Monday, July 9, 2007

Reading: Halberstam on the myth of the latter-day Truman

Vanity Fair has one of the last pieces by Pulitzer-winning historian David Halberstam before his death last spring.

In it, Halberstam expresses his distrust of those who cherry-pick expedient analogies from the past and call them "the lessons of history," all the while indifferent to the tendency of history to wrap its lessons in an irony that will quickly bite the ass of those who treat history like a fast-food drive-up window.

Specifically, he takes a dim view of the current Republican "Bush-as-Truman" talking points. If Bush and Cheney have any analog from the Truman era, says Halberstam, it's the stab-in-the-back Republicans of that era:
Recently, Harry Truman, for reasons that would surely puzzle him if he were still alive, has become the Republicans' favorite Democratic president. In fact, the men around Bush who attempt to feed the White House line to journalists have begun to talk about the current president as a latter-day Truman: Yes, goes the line, Truman's rise to an ever more elevated status in the presidential pantheon is all ex post facto, conferred by historians long after he left office a beleaguered man, his poll numbers hopelessly low. Thus Bush and the people around him predict that a similar Trumanization will ride to the rescue for them. […]

If Bush takes his cues from anyone in the Truman era, it is not Truman but the Republican far right. This can be seen clearly from one of his history lessons, a speech the president gave on a visit to Riga, Latvia, in May 2005, when, in order to justify the Iraq intervention, he cited Yalta, the 1945 summit at which Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill met. Hailing Latvian freedom, Bush took a side shot at Roosevelt (and, whether he meant to or not, at Churchill, supposedly his great hero) and the Yalta accords, which effectively ceded Eastern Europe to the Soviets. Yalta, he said, "followed in the unjust tradition of Munich and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Once again, when powerful governments negotiated, the freedom of small nations was somehow expendable. Yet this attempt to sacrifice freedom for the sake of stability left a continent divided and unstable. The captivity of millions in Central and Eastern Europe will be remembered as one of the greatest wrongs of history."

This is some statement. Yalta is connected first to the Munich Agreement of 1938 (in which the Western democracies, at their most vulnerable and well behind the curve of military preparedness, ceded Czechoslovakia to Hitler), then, in the same breath, Bush blends in seamlessly (and sleazily) the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the temporary and cynical agreement between the Soviets and Nazis allowing the Germans to invade Poland and the Soviets to move into the Baltic nations. And from Molotov-Ribbentrop we jump ahead to Yalta itself, where, Bush implies, the two great leaders of the West casually sat by and gave away vast parts of Europe to the Soviet Union.

After some 60 years Yalta has largely slipped from our political vocabulary, but for a time it was one of the great buzzwords in American politics, the first shot across the bow by the Republican right in their long, venomous, immensely destructive assault upon Roosevelt (albeit posthumously), Truman, and the Democratic Party as soft on Communism - just as today's White House attacks Democrats and other critics for being soft on terrorism, less patriotic, defeatists, underminers of the true strength of our country. […]

I have my own sense that […] what went wrong in the current administration [is] not just in the immediate miscalculation of Iraq but in the larger sense of misreading the historical moment we now live in. It is that the president and the men around him - most particularly the vice president - simply misunderstood what the collapse of the Soviet empire meant for America in national-security terms.

(Not just the president's men, either; Condi Rice's academic specialty was the former Soviet Union.)

Halberstam's article is on the Readings list in the sidebar.

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