending. The financial collapse of 2008 was not enough, as it turned out, to overcome our inertia, or Europe's. But these are early days yet. Meanwhile, in six weeks, a new World Cup will begin in South Africa. I often wonder whether professional sport has provided a healthier outlet for the emotions that in earlier centuries fed enormous wars. Unless and until, as in 1940, the Olympics and the World Cup need to be adjourned for a dozen years, we will still be living in a period of relative peace.


Anonymous said...

Many of us currently feel
alienated, but we are there to be
won back by our government - if
its representatives are smart,
honorable and deserving (actually,
they only have to be moderately
truthful and competent).

Unfortunately, most government
functionaries do not realize that
authority has to be earned, not

More likely, some
politician/functionary will step
forward and assert the government's authority in some meaningless but offensive way.
Just like the current regime
has been doing since it assumed
the power.

That is when we will develop real
animosity towards the government
and start pushing back.

That is why, after november, this
regime will be forced to do things
in bi-partisan manner or not at
all until it itself is replaced.

Bozon said...


It is I think, very much as you see it.

Great capsule editorializing (we really seldom saw such an editorial, in the American print media, as far as I can recall; it was always more about 'news', of the moment; even the best editorials were seldom 'learned'.

('Suggests' should perhaps replace 'suggesting' to get a sentence at "...suggesting that we still face...".)

All the best,

Aunt Katie said...

"I often wonder whether professional sport has provided a healthier outlet for the emotions that in earlier centuries fed enormous wars."

It seems like a defensible postulate.

However, if you look at different trends, say the trend from amateur to professional sport, and its causes; or at the tendency of fan or spectator sports to eat up time and resources previously devoted to other, possibly more productive or edifying or restorative endeavors, then it does not make a lot of sense, socio-politically, as 'healthier' unless the opposite is actual war.

The intensifying trends in motion picture and television and internet violence, and in sports graphics, does not bode well for 'healthier', either.

I know the old 'bread and circuses' leitmotif, and there is certainly some truth in that, too.
Current media emphasis re sports events and personalities is a kind of 'opiate of the masses', too.

Some of the most enduring 'heroes' of our classic, as well as current cinema, are rebels against weak, or currupt, legitimate authority.

These trends too, naving been allowed to proliferate more or less unchecked in our highly free society, do not have wholesome implications for the future.

all the best,
Gerald Meaders

Aunt Katie said...

"The US intervention in the Second World War saved western Europe for a new and enhanced form of civilization, and the ravages of time eventually put an end to Communism."

Can't this be going a little bit too far?

Was it really a new or enhanced thing?

Even if 'ravages of time' (terminology which I personally like),rather than American bravery (as most Americans prefer to believe), put an 'end' to communism, isn't that actually false, too?

If anything, new post WWII globalism, fomented originally by US, to fight cold war Communism, but which took on a life of its own, brought about the very global environment that privides a nest for international communism (always ultimately an international (transcivilizational) proletarian movement), as well as for intercivilizational fundamentalism.

All the best,

Anonymous said...

excting times these are:

I just read The Big Picture, quoting extensively from the BIS, Bank of International Settlements(Global bank of banks), predicting some sort of doomsday in ca. 10-15 years, due to all nations' overindebtedness.


Permanent indebtedness leads to impoverishment, or printing presses for hyperinflation. A cycle always ends in a financial crisis which becomes all out war. Since everyone is overindebted then global war seems inevitable. All global currencies become toilet paper. War comes, we reset the game with a new system. Last man standing gets to make the rules(don't expect a global unitary system or bipolar world but a bigger mess).

What is the point of our current democracy and freewheeling capitalism if it only gives the people what they want and cannot take away the punch bowl, i.e. shows no discipline when needed (e.g. Paul Volcker or a similar kindly dictator)

Patricia Mathews said...

However, for anyone who thinks professional sports can be a peaceful substitute for war, I give you the late Roman Red, Green, White, and Blue chariot-racing factions, actually strongly tied to internal politics.

However - the early medieval Irish tales make Ireland seem like a cage containing too many Kilkenny cats, whereas the Scandinavian tales tell of foreign adventures - except that the Icelandic sagas revert to the Kilkenny Cat pattern. Which tells me that exploration rather that sports is likeliest to save us from world-wide civil war.

Just my $0.02

Pat from 4T (The Grey Badger)

Linguistics Dissertation said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Unknown said...

I read and reread this recent post. I can see your view, but as with many or your posts there is a common thread of thought missing: a) Congress is at the core of the problems. Partisanship is the standard and little gets done and when a Bill is created it's "teeth" are missing. b) There is a obvious bias in the National Media outlets. For example: I watch BBC America for my nightly news and I dvr the other three networks news casts. Last week during the Senate Hearings on G/S's investment funds BBCA provide in depth clips of the proceedings and reported the testimony with out a political party bias. It's reporters asked questions to the Panel members later after the proceedings and focused on the content of the questions and answers of the proceedings. ABC, NBC & CBS all used analysts and turned the news report into a Republican vs. Obama editorial, not reporting complete facts, but stirring the partisan waters up. The First Amendment was intended to keep the Press free from influence in order to allow the freedom to question the actions of the ruling government. Theodore Roosevelt wrote: "Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people."

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Bozon said...

"The dream of peace among industrial nations inspired millions in the early twentieth century, especially in the United States. It did much to bring about American entry into the First World War, and its evident failure after that war turned many Americans into non-interventionists when the Second World War broke out in Europe and Asia."

That dream may have been someone's. It is not, however, what one might suppose, on the record, at least in Europe.

I was struck by rereading Michael Howard's comments on the views of the people in Europe, in
1914,"Europe On The Eve Of World War I", in his Lessons of History compilation. This is helpful.

All the best,

Robert Light said...

The financial crisis is quite simple:

People need to start recognizing that standards of living are built on activity which ___PRODUCES SOMETHING___

People can produce goods or services...but they have to be goods or services that someone wants "enough" to provide goods or services in return to get your goods or services.

That is an economy.

When an economy is built on fancy financial transactions and built on redistribution of wealth - then it eventually crumbles.

The famous tulip mania finally crumbled when some person woke up one morning and said "hey...these things that we've built our economy on...they are just flowers"... you can't eat them, you can't run your machines on them... they are just pretty...but they don't "do anything".

The Greek crisis and even our own in the USA is caused by too many people not "doing anything".

Worse yet... we have people in power now who openly criticize and lambast those who are actually trying to do make a business. We now have Washington filled with people who, at their core, are trying to instigate class warfare.

Freud had it right...just listen to what they say when they are "off script".

Charles Strauch said...

It is always fascinating how self named "historians" are adept at re-writing history with their own twist - for example characterizing WW II as the most "unbelievable organizational effort that enabled us to win the war in Western Europe and the Pacific".

As one who was there and often thinks about how "unbelievable" and defining for world freedom that effort was - it is indeed disappointing to note the words of an obviously clueless armchair wonk - mis-characterizing that momentous and history defining event as a demonstration of 'organizational' skills.

Any rational person who has any sense of how and why the US won that war couldn't possibly characterize in one sentence that effort without capturing its essence - an "unbeleivable demonstration of courage, sacrifice, resourcefulness and leadership on the part of freedom loving individuals - representing both government and the private sector."

As to the 'organizational' element, it is true that there was tremendous respect on the part of government for the abilty of the private sector - with government overssight and support, to organize and deliver the goods - an appreciation that is sadly lacking in our government today.

David Kaiser said...

Mr. Strauch,

I have a policy, announced some time ago, of deleting abusive and anonymous comments. Yours was abusive, but not anonymous, and thus went through. Having checked your background on your own blog, however, I don't quite understand what you think gives you the stature to talk to me as you did.

You are in fact ten years older than I am and watched the Second World War as a small child. Based on your bio you have no military experience. I had six years as an enlisted man in the Army Reserves (1970-6) and I've spent the last twenty years as a civilian faculty member here at the Naval War College teaching Strategy and Policy to American military officers. I'm researching a book on US entry into the Second World War right now. Let me suggest to you that all the nations in that war displayed sacrifice, dedication, and enthusiasm--including Germany and Japan and the Soviet Union. It was our resources, our organizational and productive skill, and above all the leadership of Franklin Roosevelt that allowed us to win the campaigns in which we were engaged. But for all that we would not have been able to defeat Germany without the much larger contribution of the Soviet Union.

Everything you say about yourself may well be true, but unregulated American corporations have NOT helped the average American for the last three decades. Their standard of living and their economic security have fallen. Has WalMart been good for the American people? Has Goldman Sachs? McDonald's? The health insurance industry? We are and always will be a capitalist nation, but we need some planning and regulation, as we did in the New Deal. If we don't get it we will continue moving towards Third World status.

Unknown said...

Mr. Kaiser,

Your reply to Mr. Strauch was both necessary and appropriate.
I have arrived at your Blog as a result of the Obama/Hitler forgery that came by e-mail. The receipt of the forgery may categorize me and there will be some truth in that event.
In your reply, perhaps as a result of the personal attack, you make a few questionable attacks of your own.ie Unregulated American corporations. Which one would that be? Why the animus toward WalMart, McDonalds etc.Do other nations make a mistake in allowing said corporations into their midst? After the Soviets carved
up Central Europe with Hitler via the Molotov/Ribbentrop ? pact, the Nazis were better able to concentrate on other fronts. Later when attacked, the Soviets did help defeat the Nazis, but it is at least debatable that the Allies could not have done so without Soviet help as you state. That ignores the development of a nuclear weapon at the least.

At one time, I also believed Federal planning and regulation were necessary for our complex economy.Whatever was I thinking? The demise of the Soviet Union, with as many planners(bureaucrats)as workers, should have put such thinking in the 'dustbin of history'.
J D Thomson

Bozon said...

Re: Kaiser contra Strauch

I come down on the side of Kaiser here. Other remarks also apply here.

I have a few more remarks, re Russia, since the topic, re WW II came up.

What has been disappointing for me has been the continued 'post-cold war' mentality towards Russia; while we have increasingly, since first Japan, and then Nixon's China adventure, eagerly rushed into various adverse Asian centers of civilization, willy nilly.

Obama has finally had the sense (I will not say 'good' sense, but sense) to attempt a greater reconciliation with Russia.

They were ruled, after all, until the mid 18th C,I believe, by the Asian Golden Hoard.

Given recent trends, and the blithe attitude favoring global ideas, something like that could very easily happen to us, say, tomorrow.

All the best,