Archive for category History

Bruce Catton and U.S. Grant

 

Having finished Ron Chernow’s biography of Grant, I decided to go back to my library and re-read Bruce Catton’s shorter treatment of the subject, U.S. Grant and the American Military Tradition. Catton did most of his writing in the 50s and 60s, so some of the scholarship is dated, but most of his conclusions have held up.

More than that, Catton’s writing verges on the poetic, both summarizing and illuminating a subject with an economy of words I often wish I had.  For instance, in describing frontier Ohio of the 1820s and 1830s:

Men who could do everything they chose to do presently believed that they must do everything they could.  The brightest chance men ever had must be exploited to the hilt.  And the sum of innumerable individual freedoms strangely became an overpowering community of interest.

When dissecting the rights and wrongs of secession, its present-day defenders (who do not defend the institution of slavery, it should be emphasized) tend to focus on the clinical, legal aspects of the matter.  Catton captures what they miss, and why the North and especially the West was willing to fight:

Against anything, that is, which threatened the unity and the continuity of the American experiment.

Specifically, they would see in an attempt to dissolve the Federal Union a wanton laying of hands on everything that made life worth living.  Such a fission was a crime against nature; the eternal Federal Union was both a condition of their material prosperity and a mystic symbol that went beyond life and all of life’s values.

On the post-Shiloh commanders:

McClellan, Halleck, and Buell, then, were the new team, and that hackneyed word “brilliant” was applied to all three.  The Administration expected much of them.  It had yet to learn what brilliance can look like when it is watered down by excessive caution and a distaste for making decisions, and when it is accompanied every step of they way by a strong prima donna complex.

And on how Americans view war.  Catton believes it goes a long way towards explaining why Grant – representative of his people – was doomed to substantially fail at the big post-war task of Reconstruction and restoration:

…the will-o’-the-wisp again, recurrent in American history.  Victory becomes an end in itself, and “unconditional surrender” expresses all anyone wants to look for, because if the enemy gives up unconditionally he is completely and totally beaten and all of the complex problems which made an enemy out of him in the first place will probably go away and nobody will have to bother with them any more.  The golden age is always going to return just as soon as the guns have cooled and the flags have been furled, and the world’s great age will begin anew the moment the victorious armies have been demobilized.

Sound familiar?

Catton was not, of course, infallible.  He had this to say about President-Generals, whose training is to treat Congress as supreme, the executive as the instrument of Congress’s declared war aims:

It made it inevitable that when he himself became President he would provide an enduring illustration of the fact that it can be risky to put a professional soldier in the White House, not because the man will try to use too much authority in that position but because he will try to use too little.

Catton wrote these words in 1954, with full awareness of who was then president.  But history doesn’t bear out his fear, entirely.  Washington maintained a strong sense of the office’s limitations, but worked to strengthen both the federal government and the executive.  Neither of the two previous Whig presidents – both generals – lived long enough to have much impact in the office.  And Eisenhower was working with an already-stronger executive, which he worked to professionalize, treating his cabinet a little like a corporate boardroom of competing ideas.

He differs with Chernow on a few points, and Catton is somewhat better at drawing connections.  Catton considers the Santo Domingo treaty not merely ill-advised but actually corrupt, for instance.  Both note that Grant manumitted the one slave he ever owned as quickly as he could (a gift), but only Catton points out that Grant did so even though he could really have used the money from a sale at that point in his life.

Catton is also harder on the Radical Republicans, and somewhat more forgiving of Andrew Johnson, than Chernow is, possibly because Catton was unaware of the postwar wave of white supremacist violence that swept over much of the Deep South.  He argues that the Radical Republicans were at least as interested in using blacks as a means to political power as they were in their welfare – not the last time that would happen in American history.  Catton also claims that Johnson adopted Lincoln’s view of postwar reconciliation, where Chernow states that Johnson adopted a softer line through misbegotten racial solidarity.  Whether this is from cynicism or greater political savvy, or from both, it’s hard to know.

 

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Some Short History Reading Lists

We were over at a friend’s house for lunch this Shabbat.  Knowing that 1) I have a lot of history books, and 2) I tend to read them, he was kind enough to ask me for some reading lists about the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the Cold War.  “I haven’t had much luck with fiction, so I’m trying to round out my history.”

Here’s what I sent him.  These aren’t intended to be college syllabuses, or comprehensive.  They’re books that I have and leafed through, or that I’ve read.  I’ve tried to vary them by author.  I could have had the entire Revolutionary War list by Joseph Ellis, the whole Civil War list by Bruce Catton, but what’s the fun in that?  My library, while large by 19th Century standards, is limited by the size of the house.  Had I fewer books, I would paradoxically have more room for them.  But it’s a good list, enough to cover some key points, get an overview, or just when your appetite for more.

American Revolution

For a decent overview of the war as a whole, Liberty by Thomas Fleming isn’t bad.  I think it was originally written as a companion book to a PBS series, but it’s good in its own right.  For a deeper examination of the issues around the Revolution and the war, and how the Founders handled them, American Creation by Joseph Ellis is recommended.

We all know of Washington Crossing the Delaware; David Hackett Fischer has written a great in-depth review of the events surrounding that crossing and subsequent battles, and how they set the stage for the rest of the war, in Washington’s Crossing.

And for well-researched discussions of adoption of the two primary founding documents – the Declaration and the Constitution, Pauline Maier’s American Scripture and Ratification give surprising insights into what people were thinking at the time.

The Founders lived on into the post-Revolutionary era, and had a second act right after the Constitution in  1787, so some bios are in order.  Richard Brookheiser’s short Founding Father is a fine thumbnail bio of Washington; for something longer Ron Chernow has bios of both Washington and Hamilton.  And David McCullough’s John Adams is what the PBS series was based on.

Having come this far, read about 700+ pages about the early Republic, when were getting ourselves established, with Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty.  I’m reading it now, and pretty much every chapter has some surprise or another.

Civil War

For the lead-up to the war, and how we got to the point of secession and war, William Freehling’s long, two-volume The Road to Disunion is among the best.

Much of the same material is covered in the first volume of Bruce Catton’s very readable and shorter three-volume Centennial History of the Civil War.  These are The Coming Fury, Terrible Swift Sword, and Never Call Retreat.  I would recommend anything written by Catton on the Civil War.

Also excellent is Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson.  As a guide to Lincoln’s war, what the events looked like from DC, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals is magnificent.

Cold War

This one is tougher, because it covers decades, not mere years, so the politics, military, and technology changed substantially from 1948 to 1989.  I’ve picked out the books I have and have read that do a good job talking about the Cold War.  My library is heavier on the spy stuff, but there was a lot of spy stuff.

Witness by Whittaker Chambers is indispensable.  He starts out as a Communist, and then converts over to the good guys, and was a key player in one of the great Cold War controversies, the Alger Hiss case.  Nixon’s rise to prominence began with this case, and the left never forgave him for being right.

The Great Terror, is one of the best books about Stalin’s Russia, by one of the best chroniclers of the 20th Century, Robert Conquest.

The Gulag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn is recognized as the best insider account of the Soviet punishment system.

Berlin 1961 by Frederick Kempe covers the building of the Berlin Wall.

Merchants of Treason by my friend Norman Polmar and KGB: The Secret Work of Soviet Secret Agents are old now, but a good guide to how to the KGB operated in the day, and how the Russians still operate today.

There’s also a vast literature of spy fiction, from Len Deighton’s devastating Game-Set-Match trilogy to John LeCarre’s oeuvre (start with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy).

That’s enough to keep you busy for a few years.  So what are you still doing on this page?

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The Eternal Tax Debate – Lessons from the 1920s

The President entered office determined to pursue tax reform.

Growth was too low, as the post-war economy struggled to recover from a recession.

The new president and his treasury secretary were convinced that a serious package of tax reform could unleash much-needed growth.
And they had a plan. The top marginal rate was too high; it should be in the 20s. The estate tax drove down the price of assets and should be eliminated. There were too many special carve-outs. Tax-free interest on municipal bonds was diverting capital from private enterprise.

To be sure, not all the proposals were for lowering tax rates. The secretary wanted a capital gains rate higher than the income tax rate.

But the political situation was working against them. Their own party was split, and they ran into opposition not just from the openly Progressive party, but from the Progressive wing of their own party, which included the Senate Majority Leader. Opponents of the administration’s plans pointed out that the bulk of the benefits would go to the wealthy, including the treasury secretary himself.

Opponents argued that federal revenue would plunge; the treasury secretary persuaded the president that unlocking capital would cause an economic boom and swell the tax take. They argued for a top tax rate around 40%.

Conservatives believed that nearly everyone should pay something. Progressives disagreed.

Scandals, distractions, and Congressional investigations also sapped the president’s attention and political capital.

The president and the treasury secretary also complained that the time it was taking to pass a bill was extending the experimentation of the previous Democratic administration, and the destructive uncertainty that accompanied it. Passing something, they argued, even if it didn’t meet their exact specifications, would be more important than dithering and passing nothing.

Eventually, the treasury secretary would get his tax reform package, mostly on his own terms, and he and the president would see federal revenue leap upward as a result. (He wouldn’t get everything; the secretary wanted a top marginal tax rate in the 20s; Congress seemed more inclined to something around 40%.)

The treasury secretary was Andrew Mellon, and it would take another round of elections, the death of President Harding and the accession of President Coolidge to make it happen.

Ironically, these tax reform plans weren’t originally even Mellon’s. Wilson Administration Treasury Department bureaucrats developed them after the war. They hoped to transform federal tax policy from an ad hoc patchwork into a permanent, systemic tax regime, the emphasis being on permanent.

Ninety years later, we are still having substantially the same discussions, on substantially the same terms. Does that mean that the Progressives were successful? Perhaps, and perhaps not.

Mellon dubbed his approach “scientific taxation,” designed to maximize revenue while minimizing the tax burden. But the fact that we’re still picking over many of the same details in 2017 suggests that the science is far from settled.

Analogies to past epochs in American history are not currently commonplace. Some see a darker replay of the late 60s and early 70s. Others, more alarmist, see a replay of the pre-Civil War 1850s divide. Those comparisons rely more on the social atmosphere than on specific issues.

It’s unusual to see a policy debate stagnating, with the same arguments, over roughly the same issues, for nearly a century.

To some degree, this is the peculiar result of its being both narrow and central. The income tax itself cuts across numerous persistent philosophical and political divides.
Superficially, the room for policy debate is narrow: after 100 years, the personal income tax’s basic structure – progressive rates with special-interest credits and deductions – remains essentially the same.

But the tax’s seeming simplicity masks endless room for mischief, and therein lie the complications.

The personal income tax contributes nearly half of the federal government’s annual revenue; combine it with the payroll tax, and just under 5/6 of federal tax revenue is based off of personal income.

Lowering or raising rates will affect not only an individual year’s deficit, but also the economy’s rate of growth and attendant opportunities for investment, entrepreneurship, and employment. The overall take calls into question the size of government as a whole.

The amount of progressiveness, both the top rate and the number of people who pay nothing, raise the ill-defined but politically potent question of “fairness.”

In policy terms, each deduction or credit raises the question of whether or not the government should be supporting or suppressing the industry or choice involved. What gets exempted raises the question of privileged institutions like university endowments or state and municipal debt and taxes.

In fact, the whole structure implicitly accepts the idea that it’s the federal government’s job to support or suppress certain economic decisions. That credits and deductions can only be taken under certain circumstances open the door to micromanaging those decisions.

And every one of these credits and deductions immediately acquires a non-partisan, which is to say bipartisan, constituency, either because it helps someone or hurts their competition. Thus are we treated to the spectacle of otherwise conservative Republicans in New York, California, and New Jersey defending national taxpayer subsidies for their expansive state and local governments.

That goes a long way toward explaining why we’re stuck in the same debate.

And unfortunately, why we probably will be for a long time.

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Hamilton’s Productivity

In his biography of Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow marvels several times of Hamilton’s capacity for work. He wrote the bulk of the Federalist Papers, sometimes turning out as many as 5 in a week.  When his opponents in Congress wanted to try to hang him on unfounded corruption charges, for instance, they demanded that he produce voluminous reports on short deadlines.  They underestimated him.  On p. 250, Chernow describes how Hamilton was able to do this:

Hamilton’s mind always worked with preternatural speed.  His collected papers are so stupefying in length that it is hard to believe that one man created them in fewer than five decades.  Words were his chief weapons, and his account books are crammed with purchases for thousands of quills, parchments, penknives, slate pencils, reams of foolscap, and wax.  His papers show that, Mozart-like, he could transpose complex thoughts onto paper with few revisions.  At other times, he tinkered with the prose but generally did not alter the logical progression of his thought.  He wrote with the speed of a beautifully organized mind that digested ideas thoroughly, slotted them into appropriate pigeonholes, then regurgitated them at will.

Both the organized mind and the regurgitation are harder than they look.  They both require patience, training, and discipline.  Yes, he was writing at a different time, when repeating arguments didn’t mean chewing up half of your allotted 700 words.  Length was never an issue, and Hamilton, being Hamilton, was brilliant enough that neither was publication or readership.  But I notice it when favorite columnists of mine no longer have anything new to say, and part of my own lack of production is from a desire to say something new each time, rather than even mentally cut-and-paste from previous efforts.  Contrary to popular opinion, it takes patience to repeat yourself.

This goes hand-in-hand with having an organized mind.  One wants to be able to assimilate events and ideas, and to respond to them.  But there’s a concomitant risk of building a system and fitting everything into that system.  One’s thinking becomes rigid, rather than supple and responsive.  You see this all the time with people who reduce all political arguments to one or a handful of principles – everything becomes confirmation of those few underlying ideas, but then all arguments return to those same few ideas.  Discussions become stale, because it’s more comfortable to have the discussion you’re used to having.

 

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Breaking News From 1798

I may be the last person on the planet to have read Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton.  I’ll certainly be digesting it for a while.

Among Chernow’s contributions is a detailed discussion of the American political climate, during the Washington and Adams administrations, when the bulk of Hamilton’s contributions to the nascent government were made.  It’s also when we saw the emergence of the first real political parties in history, parties committed to more than the mere attaining and retaining of power, but also to rival economic and political theories.

Today, we’re used to the stability of the two-party system, but at the time, they were not only a novelty, but a bit of a shameful one at that.  The Founders had wanted to avoid factions, or parties.  The new parties were not only organized around ideas, but also around the personalities of their leaders.  This led to a curious combination of personal touchiness, mutual misunderstanding and hostility, and denial that it was going on at all.

From Pages 391-92 of the softcover edition:

The sudden emergence of parties set a slashing tone for politics in the 1790s.  Since politicians considered parties bad, they denied involvement in them, bristled at charges that they harbored partisan feelings, and were quick to perceive hypocrisy in others.  And because parties were frightening new phenomena, they could be easily mistaken for evil conspiracies, lending a paranoid tinge to political discourse.  The Federalists saw themselves as saving America from anarchy, while Republicans believed they were rescuing America from counterrevolution.  Each side possessed a lurid, distorted view of the other, buttressed by an idealized sense of itself. No etiquette yet defined civilized behavior between the parties.  It was also not evident that the two parties would smoothly alternate in power, raising the unsettling prospect that one party might be established to the permanent exclusion of the other.  Finally, no sense yet existed of a loyal opposition to the government in power.  As the party spirit grew more acrimonious, Hamilton and Washington regarded much of the criticism fired at their administration as disloyal, even treasonous, in nature.

One last feature of the inchoate party system deserves mention.  The emerging parties were not yet fixed political groups, able to exert discipline on errant members.  Only loosely united by ideology and sectional loyalties, they can seem to modern eyes more like amorphous personality cults.  It was as if the parties were projections of individual politicians – Washington, Hamilton, and then John Adams on the Federalist side, Jefferson, Madison, and then James Monroe on the Republican side – rather than the reverse.  As a result, the reputations of the principle figures formed decisive elements in political combat.  For a man like Hamilton, so watchful of his reputation, the rise of parties was to make him ever more hypersensitive about his personal honor.

The parallels between the politics of that day, when parties were being formed, and today, when they have been structurally weakened and are in flux, should be obvious.  The party establishments and the administrative state mitigate some of the effects, but there’s no question that election laws have neutered party back-rooms and allowed anyone to run under a party banner.  The move towards open primaries further erodes party discipline.  Each party increasingly sees the other less as principled opposition and more as a conspiracy bordering on organized crime.  And there is no question that the Bush and Clinton dynasties, along with the personally prickly Obama and Trump, have personalized presidential politics to a degree we’ve not seen in a while.

Over the last several presidential elections, people have called attention to the vitriolic nature of political campaign rhetoric, if not (until 2016) by the candidates themselves, then by their surrogates and supporters.  As often, people have trotted out some of the truly vicious things said in the campaign of 1800.  With a somewhat broader view, that similarity seems less a coincidence and more like the product of a common cause.

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Russia Elects A US President

In 1960.  At least that’s what Khrushchev thought.

Khrushchev took a particularly keen interest in the 1960 US presidential election.  Having engaged Nixon in the famous 1959 “Kitchen Debate” while on tour in the US, he became convinced that the firm anti-Communist would be impossible to do business with.  He determined to help elect whoever the Democratic nominee was.

First, he tried to convince Adlai Stevenson to run again.  Stevenson declined to openly seek a third straight nomination, mostly out of pride and a desire to be asked rather than have to ask.  But he was certainly not about to be goaded into it by the Soviets.

Then, when John F. Kennedy became the nominee, Khrushchev tried to intervene in the election on his side.  Quoting from Dan Carlin’s podcast on the Cuban Missile Crisis:

In the book Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War by Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov, it’s interesting to read exactly how much Khrushchev was hoping Kennedy would become the president. But not because he thought he was weak, but because he thought he might be another Franklin Roosevelt, someone who could reach out and have another relationship the way Stalin’s and Roosevelt’s relationship was seen to be.

Khrushchev apparently did everything he could to help Kennedy get elected. He told KGB officers in Washington to analyze the situation, and if there was anything they could do diplomatically or with propaganda to help, to do it. He called Kennedy, ‘his president’ after he was elected, and told Kennedy at the first eye-to-eye meeting they every had, ‘I got you elected.’

Zubok and Pleshakov go on (p. 238) to detail that they were rebuffed when they rather clumsily tried to approach Robert F. Kennedy directly.  However,

In the end, Khrushchev did influence the U.S. presidential elections by his belligerent rhetoric, as well as by demonstrating that a constructive U.S. – Soviet dialogue would be impossible so long as Eisenhower or Nixon remained in the White House.  Twenty years before the revolutionary leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran used American hostages to influence a U.S. presidential campaign, Khrushchev did the same by holding captive two pilots of the U.S. reconnaissance plane RB-47, shot down in July 1960 over the Soviet North.  Along with fears of the “missile gap,” Kennedy successfully exploited the issue of the captive pilots in his barbs against the Eisenhower-Nixon administration.

Correctly or incorrectly, Khrushchev believed this was a decisive factor in the elections.  From his memoirs, Khrushchev Remembers, page 458, he details how he mentioned this to Kennedy at the Vienna summit:

By this time President Kennedy was in the White House.  Not long before the events in Berlin came to a head, I met Kennedy in Vienna.  He impressed me as a better statesman than Eisenhower.  Kennedy had a precisely formulated opinion on every subject.  I joked with him that we had cast the deciding ballot in his election to the Presidency over that son-of-a-bitch Richard Nixon.  When he asked me what I meant, I explained that by waiting to release the U-2 pilot Gary Powers until after the American election, we kept Nixon from being able to claim that he could deal with the Russians; out ploy made a difference of at least half a million votes, which gave Kennedy the edge he needed.

Of course, at the time, nobody accused RFK or JFK of actually colluding with the Soviets to ensure JFK’s election.  (That would have to wait for another election, and another Kennedy.)

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The March To The Sea

One hundred fifty years ago today, Gen. William T. Sherman quit Atlanta, and began his March to the Sea.  The March was decisive in breaking the spirit of the slave-holding South, but Sherman always saw it as a repositioning of his army to prepare it for action in the Carolinas.  The army conducted itself with remarkable discipline.  It did not, contrary to the assertions of my Georgian 8th grade history teacher Miss Davis, salt the earth as they went.

Victor Davis Hanson describes the March better than anyone:

How in a moral sense could the March to the Sea be too barbaric in destroying Southern property yet at the same time not effective enough in killing Confederate soldiers? How could Sherman’s men be too lax in freeing slaves? How could his march be considered too easy when Grant and Lincoln–men known for neither timidity nor hysteria–feared for the very destruction of Sherman’s army when he requested permission to attempt it? And how else could Sherman move his colossal army to the east and be in position to march northward other than by living off the land and destroying property? Was he to pay for the food of slaveowners in prized Federal dollars with promises that such capital would not be forwarded to purchase more bullets for Lee and Johnston? Were his men to eat hardtack while secessionists fared better? Keep clear of railroads, as locomotives sped by with food, ammunition, and guns to kill Northerners in Virginia? Bypass slaveowning plantationists in a war to end slavery?

As for the charge that Sherman’s brand of war was amoral, if we forget for a moment what constitutes “morality” in war and examine acts of violence per se against Southern civilians, we learn that there were few, if any, gratuitous murders on the march. There seem also to have been less than half a dozen rapes, a fact acknowledged by both sides. Any killing outside of battle was strictly military execution in response to the shooting of Northern prisoners. The real anomaly seems to be that Sherman brought more than sixty thousand young men through one of the richest areas of the enemy South without unchecked killing or mayhem. After the war a Confederate officer remarked of the march through Georgia: “The Federal army generally behaved very well in this State. I don’t think there was ever an army in the world that would have behaved better, on a similar expedition, in an enemy country. Our army certainly wouldn’t.”

If you haven’t read Hanson’s description in The Soul of Battle, you’re missing out.

So we made a thoroughfare for Freedom and her train,
Sixty miles in latitude, three hundred to the main;
Treason fled before us, for resistance was in vain,
While we were marching through Georgia. 

Hurrah! Hurrah! We bring the jubilee!
Hurrah! Hurrah! The flag that makes you free!
So we sang the chorus from Atlanta to the sea,
While we were marching through Georgia.

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25 Years

Twenty-five years ago tonight, I stood in my apartment in Arlington, Virginia, and watched Berlin free itself.

It was a moment I really never thought I would see.

The Wall had been built in 1961, five years before I was born, so to me, it was eternal.  It was built to prevent the East German dictatorship from turning into a land without a people.  Berliners, and Germans in general, were using the Allied Sectors as an escape hatch in growing numbers, and the East Germans were putting pressure on the Soviets to do something about it. Having found Kennedy weak, Khrushchev acted.  The wall went up, and the city divided.

Escapes – successful and failed – became the stuff of legend.  People tunneled under, jumped over, drove through, and just sneaked across.  Checkpoint Charlie – the official crossing between East and West – assumed a mythic status in the Cold War imagination, for exchanges, infiltrations, and releases both real and fictional.

Over time, the embarrassment of the Wall exceeded the embarrassment of the East German exodus:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtYdjbpBk6A

The Wall, built in 1961, just like the tyranny that put it there, was a fixture.  And then, it wasn’t.

Now, there are pieces of the wall all over the world, although, perhaps surprisingly, not in every former Soviet bloc country.  Pictures of these segments invariably show the spray-painted western side, because it’s more visually arresting and more colorful.  That’s almost always the side that’s displayed, where the little plaques explaining the history are placed, as well.

That’s a mistake, and it’s one that reprises a mistake we made during the Cold War itself.  American tourists were often disappointed.  “It’s just a wall,” they’d complain, after having seen it.  They should showcase the drab, dull grey side instead.  For the West, the Wall was just a wall; for the East, it was a prison.  Let the spectators see the other side first, and have to circle around to see the colors.

In a very real sense, the wall isn’t gone.  Forty years of separation, 28 years of the Wall, effected a lasting societal change:

Not everyone is happy about this change.  During the Day at the Capitol for the JCRC, in the House gallery, I sat next to an older gentleman, representing one of the JCRC’s organizations.  It turned out he was a retired American diplomat, back from a long-term posting in Leipzig, in the former East Germany.  To break the ice, I mentioned something about the Leipzig Trade Fair, and then offered what I assumed was a fairly innocuous observation about how the people there are better off since the fall of Communism.  At first, I wasn’t sure he had heard me, so I tried again.

In fact, I had stumbled across not an American patriot, but a Communist fellow-traveler.  What followed was an hour-long discussion that could have happened during my college days, complete with assertions that East Germany was free for certain values of “free.”  With representatives like that, it at once became clear to me why it took 70 years to win the Cold War.

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Liberals And Your Soul

Remember when Michelle Obama promised that Barack would heal our broken souls?  In my lifetime, that’s pretty much been the refrain of liberalism – a concern for the well-being of your souls, if not of yourselves, despite the stereotype that this is a feature of the religious right.  It goes to the heart of the liberal trope that intentions matter more than results, and that government action is inherently more virtuous than private initiative.

It turns out this was a characteristic of liberalism even when it was relatively new and driven by Evangelical concerns.  From Paul Johnson’s The Birth of the Modern, and his chapter on Britain’s rise in the role of World Policeman, comes this description of the conflicting British attitudes about the Barbary pirates and their slavery:

The West’s supine attitude toward the horrors of Barbary piracy had long aroused fury in some quarters.  Officers of the British navy were particularly incensed since seamen were frequently victims of the trade.  They could not understand why the huge resources of the world’s most powerful fleet were not deployed to root out this evil affront to the international law of the sea, once and for all.  They could not understand why liberal parliamentarians, who campaigned ceaselessly to outlaw the slave trade by parliamentary statute, took no interest in Christian slavery….But William Wilberforce, MP, and the other Evangelical liberals, who finally got the slave trade made unlawful in 1807, flatly refused to help.  They were concerned with the enslavement of blacks by whites and did not give the predicament of white slaves a high priority on their agenda, an early example of double standards.

I’m sure this account of Wilberforce is going to make some people unhappy, but it shouldn’t be taken as ad hominem.  He’s merely the most prominent representative of the cause, and therefore of the cause’s flaws.  Liberalism suffered from double standards when it was new, and now that it’s old, when it was religious, and now that it’s secular.

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Springtime for Putin

Last week, I posted a comment on Facebook to the effect that I was waiting for the Pat Buchanan column defending Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as a defense of traditional conservative values.  I meant it as a joke, but he seems to have taken it as a challenge.

In a remarkable Townhall.com column, Buchanan takes Hillary Clinton to task for comparing Putin’s motives to Hitler’s in 1935-39. Then he does the same thing, in order to exonerate Putin. In doing so, he has to exonerate Hitler. It’s the Double-Reverse Godwin, and he gets 6.0 from the German judge!  And the Russian judge!  The only thing missing was a description of how it’s all Israel’s fault, or the Jewish lobby’s fault, although I guess this is only a few hundred-word column, and he has to leave something for the long program.

Here’s Buchanan’s take on the events of 1935-1939:

He imposed conscription in 1935, sent his soldiers back into the Rhineland in 1936, annexed Austria in 1938, demanded and got the return of the Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia at Munich in 1938.

He then sought to negotiate with the Polish colonels, who had joined in carving up Czechoslovakia, a return of Danzig, when the British issued a war guarantee to Warsaw stiffening Polish spines.

Enraged by Polish intransigence, Hitler attacked. Britain and France declared war. The rest is history.

It’s not often you get to read histories from a parallel universe in a political journal.  Hitler didn’t just get the return of the Sudeten Germans, he got the Sudetenland, which included the only serious geographic obstacle to the rest of Czechoslovakia.  In-between Munich and Hitler’s, ah, “negotiations” with the Poles, Hitler walked into Bohemia, Moravia, and Prague, effectively annexing the rest of Czecholovakia and along with it, the Skoda Works.  Although not very many more Germans.

It’s true that Poland fought a series of short, unpleasant border wars with most of its neighbors, and that it took advantage of Munich to settle some leftover business with Prague. (Paul Johnson in Modern Times suggests that that’s at least part of the reason why Poland didn’t have any local friends when its own day of reckoning came.) It’s also true that Zaolzie bore none of the strategic or military significance that the Sudetenland did, and that the Poles didn’t exactly have the same strategic ambitions as did Germany.

Hitler wasn’t going to get Gdansk/Danzig without a fight, and he knew it.  But he didn’t just walk in an take the Polish Corridor.  He shelled Warsaw for weeks, and partitioned the entire country between himself and Stalin.  So according to Buchanan, Hitler needed Prague to secure the Sudetenland, and he needed Warsaw to secure Danzig.

If I were living in Kiev right now, I’m not sure I’d find that encouraging.

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