The "worst ever"?

Historian Mark Moyar is author of “Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965”. The cases he cites demonstrate how different history looks when access to the archives is opened, and historians tackle the study who had no political investment at the time. In 25 years or so we’ll learn the true history of Bush and Iraq.

,,,Of course, the reason Mr. Carter, and others, rank President Bush at the bottom is the Iraq war. Mr. Carter himself did not get the country into a war during his presidency, likely because he lacked the fortitude. If we want a useful comparison with presidents who did get us into a difficult war, we need look no further than the two men who put the United States into its last protracted conflict, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Kennedy commands much admiration among the literati, in part because his Vietnam decisions have been misunderstood. Four-and-a half decades after Kennedy dramatically deepened America’s commitment to South Vietnam, we are just now learning critical facts about his actions. This alone might cause us to beware of sweeping pronouncements about a president and his place in history while he is still in office.

New evidence shows that Kennedy reluctantly allowed Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge to instigate the disastrous coup against South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in November 1963, the event that did the most to draw the U.S. into the war. Lodge, a liberal Republican, favored a coup because Diem was not handling South Vietnamese dissidents the way an American politician would. During October 1963, in violation of presidential orders, Lodge secretly encouraged a group of South Vietnamese generals to revolt, igniting the conspiracy that produced the coup three weeks later.

Lodge did not notify Washington of his actions, but one week before the coup, top administration officials caught wind of it. Although Kennedy was incensed, he did not stop Lodge. In the summer of 1963, Kennedy had appointed Lodge, a prominent Republican with presidential aspirations, to be ambassador to Vietnam to shield himself from Republican criticism if the situation in Southeast Asia worsened. But this maneuver shackled Kennedy. The president couldn’t fire or rein in Lodge for fear that in 1964, a presidential candidate Lodge would accuse him of mismanaging the crisis. Like too many Democrats today, Kennedy put a higher priority on undermining Republicans than on advancing America’s interests abroad. The coup went ahead and the South Vietnamese went from winning the war to losing it because of the ineptitude of the new rulers.

Historians have always heaped blame on Lyndon Johnson for Vietnam, but not always for the right reasons. Like Kennedy, Johnson assigned a higher priority to his re-election than the good of the country. In the late summer and fall of 1964, fearing that warlike behavior and words could erode his lead over Barry Goldwater in the polls, Johnson rejected the military’s recommendations for powerful retaliatory air strikes against North Vietnam. Portraying himself as the candidate of peace, he said that he would not send American boys to do what Asian boys could do for themselves.

We now know, thanks to new sources from the communist side, that Johnson’s conduct in the summer and fall of 1964 convinced Hanoi that the Americans would not intervene if North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam. This deduction, combined with the deterioration of the South Vietnamese government, led the North Vietnamese to invade the South at the end of 1964. The invasion in turn compelled the United States to begin sending hundreds of thousands of combat troops to Southeast Asia.

President Bush obviously made decisions on Iraq that have had unforeseen and unfortunate consequences. We know he received some inaccurate intelligence and that some of his subordinates provided faulty advice on how to deal with post-invasion Iraq. But we are far from knowing all of the information that was available to him or the full content of his discussions with his advisers. At this point, it appears that the Iraq war resulted from decisions that the president sincerely believed would benefit the U.S. and the peoples of the Middle East. If that is what history concludes, President Bush won’t be considered the “worst” American president — he will certainly deserve more respect than war presidents who undermined the American cause by putting re-election before the national interest.

The Dam Busters

It should have been fiction but it was fact. Sixty-four years ago today a handpicked squadron of RAF pilots, led by a dashing young war hero took off on a mission to flood out Hitler’s war machine by destroying the dams which supplied hydroelectric power to the Ruhr….

Blame America first

Roberts points out almost all the advances of freedom in the 20th century have been made by the English-speaking peoples — Americans especially, but British, as well, and also (here his account will be unfamiliar to most American readers) Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders.

A fine short essay by Michael Barone:

…In their assessment of what is going on in the world, they seem to start off with a default assumption that we are in the wrong. The “we” can take different forms: the United States government, the vast mass of middle-class Americans, white people, affluent people, churchgoing people or the advanced English-speaking countries. Such people are seen as privileged and selfish, greedy and bigoted, rash and violent. If something bad happens, the default assumption is that it’s their fault. They always blame America — or the parts of America they don’t like — first.

Where does this default assumption come from? And why is it so prevalent among our affluent educated class (which, after all, would seem to overlap considerably with the people being complained about?). It comes, I think, from our schools and, especially, from our colleges and universities. The first are staffed by liberals long accustomed to see America as full of problems needing solving; the latter have been packed full of the people cultural critic Roger Kimball calls “tenured radicals,” people who see this country and its people as the source of all evil in the world.

On campuses, students are bombarded with denunciations of dead white males and urged to engage in the deconstruction of all past learning and scholarship.

Not all of this takes, of course. Most students have enough good sense to see that the campus radicals’ description of the world is wildly at odds with reality. But this battering away at ideas of truth and goodness does have some effect. Very many of our university graduates emerge with the default assumption thoroughly wired into their mental software. And, it seems, they carry it with them for most of their adult lives.

The default assumption predisposes them to believe that if there is slaughter in Darfur, it is our fault; if there are IEDs in Iraq, it is our fault; if peasants in Latin America are living in squalor, it is our fault; if there are climate changes that have any bad effect on anybody, it is our fault.

…The default assumption gets this almost precisely upside down. Yes, there are faults in our past. But Americans and the English-speaking peoples have been far more often the lifters of oppression than the oppressors.

“There is something profoundly wrong when opposition to the war in Iraq seems to inspire greater passion than opposition to Islamist extremism,” Sen. Joseph Lieberman said in a speech last week. What is profoundly wrong is that too many of us are operating off the default assumption and have lost sight of who our real enemies are.

Read the whole thing.

Christopher Hitchens on Robert Conquest

I later found that at the very last plenum of the Soviet Communist Party, just before the U.S.S.R. dissolved, a Stalinist hack called Alexander Chakovsky had described me as ‘anti-Sovietchik No. 1.’ I must say I was rather proud of that.

PALO ALTO, Calif.–Those who were born in Year One of the Russian Revolution are now entering their 10th decade. Of the intellectual class that got its vintage laid down in 1917, a class which includes Eric Hobsbawm, Conor Cruise O’Brien and precious few others, the pre-eminent Anglo-American veteran must be Robert Conquest. He must also be the one who takes the greatest satisfaction in having outlived the Soviet “experiment.”

…he strove to propose a social-democratic resistance to communism. “I’d always been a Labour man and somewhat on the left until the 1970s, when I met Margaret Thatcher and she asked my advice.” That advice–which translated into the now-famous “Iron Lady” speech–was to regard the Soviet system as something condemned by history and doomed to fail. If that sounds easy now, it wasn’t then (though Mr. Conquest insists that it was George Orwell who first saw it coming).

Esther, Freeman, and George Dyson: "The Difficulty of Looking Far Ahead"

A fascinating SALT seminar featuring physicist Freeman Dyson and his children Esther and George [One hour 21 minute podcast from October 5th, 2005. SALT is an acronym for the Long Now Foundation’s Seminars About Long-Term Thinking].

The main point he made before the session was opened to questions was about the “domestication of biotechnology”. I.e., what I would call widespread access to synthetic biology. Freeman described a future where:

soon biotech will become small, cheap, and user-friendly, to be employed by gardeners, naturalists, and kids to make their own creations… where people can program new genomes… a new artform as lively as cinema or painting or sculpture…

It’s OK for the kids to play around with dinosaurs, but they shouldn’t play around with viruses [he explained briefly that the high risk arena is microbes, not new roses or lizards].

A few other selected Freeman Dyson comments — loosely paraphrased:

On how we deal with the risks of biotechnology: Dyson talked a bit about regulation [prompted by Esther’s obvious horror of the prospects], but it was clear that wasn’t where his heart was. His enthusiasm is for “more space” — e.g., to colonize the solar system. Then biotech experiments with enhanced humans [ala Kurzweil] could be conducted in isolation:

On “global warming”:

I’m a skeptic about about “global warming”. The phrase “climate change” is perfectly acceptable, it has real meaning as that is what is really happening, for all kinds of reasons, most of which we don’t understand.

OTOH, “global warming” tries to reduce everything to a single number, the average temperature over land, which isn’t really that significant. What is significant is how much rainfall, how many hurricanes — all difficult problems we don’t the answers to. It’s clear to me there is no understanding today that is good enough to take substantial actions at the present time… the only thing I agree with George Bush on.

On the future of computers: Dyson recalled Von Neumann’s answer when the US government asked him how many computers the nation would need. His reply “eighteen”.

Kevin Kelly provided a few notes from the meeting — unfortunately there’s no video available — I would love to see the visuals and videos which George Dyson used:

Instead of one podium there were four chairs on the stage of Wednesday’s seminar. In three seats, three Dysons: Esther, George and Freeman. They were appearing together on stage for the first time. The fourth held Stewart Brand who led the three through an evening of queries. The questions came from Stewart himself, from the audience, and from one Dyson to another Dyson — a first for this format in a Long Now seminar.

George introduced his dad with an exquisite slideshow of Freeman’s prime documents. He began with a scan of a first grade school paper Freeman wrote on “Astronimy.” Besides the forgivable misspellings, the essay was full of fantasy. Freeman did not just copy material from an encyclopedia. He imagined what should be and wrote it as fact. George then showed a later blue-book essay of Freeman’s fiction, but it was studded with numbers and calculations. Right there was the pattern for Freeman’s many other publications (first pages shown by George): speculations built upon calculations. We saw one paper inscribed by Freeman with the note: “From one crackpot to another!” His most famous speculation is for a solar system-sized enclosure around a sun now called a Dyson Sphere. George’s presentation on Freeman ended with a video clip of a Star Trek episode where the befuddle Captain Piccard ponders a mysterious hollow solar-sized ball blocking their way and gasps, “Could it be a dyson-sphere?!!”

It’s difficult to summarize such a wide-ranging conversation. Enjoy the podcast!

How President Ford managed to go soft on Iraqi Baathists, Indonesian fascists, Soviet Communists, and the shah … in just two years

Christopher Hitchens reminds of some of the true history of Gerald Ford:

One expects a certain amount of piety and hypocrisy when retired statesmen give up the ghost, but this doesn’t excuse the astonishing number of omissions and misstatements that have characterized the sickly national farewell to Gerald Ford. One could graze for hours on the great slopes of the massive obituaries and never guess that during his mercifully brief occupation of the White House, this president had:

Disgraced the United States in Iraq and inaugurated a long period of calamitous misjudgment of that country.

Colluded with the Indonesian dictatorship in a gross violation of international law that led to a near-genocide in East Timor.

Delivered a resounding snub to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn at the time when the Soviet dissident movement was in the greatest need of solidarity.

…To enlarge on the points that I touched upon above: Bob Woodward has gone into print this week with the news that Ford opposed the Bush administration’s intervention in Iraq. But Ford’s own interference in the life of that country has gone unmentioned. During his tenure, and while Henry Kissinger was secretary of state, the United States secretly armed and financed a Kurdish rebellion against Saddam Hussein. This was done in collusion with the Shah of Iran, who was then considered in Washington a man who could do no wrong. So that when the shah signed a separate peace with Saddam in 1975, and abandoned his opportunist support for the Kurds, the United States shamefacedly followed his lead and knifed the Kurds in the back. The congressional inquiry led by Rep. Otis Pike was later to describe this betrayal as one of the most cynical acts of statecraft on record.

True history

My father, who was in the history trade, said that it took forty or fifty years for the interpretation of any American presidency or epoch to stabilize. People have to die, documents have to be declassified, and — most importantly — we need historians who were not politically aware at the time the events in question happened…

Here are some wise words from Tigerhawk, commenting on the emergence of one of the first true histories of the Vietnam War:

Historians are revising the history of the Vietnam war right on schedule. Power Line has an interview of Mark Moyar, a graduate of Harvard and Cambridge and presently a professor at Marine Corps University. Professor Moyar is the author of Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965, published by Cambridge University Press. John Hinderaker wrote that to say that the book “is revisionist would be putting it mildly.” Naturally, I ordered a copy.

Mark Moyar was born in 1971, so my father would have considered him to be just about the perfect age to revise the history of the Vietnam War.

I wish I had access to Foreign Affairs so I could read the Lee Kuan Yew article.

UPDATE: I found the speech from which the article was taken: Global War Against Terror Can Be Won, A Speech by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, Recipient of the Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service.

John Lewis Gaddis: The long twilight struggle

Patrick J. Garrity [see bio below] takes on a daunting task in this essay for the Claremont Review of Books — to review the entire history of the Cold War — as we now know it, including the revelations from Soviet archives. Since John Lewis Gaddis is the dean of cold war researchers, Garrity’s focus is on his works — specifically:

  1. The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941-1947
  2. Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of National Security Policy During the Cold War
  3. The Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War
  4. We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History
  5. Surprise, Security, and the American Experience
  6. The Cold War: A New History

I’ve read #5 and #6, as well as about a dozen of recent Gaddis papers and talks. The latest Gaddis tome on the cold war is specifically written to be comprehensible by ordinary readers – in a finite amount of time.

Back to the Garrity essay — there’s a lot to learn here. Highly recommended:

In the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, a Yale University student asked one of her instructors, “Would it be OK now for us to be patriotic?” The professor, John Lewis Gaddis, widely regarded as the dean of American Cold War historians, replied: “Yes, I think it would.”

Even allowing for the emotions of the moment, such a response from a prestigious Ivy League academic might seem a bit surprising in these politically correct times. Yale University was once home to Samuel Flagg Bemis, the preeminent U.S. diplomatic historian before World War II. Bemis is now widely ridiculed in the academy as “U.S. Flagg Bemis” for treating America as something other than a rapacious, racist, retrograde regime. Gaddis runs the same risk of professional ostracism. He told the story of his student in a controversial 2004 book, Surprise, Security, and the American Experience, in which he concluded that the Bush Administration’s policy of strategic preemption, whatever its merits in the particular circumstances, did not depart radically from the American foreign policy tradition. Gaddis’s latest work, The Cold War: A New History, intended for popular audiences, offers a conclusion that is equally guaranteed to set his colleagues’ teeth on edge. “The world, I am quite sure, is a better place for that conflict being fought in the way that it was and won by the side that won it…. For all its dangers, atrocities, costs, distractions, and moral compromises, the Cold War—like the American Civil War—was a necessary contest that settled fundamental issues once and for all.”

Beyond Orthodoxy and Revisionism

Gaddis, to be sure, is no political conservative, much less a cheerleader for the Bush Administration. He gained his professional reputation as the leading expositor of an interpretation of the Cold War known as post-revisionism, which emerged during the 1970s and 1980s. The traditional or orthodox school—always more of a popular or political viewpoint than an academically respectable one—had held that the Cold War was the result of unprovoked Soviet aggression, which left the Free World no choice but to organize in defense of civilization. The contrary view, revisionism, emerged during the Vietnam era as a variant of New Left history. The revisionists placed the blame squarely on the United States, which pressed relentlessly to take advantage of Soviet weakness after World War II in order to stave off what was perceived as the imminent collapse of capitalism.

Gaddis offered a nuanced alternative to both orthodoxy and revisionism, beginning with The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941-1947, published in 1972. He drew heavily, if not explicitly, on the modern international relations theory of structural realism. From this perspective, neither Washington nor Moscow was immediately responsible for the emergence of a security competition in the aftermath of World War II. The two new superpowers were driven naturally into opposition by the forces of international politics. Both sought security and the prevention of a new war, not ideological or economic dominance. Their views of security differed greatly, however, based on their distinct geographical situations and historical experiences, and as a result they found themselves caught up in a classic “security dilemma.” Steps that one side took to increase its security, such as the formation of a defensive military alliance, were interpreted by the other side as threatening. The second side responded with its own defensively-intended measures, which in turn were interpreted as threatening by the first side; and so on. The security dilemma was intensified by the atomic bomb. Each side feared that the other would find a way to use that revolutionary weapon to gain a decisive strategic advantage.

For Gaddis and the post-revisionists, the U.S.-Soviet competition was thus an objective structural phenomenon of international politics. But security competitions need not turn into war, cold or otherwise. Diplomatic arrangements—such as sphere-of-influence agreements—could have moderated if not resolved the underlying tensions created by the security dilemma. What, then, accounted for the degeneration into a bitter, all-encompassing, and apparently enduring Cold War?


Patrick J. Garrity is a senior fellow of The Claremont Institute and has recently returned to the Washington, D.C.-branch office of Los Alamos Scientific Laboratories in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where he has been a senior policy analyst since 1985. Dr. Garrity was a fellow at the Johns Hopkins University Foreign Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. from 1994 until early 1996. He has published widely on international affairs and American foreign policy.

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Bennett on Barone on Anglosphere and Abolition

James C. Bennett comments on Michael Barone’s excellent column “Who ended the slave trade?”

Michael Barone’s blog has an interesting post on several recent books on the abolition of slavery. In this he discusses in particular the role of the Anglosphere in abolition. He observes:

“This is not the lesson that today’s transnational and multicultural elites in the United States and the United Kingdom like to tell. They like to portray American slavery as particularly vicious and slavery as a system imposed by evil Dead White European Males on a virtuous but unfortunately powerless Rest of the World. Davis and Temperley know better. Almost all human societies had slavery. Only one human society–the Anglosphere, starting in Britain and then in America–set out to abolish first the slave trade (enormously profitable to many Britons) and then slavery itself (enormously profitable to many Americans). “There had been nothing like it in ancient or medieval times or in any other society of which we have record.” The philosophes of France, with their emphasis on pure reason, did not think to advocate the abolition of the slave trade and slavery. (See Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The Road to Modernity: the British, French, and American Enlightenments on this point: The French philosophes’ idea of a good society was one ruled by enlightened despots, i.e., despots governed by themselves, which their successors tried to put into place during the French Revolution.) English Evangelical Christians, like William Wilberforce and Granville Sharp, did–and accomplished their goal. So, in their wake, did Americans like William Lloyd Garrison, the Grimke sisters, and Frederick Douglass. Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 (much to its economic detriment) and the United States followed, at the earliest date permissible under the Constitution, in 1808 (though the economic detriment to the United States was much less).”

Of course many things were going on in the process of Abolition, some moral, some pragmatic, and many a mix of various motives. The moral Abolitionists, many of whom were technology entrepreneurs, were quite good at understanding how to create economic incentives to further their ends — for example, the Quaker merchants of York understood that alternate economic activities would have to be created in West Africa if local people, who made their living from the slave trade, were to cooperate in abolition. To this end they created the modern chocolate industry (several key companies of which are still based in York) to increase the market for West African cacao.