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New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian,  A Life in History.   Long-time readers who want to find out how th...

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Presidents Then and Now

 My new book project, States of the Union, 1789-2022: A Concise Political History of the US based on presidential addresses, has now reached Richard Nixon.  Joe Biden, I think it is fair to say, has had remarkably little impact on American politics and American opinion in his first fourteen months in August.  I believe I have stumbled upon a big reason why.

Radio became a mass medium early in the 1920s, and it became a key to Franklin Roosevelt's presidency.  Several times a year, his fireside chats focused the nation on its greatest problems and upon himself.  They had particular effect because Roosevelt excelled at putting the news of the week in a long-term perspective--until 1940, his attack on the depression and attempts to remake American society, and after that year, the course of the Second World War.  Television began to supplant radio in the late 1940s and Presidents Truman and Eisenhower made a number of important broadcast addresses both on economic questions and on foreign policy.  Kennedy followed the same pattern, including dramatic addresses on the Cuban missile crisis, civil rights, and the conclusion of the Test Ban Treaty.  Johnson spoke much less frequently to the American people, and the first broadcast he ever made devoted entirely to Vietnam was the March 31, 1968 one in which he dropped out of the presidential race.

It has become harder and harder to remember much about Nixon beyond the scandals that brought him down, but I have discovered that he was, in his own way, the Franklin Roosevelt of the television era.  During the first four pre-Watergate years of his presidency he made a dozen major broadcast addresses in addition to three state of the union addresses.  The majority of them traced the course of the Vietnam War, including his carefully staged troop withdrawals, his peace offers to the North  Vietnamese, his escalations of the war in 1970 and 1972, and finally the 1973 peace agreement.  But others dealt with domestic issues, including inflation and economic growth and school busing.  However one evaluates his policies and the degree of their success, he kept the American people very well-informed about what he thought and where he was going.  After 1973 the broadcasts focused increasingly on Watergate, although he also made a very detailed address on the energy crisis later in that year. I have not yet gone through the presidential addresses of the last half century, but I have the distinct feeling that the only subsequent president who even tried to match Nixon's record as a communicator was Ronald Reagan.

And this is the area in which Joe Biden has fallen so lamentably short.  He came to office in the midst of one crisis, the pandemic, and now faces two others, the inflationary surge and the war in Ukraine.  He has never gone before the American people in prime time to discuss either one.  He gave what amounted to a state of the union address a couple of months after taking office, and he gave an official one last month.  Beyond that he has relied on sound bites. Yes, the era of three television networks ended long ago, but they surely would still provide the time for a major presidential address, as would the cable news networks.  After a lifetime of behind-the-scenes legislating, however, Biden apparently has no ambition to define his presidency through extended, face-to-face talks to his constituents.

Donald Trump, of course, did maintain a continuous relationship to the voters via Twitter.  One could argue that he used the new medium the way FDR used radio and his successors learned to use television.  Twitter, of course, does not lend itself to sustained, detailed discussion of issues--something of which Trump was not capable anyway--and Trump's use of it was not good for America. Yet it did allow him to build up a devoted personal following that no president since Reagan, surely, has managed to match.  All our elites are now spoiled, confident, apparently, that the public will put up with whatever they do.  The political elite doesn't seem to see much need to explain itself.   The restoration of continual, detailed communication between the president of the people, it seems to me, is essential to the restoration of effective democracy.

Saturday, March 19, 2022

What the War is Telling Us About Ourselves

 Americans love defining their foreign policy, but because the world does not easily bend to our will our actual policies always combine our definitions and the reality that emerges when we try to apply them.  The New York Times remains the voice of the liberal establishment in foreign policy, just as it has been for the whole of my lifetime, and today's coverage of the Ukraine war illustrates how that establishment sees the world and the united States' role in it today.

Ever since Woodrow Wilson--who entered the First World War mainly in response to the apparently uncivilized German tactic of submarine warfare--the United States has stood strongly for the idea that certain international and even national political behavior should be outlawed and punished.  Franklin Roosevelt declared during the Second World War that Axis leaders would be tried and punished for war crimes, and a number of them were, some for the crime of waging an aggressive war.  The strategic imperatives of the Cold War led us to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses within many allies, and in some cases like Indonesia even to encourage them, and the strategic realities of that era meant that we could not possibly try to enforce our standards within the Communist world.  After Communism fell in 1989, however, our foreign policy elite dreamed of enforcing our will all over the globe.  That proved impossible almost at once, and NATO intervened very tardily to stop massacres in former Yugoslavia, and not at all in Rwanda.  We did assume the right to impose our will on Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11, and we failed in both cases to accomplish our objectives while inflicting enormous suffering on those countries ourselves.  Undeterred by the failure of the Bush administration, the Obama administration repeated this disastrous mistake, with similar consequences, in Libya and Syria.  Donald Trump abandoned any attempt to impose US morality on the world, ignoring the human rights records of the Russians, the Saudis, and the North Koreans, but tried and failed to overthrow the Venezuelan government.  

The Biden administration has revived the tone of US moral superiority--and added, it seems, a strategy of dealing with wicked enemies without fighting ourselves.  Russia and Ukraine are now waging a conventional war in Europe.  Civilians suffered massively in the last such war from 1939 through 1945, but civilian suffering was always a secondary subject in the press coverage of that war.  The fate of civilian populations, everyone understood, depended on victory on the battlefield, which remained the focus.  That is not the case now.  The lead story in Friday's New York Times headlines, "Survivors Found in Theater Rubble, but Suffering Widens," and three photos show bombed-out buildings.  Below that story a "news analysis" reads, Biden Makes in Personal by Use of 'War Criminal'"--in response to Putin.  A third story, also about information warfare, reports that Putin is arousing Russian memories by referring to "Nazis" ruling Ukraine. A fourth story focuses specifically on the destruction of Kharkov. There is no separate story on the military situation, which is summarized in only three paragraphs of the page one lead.  Showing how horrible Vladimir Putin is, it seems should be enough to deal with him.

The op-ed page is equally revealing.  Both centrist conservative David Brooks and centrist liberal Paul Krugman have columns arguing that the attack on Ukraine represents the failure of Vladimir Putin's regime, and implying that it is bound to fail.  Numerous stories are speculating about a possible military or oligarchic coup that might remove him and focusing on the domestic harm that the war is doing to Russia.  It may be that Ukraine's resistance and western sanctions will defeat Putin, but I am not convinced that that is true.  The remarkable NPR program This American Life just put together a compilation of reporting about Putin in the last decade or so which illustrates his willingness to use force for his objectives--beginning with the 1999 war in Chechnya--his very real popularity among the Russian people, and the strength of his dictatorship. I highly recommend it.  With refugees streaming out of Ukraine and more bombs and artillery shells falling every day, Putin may win this war.  If he does the new millions of refugees will destabilize the rest of western Europe further and Putin will have proven that expansion via military force works even in the developed world.  And US prestige will fall lower than ever.

Vladimir Zelensky is now the political hero of the western world and an odds-on favorite to win the net Nobel Peace Prize, but one leading national legislature after another--Parliament, the Congress and the Bundestag--cheers him while refusing to consider giving him the thing he wants and needs most, a no-fly zone over his beleaguered, invaded country.  Our leadership cannot evidently shake the fantasy that we are destined to prevail without fighting serious wars.  Worse, it cannot distinguish between cases like Iraq and Libya, where American power created anarchy, on the one hand, and assisting a very viable democratic nation in a critical area on the other.  Greater peace and security for the world does not come from knee-jerk attempts to apply universal principles anywhere, but from taking advantage of situations where military force can create political stability.  We are sending the message that our mlitary force will not be available in some of the situations where it would do the most good, and gambling with too little evidence that dictatorships are bound to fail.

Friday, March 11, 2022

Why NATO Should Prepare to Fight for Ukraine

When the Vietnam War began in earnest in 1965 I was 18 years old, and like most Americans, I accepted that it was necessary to stop Communist aggression.  Within three years I had changed my mind, and decades later, in the 1990s, I wrote a book on how that catastrophic mistake had come about.  I supported the first Gulf War in 1991 because it had a clear, limited objective and had the support of nearly the entire world, but I was very skeptical about our attempt to pacify Afghanistan and I totally opposed the decision of invade Iraq in 2003.  Regime change to fight dictatorship and terrorism clearly failed there, and it failed once again in Libya and in Syria.  Nor is this all.  I was skeptical about the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe, and a month ago I would have welcomed an agreement to have Russia stand down its troops on Ukraine’s border in exchange for a pledge by Ukraine not to join that alliance.  Now, however, events have completely changed my perspective.  In my opinion, the NATO alliance should be planning and preparing to intervene to defend Ukraine, certainly with air power and perhaps with more than that.  They must not do so without a thorough estimate of their chances of success, but if such an estimate reaches a favorable conclusion, they should go right ahead.

As I have written elsewhere, the Russian invasion will be a turning point in the 21st century.  If Putin succeeds we will be living in a world where great powers can send troops across their borders (or across water) to extend their territory and influence.  Longtime observers believe that Putin covets all the territory of the old Russian Empire—including the Baltic States, Finland, and Poland, as well as huge territories in the Caucasus region and Central Asia.  The Baltic States and Poland now belong to NATO, but how can we expect Putin to believe that NATO will actively defend them if it shies away from confronting him in a much larger and more significant country?  The Chinese government will also undoubtedly be emboldened to attack Taiwan—which appears much harder for the US to defend than Ukraine is right now.  How will South Korea and Japan view their alliances with the US if Taiwan falls?  

Analogies to the western powers’ delayed response to Hitler’s moves in the 1930s are certainly appropriate—and they make intervention now even more sensible.  To have fought for Czechoslovakia in 1938 would have been a largely symbolic act—it would almost surely have fallen rapidly to Hitler, and could only have been liberated after a very long war.  Poland in 1939, for which the British and French did go to war, could offer only a few weeks’ resistance.  Ukraine, however—a much larger country with an area the size of Texas with over 40 million people—is putting up heroic and effective resistance against the Russian Army, and might even be able to prevail without NATO intervention.  Russia, clearly, was not ready for combat on this scale—and NATO intervention could easily provide the coup de grace.  I personally doubt very much that Vladimir Putin would survive a military defeat.  The nation that declared itself the leader of the free world 75 years ago should not depend on a Ukrainian victory or a coup in Moscow to achieve a critical objective.

To intervene NATO would have to face the risk of nuclear war squarely, just as Eisenhower and Kennedy did over Berlin and in the Cuban missile crisis.  Putin, like Khrushchev in those days, has made nuclear threats—but even at the height of the Cold War, nations contemplating their use generally realized that there is only one critical issue regarding them—the need not to have one dropped on one’s self.  If Putin has in fact put Russian nuclear forces on alert, then the West should do the same. Eisenhower and Kennedy understood that the US could not appear to fear nuclear war more than its adversary.  It remains insane for anyone to cross that threshold.

Nothing has done more to destroy the domestic prestige of the US government than the failed wars of the last 57 years.  So scarred are we by bad wars that we may not be able to recognize a better one.  To lead NATO as it saves Ukrainian independence and dramatically shifts the world balance of power would be the biggest international victory the US has won in at least 30 years, and give our own people renewed pride in our nation.  It would also take advantage of an entirely new spirit in Europe, where Germany is drastically increasing defense spending and the Finns and Swedes now want to join NATO as well.  Intervention, to repeat, must not be undertaken before a thorough assessment is complete.  If it can be successful, however, it would secure the most significant military outcome since 1945—and one that the world desperately needs.


ps.  This is I think the most important commentary I have written in the 17 + years of historyunfolding.com, and I wanted it to appear in a major publication.  I sent it to three such: two of them rejected it without real explanation within a couple of days and the third has declined to reply at all.  None of them, as far as I can see, has published anything else taking a similar point of view.  I have thought a lot about what this means and may write about that later on.  Meanwhile, I hope readers will share it as widely as possible.


Saturday, March 05, 2022

Citizenship, authority and war

 We are now in the midst of the first war not involving Third World nations since 1945.  The United States and the USSR prepared frantically for such a war in the 1950s and early 1960s and continued to do so until 1989.  For much of that period they and their allies had large conscript armies, trained by men who had fought in the Second World War, or, in the US case, in Korea or Vietnam.  Now neither Russia nor the US nor anyone else, really, has an army trained by men who have fought in a conventional war on the scale of the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

Meanwhile, respect for governmental authority peaked in the Soviet Union around the time of the death of Stalin, and in the United States in 1965.  In the USSR such respect collapsed completely in the late 1980s and took the whole regime down with it.  In the United States the decline took away the military draft as early as 1973 and has spread through the population with the encouragement of our educational establishment for five more decades.  That is why so many Americans on the right have refused to follow government directives during the current pandemic, while so many on the left regard our society as a racist and/or patriarchal conspiracy.  Putin's Russia has been trying to restore some traditional values in opposition to trends in the West, but I have no idea how successful that has been.  Now Putin has put his nation to a severe test, and it is not certain that they will pass it.

Although the invasion of Ukraine appears to be making slow but steady progress, it has not gone according to plan.  Putin seems to have anticipated an immediate collapse of Ukrainian authority--the same mistake that Hitler made, ironically, when he invaded the USSR in 1941.  Instead the Ukrainian people have rallied around the government that they established 30 years ago, and their soldiers are fighting valiantly for independence.  The Russians are having trouble supplying their forces and we have many reports of very unhappy soldiers who had no idea what lay in store for them.  That problem could get worse.  Millions of Russians also seem to be unhappy at home.  Non-Communist Russia has a history of collapsing politically under the stress of war, most notably in 1905 and 1917.  Putin's Russia, meanwhile, depends far more on international trade and finance than Tsarist Russia did.  It is not impossible that its oligarchs could turn against Putin, just as some aristocrats turned against Nicholas II after he left Moscow for the front.

This is, as I have said before, a fateful moment for the world.  If Putin can absorb Ukraine he will have re-established authoritarian rule as an effective alternative in the developed world, and he will probably have solidified his regime.  He will also have re-established warfare as a normal tactic in international affairs, with probable further consequences both in Europe and in Asia.  If however he fails militarily and politically, it will confirm the long-term decline of political authority that began 50-60 years ago.  The NATO governments, meanwhile, are foregoing a chance to re-establish their prestige by intervening successfully on behalf of Ukraine--a possibility I will discuss in another post.  The world will of course breathe a sigh of relief if Putin loses his gamble, and, potentially, his hold on power.  Yet that will leave us in an era of politically weak governments that face other very serious problems such as climate change that they must solve.  In the next few months we will learn a lot more about the nature of the world in which we now live.