Adam Gopnik is someone I generally find enlightening, and often thoughtful. Here
, in an article about the limits of knowing history, he seems less than clear-headed and in at least one of his specific examples, simply wrong. He tries not to say what so many others have, which is that history is not replicable because there are always differences. I sense he realizes there are in fact patterns of human behavior that can identified and cultures which replicate personalities in elite positions where one can predict how they react more often than not, though certainly not with precision.
Gopnik therefore wanders away toward what history one knows, but in doing so, seems to jump to conclusions in at least one example that shows he is not as conversant with the examples as he would have us believe. He writes about LBJ and Vietnam as follows:
Another, domestic example of historical blindness is the current cult of the political hypersagacity of Lyndon B. Johnson. L.B.J. was indeed a ruthless political operator and, when he had big majorities, got big bills passed—the Civil Rights Act, for one. He also engineered, and masterfully bullied through Congress, the Vietnam War, a moral and strategic catastrophe that ripped the United States apart and, more important, visited a kind of hell on the Vietnamese. It also led American soldiers to commit war crimes, almost all left unpunished, of a kind that it still shrivels the heart to read about. Johnson did many good things, but to use him as a positive counterexample of leadership to Barack Obama or anyone else is marginally insane.
LBJ did not want the Vietnam War. He felt pressured by the foreign policy establishment and he knew well the political history of the previous 15-20 years since the start of the Cold War. A president did not let some pipsqueak little nation push us around. That's why LBJ said in 1964 to a close friend and senator from Georgia (Richard Russell, which conversation is on the White House tapes) that if he did not intervene more deeply into Vietnam, he'd be impeached. LBJ grew up politically in DC in the late 1940s and early 1950s when the Republicans had engineered a hysterical debate over "Who lost China?" as if China was "ours" to "lose." Eisenhower had overthrown successfully "little" nations' leaders in Guatemala and Iran in the early 1950s, stabilized for US interests Lebanon in the late 1950s and had established South Vietnam in violation of the Geneva Accords in the mid to late 1950s. What went wrong for JFK and LBJ was that the foreign policy elite, and about half the electorate had not woken up to the fact that in Vietnam and Cuba, people were fighting back against these interventions, and they were like China's guerrilla movement: massively popular among the indigenous population and possessing a profoundly deep demand for foreigners to leave their soil. LBJ may have pushed through the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August 1964 but it was not at all as difficult as trying to push through the Civil Rights Act in the beginning of 1964. LBJ knew the history of American Cold War politics that he would have been vilified for letting the South Vietnamese government fall if he had not dug deeper into Vietnam.
In short, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution may be better said to be the insurance he needed to help push through or hold the really hard things, which were Medicare (early 1965), the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the 1964 and 1965 Great Society programs. Thus, contra to Gopnik, it is not "marginally insane" to compare and contrast the ability of LBJ to get through major domestic legislation with Obama's lead-from-behind "leadership." Today, unlike in 1964, there is far more cynicism among the public as to whether we can successfully change violent regimes in far away places without difficulty. Far more skepticism has greeted modern Republican attempts to say "Who lost Iraq?"--except among their own true believers who almost solely rely on FoxNews and related outlets for information. Obama in that one limited respect has it easier than LBJ did, when we were seen as invincible to much of our population.
Gopnik also seems incoherent in his discussion about the Middle East. Is he saying Roger Cohen is right or wrong in Cohen's NY Times article about the "mistakes" Bush-Cheney made in overthrowing Saddam Hussein in Iraq that led to the rise of ISIS in Iraq? Cohen himself is engaged in the "mistake" type of argument that Chomsky so long ago devastated. Gopnik seems to be saying knowing the "wrong" history is the problem. The "mistakes," however, are not "mistakes" when one recognizes a different motivation, which is based more on imperial ambition than any sense of decency or humane intent. And history did not begin with Bush-Cheney had Cohen really wanted to dig on this topic. Since early in the Cold War, the US in the Middle East region has sought to undermine secular radicals and secular nation builders with fundamentalist oppositions. Even when supporting the secular oriented Shah in Iran and Saddam Hussein in Iraq for various years, the US still sought to promote fundamentalist forces because they were less susceptible to "Communism," a term our leaders and their advisers often more practically defined as those who were secular and who sought to promote the type of policies Alexander Hamilton would have found familiar, i.e. nation building and nation sustaining. Our leaders and their mandarins claim to want to respect human rights and castigate a Chomsky if he does not consistently denounce the human rights records of those our nation officially opposes, yet our leaders and mandarins have supported people who engaged in mass murders (Indonesia and Guatemala for starters), nun-killers and rapers (throughout Central America and South America) and murderous dictators like Saddam Hussein and the Shah, and the Saudi leadership, to name some more.
These are what we learn from a closer reading from history than Gopnik does not even suggest--when he easily could have suggested these things. But if we do read history closely, and we have any sense of decency, we are not invited (or in the case of a Chalmers Johnson or George Kennan, two then Cold War insiders who were disinvited) to as many cocktail parties in the elite corridors of Boston to DC and to swank think tank affairs in the ski slopes of Colorado or the Bohemian Grove in the Bay Area. To go back to those Middle East nations, they have had violent coups, countercoups and other instabilities based as much on the imperial lines drawn a century ago. The people who lived and continue to live between and over those lines did not always have such tremendous violence in their lives. They have them, and have had them for the past century, because of the way our leaders and other Western leaders meddle with the primary motivation of imperial ambition and then compound matters with the use of horrible military technologies that cause so many deaths in so short a time.
I am not saying there were idylls in what we still call Third World nations throughout time before we intervened, but we did manage to make things worse in those places because we helped kill off the type of people who may have been able to balance against or defeat the likes of ISIS. To take one example from a president NPR types such as Gopnik may admire, Jimmy Carter, Carter really did try to help the Shah to the very end, and knew he could not intervene in 1978 and 1979 the way Ike did in Guatemala. The Shah therefore fell from power. But, by the time the Shah fell, Ike, JFK, LBJ Nixon, and Ford and even Carter himself allowed the Shah's SAVAK to kill off most of the secular opposition from the reasonable to the harsh revolutionary left, which was nearly all secular, and which understood which century we lived in when it came to the treatment of women, and how to organize a modern economy, to take two primary policy examples. The only ones left standing in Iran were mullahs and we saw very early where that led us and the Iranian people. Mossedeq looked a lot better in 1980 to policy makers in the US than he did in 1953...And then Reagan replaced Carter, and gave the mullahs arms to free hostages. Reagan at one point felt the mullahs were worthy of support against Hussein in Iraq and thought they could be made to like us with more weaponry and other arms. Talk about weakness and folly in a foreign policy...Obama looks far tougher in the juvenile parlance of corporate media talk shows, doesn't he?
Oh so smart all these guys and increasingly gals. If anything, people like Bush, Cheney and Reagan and the foreign policy elite think they are outside
history. They have been and remain truly dangerous with their ignorant arrogance, or what the Greeks call hubris
. People like Carter, Obama, LBJ and Nixon knew history pretty well, and knew some limits (a couple, such as Nixon and LBJ, also knew their moments of when to act). And like most leaders, our leaders of the past 60 years have mostly just maintained or sustained the nation during their time with little or no vision based upon that same limited sense of history, while a few failed outright during their time (i.e. Carter, Bush I and Bush II). Gopnik seems to throw up his hands, however, and say why bother with anything? He even attacks doctors who make things worse for a patient, when so, so many times, doctors are saving people every single day--more than hurting people in our modern time. And that is because doctors are taught more rigorous "history" in the form of patient information, information of past techniques and treatments, new ways of thinking about disease and conditions and are constantly seeking new information to inform one's diagnosis and treatment.
The bottom line is this: Knowing the history of various nations does help guide a leader through a situation the leader faces. But knowing history too well can often be very dangerous to one's ambitions that block the path to top leadership, which is why so many leaders are put into situations where their knowledge of history is not as deep as it should be, and that ignorance of history can lead to disaster as much as success. Perhaps we should be more willing to look more deeply into history and not be so afraid of what we learn. Gopnik had a moment here. He blew it by blaming "history" and by not placing more structural blame on the United States' leadership and foreign policy elite of the past 50-60 years.