The Breakfast Table

History as Speech Fodder

Dear Anne,

God bless you for triggering one of my pet peeves–the uses and misuses of history to sell foreign policy issues to the American public. Take the Clinton administration’s supposedly “unprecedented” attention to commercial diplomacy in its first term. As a grunt speechwriter at the State Department and the National Security Council, I fought a losing battle to expunge the more exuberant “for-the-first-time-in-history” riffs that accompanied boasts about the conclusion of GATT, NAFTA, and an alphabet soup of other trade agreements. After all, the goals and methods of the first Clinton administration were in many ways no different than those of President William Howard Taft’s “dollar diplomacy” between 1909 and 1913. So was the rationale: As Taft’s Secretary of State Philander C. Knox (they don’t name them like that anymore) said in 1910, “True stability is best established not by military, but by economic and social forces. … The problem of good government is inextricably interwoven with that of economic prosperity and sound finance; financial stability contributes perhaps more than any other one factor to political stability.” But saying that we’re just doing something that’s been done before doesn’t exactly make for a sexy speech.

Another, more egregious abuse of history is the implicit comparison that Madeleine Albright and Co. like to make in their speeches with the post-WWII trinity of Harry Truman, Dean Acheson, and George Marshall. Granted, there are plenty of similarities between the challenges facing U.S. policymakers then and now. But the current debacle in Kosovo is just one more reason why history is unlikely to treat the post-Cold War bunch as kindly as its would-be role models.

I agree with you about the grip of the Holocaust on American consciousness. Some history understandably seems to stick better than others. At least the comparisons between what’s going on in Kosovo and what happened in Europe a half-century ago are more relevant than those to Vietnam and Somalia–two wildly different cases that say more about the fixations of the media than about the facts on the ground. (Perhaps one reason for those two strained analogies is the exaggerated sense of power they gave to the press, but that’s another pet peeve that will have to wait.) And you’re right: Despite Newsweek’s cover of Milosevic as “The Face of Evil,” he isn’t Hitler; according to one comparison Madeleine Albright once made, Saddam Hussein is, and we all know there can’t be more than one Hitler at any given time.

But while I hope that the power of the Holocaust never loses its meaning, I wonder when we’ll transcend the ritual invocations of the World War II generation–another Spielberg obsession. Don’t get me wrong. They deserve their due. Still, am I the only one who finds it a little odd that Bill Clinton’s foreign-policy speeches routinely urge Americans to follow the example of men like George Bush and Bob Dole? Are we doomed never to be half the men and women our mothers and fathers were?

What are you doing at the Hoover Institute’s archives? Ferreting out American ex-Reds? And, no, after your comment about Americans not knowing where to find bits of Eastern Europe, I’m not going to tell you where to find India.