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History’s Largest Lessons
A historian of the ancient world believes that in every era humankind has reacted to the demands of waging war in surprisingly similar ways, and that to protect our national interests today Americans must understand the choices soldiers and statesmen made hundreds and even thousands of years ago
February/march 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 1
Yes, I think that that’s a very large part of it. I also think that there was a delegitimizing of that point of view. That was part of the consequence of the Vietnam War, so that all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons first denounced that war as particularly vicious and wicked, with some going on to generalize from that that the entire waging of the Cold War was illegitimate and wicked. In many quarters that cast a taint on the exercise of military power in almost any fashion, and this was new in America. Prior to the First World War few Americans believed in the illegitimacy of war under all conditions; they understood it to be just and necessary sometimes. The loss of that broad understanding seems to be a new element.
Your book provokes reflection on the misreading of historical analogies. I’m thinking particularly of Henry Kissinger’s pessimism about postwar America.
I’m most troubled by Kissinger’s role in the Nixon administration, first as the national security adviser and then as the Secretary of State, in which his general model was that the United States was a sunset power in its declining phase. Our power was going to contract no matter what happened, and we had to adjust to that. In consequence we were sup- posed to come to terms we might not like with the Soviet Union. It seemed to me then, and of course it now seems to me all the truer, that this was an erroneous evaluation of the relative power situation in the world and of what was likely to happen.
I think Kissinger simply conflated the President’s domestic situation with the country’s situation.
It derived, however, not simply from a mistaken calculation of the facts but from a misidentification of the very real weakness of the regime of which Kissinger was a part as America’s alleged national weakness. The Nixon administration rarely had the power to have its will carried out in the United States, and I think Kissinger simply conflated the President’s domestic situation with the country’s situation, to the great harm of our foreign policy. It was the second Nixon administration that was disintegrating, not America.
Do you think a misreading of history is also responsible for the current conviction on the part of many policymakers that because Americans are so intolerant of realpolitik and limited war, you must have the absolute and unconditional advance consent of the American people before you can use force?
And you must wage war briefly and with such over-whelming force that we can’t possibly lose more than three or four men, and all those other impossible requirements. These people assume that the American tolerance for war is so low as to be effectively zero. I would say they’ve learned yesterday’s lesson and are applying it to the future in a straight line, looking back at the worst situations resulting from Vietnam and ignoring all evidence to the contrary.
It’s very interesting that late in the Bosnian crisis, while all advanced opinion was saying that we couldn’t possibly put troops in there because the American people wouldn’t stand for it, polls showed that anywhere from 61 to 78 percent of the American people favored involvement by American troops in Bosnia—the 78 being for some limited purpose and the 61 being for rather strong involvement. The truth of the matter is that the American people’s capacity to make these judgments depends to a considerable degree on the leadership that is in place. A leader who has a capacity to make the case for military action, even if it doesn’t meet those extraordinary requirements, can bring that action about.
The military is mired in the seventies and has gotten thoroughly out of hand for some time now, imposing what amounts to its political judgment on the civilian government. The military has no business announcing the conditions under which it will contemplate going to war. It’s reminiscent of the behavior in the 1930s of the French and British military leaders, who were consistently making judgments that seem in retrospect to have been shaped by political opinions: in the British case, “We’re not going back onto that damn continent”; in the French, “We’re not taking losses the way we did in the world war.” They always made the worst-case analysis of Allied prospects and the best-case analysis of German ones. I see some small similarities between that and the post-Vietnam political views of our military leadership today.
Everybody is behaving in accordance with his professional interests. I think you have to understand the British generals then and the American generals now in the same way. The common opinion among respectable, educated people sixty years ago was that these generals were stupid or callous and immoral; they had been responsible for a tremendous slaughter. Those generals’ self-esteem and fear of criticism militated toward avoiding that kind of situation.
Similarly, America pilloried its military leaders after the Vietnam War as stupid, dishonest, callous, and brutal. Now their personal and professional self-esteem is tied up in preventing the re-emergence of a similar climate of opinion. Everything is based on that one analysis: Let’s see what happened in Vietnam, and let’s see that nothing like that ever happens again.