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Saturday, April 28, 2012

How an era came to an end

For the last two weeks I have been putting the finishing touches on a new week on the Vietnam War for one of the courses my department teaches, including a new lecture of my own, the last new lecture I'll be giving as a faculty member at the Naval War College. The basic text for the week is A Time for War by Robert Schulzinger, and while I inevitably have some differences of opinion with him on many points, the book's strengths far outweigh any weaknesses. He handles the domestic impact of the war especially well, and I could not help thinking once again that I and my contemporaries, as college students and soldiers, lived through what looms more and more as a great turning point in American history--and very possibly, as it turns out, in the history of the world.

The middle of the twentieth century, we can now see, was the climax of a development in western civilization that had been proceeding for the better part of three centuries: a faith in reason, and in particular, in the application of reason to solve human, as well as scientific, problems. This began, it seems to me now, with two 17th-century developments: the scientific revolution on the one hand, and the development of stronger European states capable of controlling domestic violence on the other. The latter development, beginning during the reign of Louis XIV in France (1661-1715), was a major theme of my book Politics and War. By the late 18th century it was leading to further efforts to rationalize state behavior and find ways to promote the common good. The American Revolution was the first dramatic outcome of these trends, and it has been so successful because it combined two key elements of the new rationalism, theory on the one hand--"all men are created equal"--and empiricism on the other--the successes of the British political tradition upon which the Americans hoped to improve. In the next decade, however, the 1790s, Europe got a harsh lesson in the dangers of rationalism. The French Revolution showed that reason could function simply as an excuse for destructive passion, and Napoleon showed how rationalism and reform could become excuses for endless expansion. The advance of rationalism in politics was checked in many ways during much of the nineteenth century. Even in the United States, the Civil War led to an outburst of selfishness rather than a further application of reason to politics. But the United States reversed that trend beginning around 1900, during the Progressive era. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, utopian ideologies, most of them socialist, were gaining ground. So were ideals of universal peace, but they had not gone far enough to prevent the First World War.

Old orders were dying, first in Eastern Europe and then in Western Europe and the United States, from the 1910s through the 1930s. In every case some rationalist alternative stepped forward to fill the gap. In Eastern Europe it was Communism, which accomplished an astonishing transformation of the old Russian Empire within two decades. In Central Europe National Socialism, which once again used reason as an excuse to act out some of humanity's basest passions, initially prevailed. The United States instead produced the New Deal--the first time a democratic state had enlisted its whole population in an attempt to create a richer and more just society. That maintained the vitality of democracy through the 1930s and paved the way for the subject of my current book, the extraordinary American effort that helped win the Second World War and brought the whole capitalist industrialized world under the American umbrella. The United States emerged from that war with a strong state and a consensus on the need for the government to seek full employment for its people, intervene to assure a minimum level of economic well-being, and promote the welfare of young families. It was that world into which I was born. Western Europe, meanwhile, began erecting welfare states in order to avoid anything remotely similar to the mid-century catastrophe--a process that continues to this day.

Even in the relatively conservative 1950s, the Eisenhower Administration embarked upon the interstate highway system and, in response to Sputnik, spent more money on higher education. But the traditions of the New Deal revived dramatically under Kennedy and Johnson. The Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 finally extended full rights to black Americans. The poverty program, while imperfect in execution, was noble in motive. The Kennedy Administration made progress in controlling inflation. Per capita income continued to grow rapidly, and marginal tax rates remained very high--and implicit recognition that the richest among us owed their fortunes to a healthy society and economy. All these developments were cresting in 1965. Then, one utterly disastrous decision brought them all to an end--as it turns out, for many decades to come.

Like Robespierre during the terror, Stalin during his Five Year Plans, and Hitler in the midst of the Holocaust, Lyndon Johnson justified the Vietnam War based on theoretical principles, specifically the principle that Communist aggression, if unchecked, would breed more aggression. Unlike his predecessor John F. Kennedy, he could not combine that principle with the western empirical tradition in order to realize that South Vietnam was a terrible place in which to try to apply it. By the time he left office four years later Vietnam was stalemated with half a million American troops on the ground, and the United States that had elected him by a huge margin in 1964 had ceased to exist. The casualties of that war eventually included not merely the 59,000 American dead and hundreds of thousands of wounded, but also, as it turns out, the rationalist tradition in politics.

As Schulzinger shows, albeit in far more restrained language than I am using, the hopeless enterprise of this endless war destroyed the consensus that had brought Johnson to power--especially within the Democratic Party and the left in general. To a large and critical mass within the Boom generation, it discredited not only Johnson's foreign policy, but all the rationalist claims of the elder generation--indeed, virtually every value that had been embodied in their parents' and grandparents' work. Some of this was both inevitable and healthy. The "greatest" or GI generation had made it through the Depression and the Second World War only with the help of an emotional restraint that could not possibly continue. That was already evident in the new music that had emerged in the mid-1950s and was now reaching its artistic peak ten years later, as well as in the new trends in film of the late 1960s. But without the perversion of the idea of a national effort for the greater good that Vietnam embodied, the very real political achievements of the preceding century might have survived. As it was, they did not.

The legacy of the Awakening that began around 1965 was self-expression--but for many reasons, that self-expression has steadily degenerated into selfishness. That selfishness among the Boom generation--now inherited, in many ways, by Gen X--has taken two forms. On the right it has revived the idea, which had been relegated to the fringes of American life by the 1950s, that greed is good, and that economic progress occurs when people can enrich themselves to the maximum extent possible. But on the Left--upon which society must almost always count for any sense of common national purpose--it has been equally destructive. The Left has encouraged its acolytes to see themselves as women, or minorities, or practitioners of alternative sexual lifestyles, rather than as citizens. The Obama Administration came to power more than three years ago in the midst of the worst economic crisis in 80 years. It's response has been tepid and much less effective, in percentage terms, than FDR's. As a result--as the fundraising appeals I receive almost daily confirm--its campaign is going to rely largely on social issues, particularly women's rights. It has offered much too little to all Americans as citizens, and thus has missed what was probably the last chance for generations to create a more united body politic.

The attack on the rationalist tradition has been most effective in the most critical theater of war, American universities. Nowhere is this more apparent than in my own historical profession. History is no longer a matter of uncovering the truth, it's a question of examining (and creating) different ways of "framing" past events. That amounts to seeing the past through the eyes of the present, which makes it impossible to learn anything from the past. In addition, the humanities are now based largely on hostility to authority and institutions--which makes it almost impossible to contribute positively to what society needs.

Europe, as I have mentioned many times, does not seem to have gone as far down this path as we have, but the Europeans' failure to cope appropriately with their own economic crisis is disturbing. In any case, it is even clear to me now than it was when I finished American Tragedy (see at right) that 1965 marked a critical turning point in our history, and that we will not see anything like the world of that era again in any of our lifetimes. Perhaps my senses are heightened about all this because it happened to coincide with my 18th birthday.


Anonymous said...

I read it and was absolutly unmoved.

It seems just like the last lament
of a person whose life is nearing the end and whose existance has
lost all relevance.

The sun is shinning today. And will tomorrow.

The re-distributors will be voted
out and the citizens will be able
and free to prosper without
bureaucratic interference.

wmmbb said...

I am inclined to believe understanding events in retrospect and as the cast of participants understood them at the time can be both valid interpretations.

Disinterested pursuit of the common good, as embedded in the American Revolution, remains the ideal. There are powerful forces at play at the different levels of political and social action. As we can observe in Norway at the moment, on an individual level including grief and anger (I would imagine). Individual psychological response is refracted through the lens created, for example, by corporate capitalism, now global, as is the banking system.

To claim any person's life is irrelevant is to be profoundly "ahistorical".

Roger Bigod said...

Thank you so much for volunteering to be Exhibit A.

David Kaiser said...

To Roger Bigod: I assume you refer to anonymous, above? I had the same thought.

Roger Bigod said...

Yes, I should have addressed it to anonymous.

PJ Cats said...

Dear Mr. Kaiser,

thanks for another insightful little essay. I think other writers as well have pointed out the onset of the conservative backlash, though I think most of those place it after the Vietnam war. It's a bit like the 'when did the Cold War start'-discussion.
Not that it matters much, now we're racing toward the new dark ages. I think the period after WW II stands out as a short illumination, an opportunity to be really free. For some, the opportunity became, and still becomes real. Actors, musicians, sportsmen - though even those chances seem somehow tainted with the dark spell of economic frames that border our lives. "Nothing is very much fun any more." The situation (I'm in the Netherlands, Europe) weirdly reminds me of the old German Democratic Republic, where the inhabitants fled to the comfort of the 'Nischengesellschaft', every one in his own private little place, just doing his own thing. On a large scale, the thing went down the tub at the same time. I'm not going to say Titanic here. From an even wider perspective, I'd say, just before the French Revolution. Too few privileged, too many bereft (is that a good word?). But my, how good the privileged have become at sowing discord and reaping discontent. That's really worrisome.

Anonymous said...

I generally agree ewith the points made in your essay, I particularly liked your take on how historians have forsaken a search for the truth and instead are now engaged in finding new ways to frame past events. I do, however , which you had given a bit more credit to Henry Cabot Lodge for the entire situation that became the American War in Vietnam.
W.J. McIntosh , former Chief Vietnam Operations,CIA.

Bo9b in NC said...

"The Left has encouraged its acolytes to see themselves as women, or minorities, or practitioners of alternative sexual lifestyles, rather than as citizens." -- This is a big part of the problem. The "Left" stopped being a universalist, humanitarian advocate for workers and people in general in the aftermath of Vietnam. The "antiwar" left became the "New Left" and ingested narcissism, and hence beat a retreat to 2nd level colleges and public universities, which "educate" 80% of our students.
The result is as you say: there is no progreesive force to counter the base greed of the new Right.
With Facebook, monitored Tweets, no jobs for graduates, and omniscient NSA spying, we are headed for a Brave New World of techno-tyranny.
"Anonymous" empitomizes this trend.
Please don't throw in the towel.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. Kaiser, this is an exhibit "A" where I live
and vote at.

High-profile public servants among hundreds in
Massachusetts charged with crimes and ethics


Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. Kaiser, this is an exhibit "B".

Please do note that neither my exhibit "A" or "B"
have anything to do with anyone or anything else
but only with so called "progressives".

REPORT: SOLYNDRA Ignoring Buckets Of Toxic Waste Left At Vacant Facility


And to recap, as my 94 year old grandmother who only had 4 years of schooling, told me when
I was about 8 years old:

"Son, if someone comes to you and tells you that
they know better than you yourself what is best for
you, run! If you cannot run and are cornered
shoot them!"

It is absolutely unacceptable that people who
have produced exhibits "A" and "B" tell me
anything. Let alone what is good for me.

I feel sorry for you since you are willing to
accept - to paraphrase you - noble motives, even
with imperfect execution.

I am not.

My disillusion and disappointment is amplified
by my own failure - I voted for the current
administration based on their false promises.

Now, after seeing their record and their philosophy
I shall not be so gullible the next time around.

partisan said...

I have some real problems with this post. For a start, what definition of "rationalism" includes Nazism but excludes well, any other ideology? (Let alone feminism or the neoclassical dogmas of the Republican party?) And blaming identity politics for the economic timidity of Obama is flawed in a number of ways. For a start, with a few exceptions, the castigators of identity politics in the media and middlebrow world are also supporters of our anti-Keynesian economy. It has been Democratic and Republican "moderates" opportunism and lock-step conservative opposition that has restricted Obama's presidency so far, just as it had Clinton's and Carter's. Nader's candidacy cost Gore the presidency, but this is not a mistake his supporters are likely to repeat any time soon.Second, parochial appeals have always been a part of American political life. Why should feminists and African-Americans forgo them once they get people's attention? And why blame generational politics for America's current plight? Why not, say, blame the decline of the labor movement? And does generational change real explain the influence of Rumsfeld, Scalia and Cheney in Republican politics, or Buckley, Peretz and Podhoretz in political debate?

Anonymous said...

I would appreciate it if someday you could write a bit more about your opinion of today's historians and give a few examples of the "new history" that irritate you.

I find myself buying used copies of history books written from 1950-1980 and enjoying them much more than most of what's coming out right now.

publion said...

(Part 1 of 2)

I concur with both the content of the essay and the value of Dr. Kaiser’s presenting his informed take on what has been going on during his adult life and during the entirety of his professional career.

This is precisely the type of vital and irreplaceable input that any informed analysis needs in order to achieve the most accurate and comprehensive grasp of the history (in order to consider the best workable course for the present and the future).

In that regard, the Boom bunch is now in the phase of life Plato assigned to the Philosopher, and I fully support any Boomer’s efforts to discharge that Platonic responsibility to the best of his/her ability.

Looking over the comments, a couple of thoughts come to me.

I am always a little wary of the “backlash” term. While perhaps somewhat accurate in describing the Jim Crow society’s instinctively reactive effort to ‘preserve its social power’ (or dominance or hegemony or oppression), yet the far too easily and quickly adopted term began to fail greatly when just about any doubts, concerns for consequences, or outright objections to any of the then-burgeoning new demands and agendas bid fair to create very profound changes – even unto the foundations – of American society, culture, and governance.

To simply dismiss it all (in the Marxist mode) as the reaction of those-in-power to the threatened loss-of-power missed – or ignored – hugely significant realities or potentials in both the agendas and in the public’s reaction to those agendas.

The GDR’s version of ‘interior exile’ – practiced by so many in the Nazi and Soviet societies – is a real danger here now, as Correctness has achieved so comprehensive an influence in public discourse that many with the intelligence, education, and position to speak out – to say nothing of the general Citizenry – choose to remain mostly silent. And such ‘interior exile’ is a Stance that is fatal for the sustaining of the Republic as the Framers envisioned it.

publion said...

There has been far too much ‘science’ and ‘study’ that is not genuinely open and comprehensive, but rather seeks purposely to put itself in the service of some ‘cause’ whose utter Goodness putatively overrides the intellectual pursuit of Truth (perhaps we might seek to re-establish something like ‘fiat Scientia, ruat coelum’ or ‘fiat Sapientia, ruat coelum’).

This coincides – and I can’t accept it as coincidence – with the wide-ranging deployment of what legal professionals informally but acutely term ‘law office history’. Once an attorney decides on the theory of the case to be pursued, s/he sends the office elves to the books to specifically put together any statutes, legislation, case law, and other supporting material which will support the theory of the case that s/he is – literally – ‘advocating’. All perfectly legitimate legal praxis.
But it is not ‘history’ in the genuine sense of the term. It is – literally – ‘advocacy history’.

It also bears strong familial resemblance to Gramsci’s concept of the “organic intellectual”: there are those intellectuals and elites whose output serves ‘merely’ to support the (dominant, oppressive, hegemonic, marginalizing) status-quo, and then there are “organic intellectuals” who put their education and talents in the service of the ‘revolution’ that seeks to overturn that status-quo.

You see where this type of thing can quickly go.

The fractalizing and corrosive effect of Identity Politics as it has evolved in this country in the past 40 years under the influence of Gramscian Content and agitprop Method cannot be underestimated nor wished-away. While it is built into the American concept of ‘deliberative democratic politics’ that concerned individuals might gather themselves together and put their ideas forward in order to ‘inform’ other Citizens, there is advanced-stage (and heavily Gramscian) ‘advocacy’ wherein those who ‘get it’ organize themselves into pressure-groups both to a) ‘manipulate’ the opinion of a public that ‘just doesn’t get it’ and b) sidestep that public (i.e. The People) and simply pressure lawmakers to make ‘deals’ in the non-smoking smoke-filled rooms legislative venues.

This advanced-level Identity Politics differs in vital respects from the commonly-accepted dynamics of Citizens accurately informing other Citizens and seeking rationally to persuade them. To that classic American universe, Identity Politics as it has evolved here constitutes an anti-Universe. And we see the effects of that with increasing clarity as time goes on.

I too find myself eagerly combing used-book stores for genuine history rather than the more current advocacy/organic/law-office histories that are – alas – being churned out in such quantity. (Which is not to imply that any single work of history is t-h-e truth, comprehensively and definitively and dispositively; but that’s what I like to see the author trying to aim for.)