December 3rd, 2006

Instant historians: an oxymoron?

…(or–forgive the pun–perhaps “oxymorons?”)

Historian Vincent J. Cannato has an op-ed in the Washington Post rightly critical of historians’ tendency to make instant judgments of Presidencies, both of Bush and others.

I always thought historians were those who wrote about the past after the passage of a reasonable amount of time, and journalists and pundits were–well, there’s a lot of things I could call them, but we’ll stick with “chroniclers of the present, taking a snapshot in time.” Historians are distinguished by waiting, reflection, research, and analyzing the long-term consequences of actions taken. Not with predicting those consequences, but actually studying them, because they have occurred.

That’s not to say that history is infallible; surely not. I’ve written before about some of the problems inherent in writing history, especially history with an agenda–and everyone’s got an agenda, whether upfront about it or not.

Churchill is an interesting case in point. After the WWI debacle of his Admiralty decisions concerning the Dardanelles and Gallipoli (see this as well), the judgment of history would have been “Stupidity. Failure. Poor judgment.” During the thirties, Churchill was practically a laughingstock in Parliament, a man whose dire warnings about Hitler and Germany were widely considered almost demented and rather pathetic.

Of course, history has vindicated Churchill. Yes, he had flaws, but history calls him “great.” Of course in this, as in many other things, Churchill was both uncommonly prescient and uncommonly articulate; he said, “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”

That’s not the only reason history has been kind to Churchill. But shortly after WWII, when one would have thought he would have been a hero to all, the electorate voted him out of office. The judgments of the present are not the same as the viewpoint of history.

This is what Cannato cautions on Bush. Of course, we all need to make judgments in the present based on incomplete knowledge, and we all lack the ability to foretell the future. But that’s not the same as declaring we already know the judgment of history. Folks such as Michael Lind would do well to heed that caution (hat tip: Done With Mirrors).

34 Responses to “Instant historians: an oxymoron?”

  1. Ymarsakar Says:

    To heed the caution of wisdom, first these people need a wit to begin with.

  2. Good Ole Charlie (SE Penna) Says:

    “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread”.

    Very true…even people with axes to grind should remember this. And too little research is done when an article must be written to earn daily bread.

    Whence comes the phrase “Hack Work”.

    How many years after Rome fell Gibbon wrote his History?

    BTW, Churchill did fulfill his promise. Six volumes worth of WW II history…some of which did exonerate his judgment.

  3. Ariel Says:

    Oddly, Lind fails to mention the British impressment of Americans into naval and maritime service regarding the War of 1812. If I remember right, this was not solely done to slavers, for which the British may have had some justification, but was done across the board to any American vessel. This, our history with the French, and what Lind listed were the reasons Madison wacked the Brits.

    Any “worst list” that leaves off Carter is, no matter the criteria, plainly stupid.

  4. Steve Says:

    To the extent that history aspires to any ascademic cachet, it has to try to be objective. It’s not that historians cannot have an agenda, it’s just that anyone can have one. What historians bring to the table that is unique is usually a broad-based knowledge and long reflection.

    I think Bush will get high marks for recognizing that the US has to be more involved in the Arab world, and I don’t necessarily think that taking out Saddam was a bad thing.

    Where Bush, or his adminstration, will be faulted is in the actual carrying out of our engagement with the Arab world.

    To my mind, the main problem was never successfully articulating the need for re-shaping the Arab world to the American people. This includes a failure to call for sacrifice and mobilization.

    A second problem was the failure to mobilize enough force for the projected rebuilding of Iraq.

    A third problem involved the failure to develop a true broad coalition.

    A fourth problem was essentially plunging into the postwar phase without a clue (the details of this has been shown in many books by now.)

    A fifth (of course) was the intelligence failure involved in the WMD fiasco.

    A sixth involves the inability of this administration to appear to have any influence on, or control over, the Israel-Palestinian conflict. This problem is not the core problem, but it is a problem.

    So, in the end, I think history will be kind to Bush in his overall CONCEPT (engaging the Islamic world, and midwifing its future), but there will be a lot of demerits associated with the actual carrying out of that concept.

    BTW, people who talk about which president was “worst” if it involves any president in the last 50 years, is usually making a political statement. Just ignore them. Plus, Warren Harding was the worst. Case closed.

  5. Ymarsakar Says:

    History will blame BUsh for listening to both the Left in the form of deals with kennedy, as well as appeasing the isolationist right in the form of “realists” like Baker and his father’s legacy of octogenarians.

  6. Isaiah Hunahun Says:

    To my mind, the main problem was never successfully articulating the need for re-shaping the Arab world to the American people. This includes a failure to call for sacrifice and mobilization.

    The need to remove Saddam was self-evident – unless he was your business partner. Reshaping the Arab world was what we have saved the Arab world from. The inevitable implosion of Iraq would have drawn in Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia to swallow up that what Saddam had made; a concentration camp above ground and a mass grave below it. So far we have ‘held the ring’ — an endeavor of mercy if nothing else for the blood bath that might have ensued.

    A second problem was the failure to mobilize enough force for the projected rebuilding of Iraq.

    Taming the remnants of the Iraqi army might have been helpful – a high gamble, a critique in hindsight.

    A third problem involved the failure to develop a true broad coalition.

    Those French, Russians, and Chinese . . . when will they ever learn?

    A fourth problem was essentially plunging into the postwar phase without a clue (the details of this has been shown in many books by now.)

    Some thirteen years of sanctions and diplomacy was hardly a plunge.

    A fifth (of course) was the intelligence failure involved in the WMD fiasco.

    We have yet to see the fruition of this search. Let the green apples turn bright red – then pick them.

    A sixth involves the inability of this administration to appear to have any influence on, or control over, the Israel-Palestinian conflict. This problem is not the core problem, but it is a problem.

    Guess what? We can turn lead in to gold either, shhhh. America is not a God.

  7. monkyboy Says:

    Well,

    We already know the cost of Bush’s war is at least $500 billion, the lives of 3000+ American troops and quite a few civilians.

    Even if Iraq and Afghanistan turn out exactly how we want (and the odds of that happening are slim), it still looks like a bad investment…

  8. Ymarsakar Says:

    The Arab Israeli conflict is why Arabs use terrorism and jihad, people.

    Also war isn’t an investment. It’s a fight to the death. You can cut your losses in a business or declare bankruptcy, can’t do that in a fight to the death without well, dieing.

  9. david foster Says:

    I give Bush great credit for being willing to deal with critical issues at their roots. Three examples: terrorism, K-12 education, and social security. It is much, much tougher to actually try to deal with such things seriously rather than just put a patch on and kick the problem down the road for someone else to deal with later.

    When you seriously engage with difficult issues, things are likely to look confused, uncertain, and even chaotic. If Lincoln had been willing to let the South go in peace, he would have looked much better in 1862 than he actually did look.

    It’s only with the passage of time that the problems can be put in the context of the accomplishments.

  10. monkyboy Says:

    I disagree, Ymarsakar.

    If our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were a “fight to the death” that may be the case.

    But I don’t think a majority of Americans are convinced that we are indeed in a “fight to the death” with whomever it is we are fighting these days.

    So I see no reason why we can’t look at the lives and dollars America has invested in Bush’s war and ask if the results have been worth it.

  11. Justaguy Says:

    It’s only with the passage of time that the problems can be put in the context of the accomplishments.
    david foster | 12.03.06 – 9:37 pm | #

    Yeah, bankrupting the US by transferring the collective wealth to the hands of a select few will be considered quite an achievement with the passage of time.

    If he manages to transfer public social security funds to private interests for syphoning he’d better hope there are no extradition treaties wherever he skulks off to.

    Goodbye US$…..hello Euro!!!

  12. Isaiah Hunahun Says:

    It’s only a “it still looks like a bad investment…” if you think Semitic people in the ME now or will ever be worthy of liberty and happiness. “Let them all suffer to the Ages” is not the virtue of an Enlightened soul or the responsibility of a free person. So what do you do? Depose their tormentor and give them a chance.

  13. Isaiah Hunahun Says:

    “with whomever it is we are fighting these days,” by that wild tangent I see you — haven’t a clue.

  14. Isaiah Hunahun Says:

    “Yeah, bankrupting the US by transferring the collective wealth to the hands of a select few will be considered quite an achievement with the passage of time.”

    Well Good Morning America.

  15. monkyboy Says:

    Isaiah,

    Could you briefly describe exactly how the Taliban and the Iraqi insurgents are going to “take over” America?

    An invasion, maybe?

    Or are they going to win an American election and take over the government that way?

    It sure would help the people who view this as a life or death struggle to make their case if they could come up with a credible scenario…

  16. Isaiah Hunahun Says:

    It’s a generational leap-frogging at its slowest rate I suppose, but your question was not a topic I was discussing … did I mention tangent before?

    Interesting Video Commentary

  17. Ariel Says:

    No, Steve, I wasn’t making a political statement. That was very presumptious of you. Perhaps you liked Carter?

    I was making a judgement call, next would have been Nixon, then LBJ, for in my lifetime. But I believe Carter was one of the worst of all time.

    Carter left this country in a depressed state, and I mean psychological. I remember his state of the union speeches, and slitting ones wrists seemed a viable option when he was done. The economy could not rally under such a nincompoop. He was not a leader, he could not lead.

  18. JonBuck Says:

    Justaguy:

    There is no “collective wealth” to speak of. My money does not belong to you. The “public funds” that pay for social security come out of my paycheck, thank you. I would prefer to invest that in a 401k-style account of my choosing because it is my money to begin with.

    How selfish of me.

  19. Scrapiron Says:

    I thought professors (or an excuse for a professor) were supposed to teach the use of facts, not opinions.
    I guess they forget that every human has two things that match, An a**hole and an opiniion. You can check the state of both by the massive sales of prepartation H.

  20. Scrapiron Says:

    I see a lot of people are still talking out of their a**. There is no SS funds. A dimmi that people so love opened the lock box to SS long ago. Now we depend on the money coming in monthly to pay the pensions. President Bush made a trip and showed the world (dimmi’s were looking, their heads have been in the sand or up someones a** for years) that there is only IOU’s from the general fund in the SS system. Do a little research and i’m sure you can find the dimmi that unlocked the box and the dimmi that started allowing illegals to file for and receive SS payments. They are now building a SS office in Mexico City to handle all of the illegals claims and payments. Welcome to the world of reality, the cities that opted out of SS will pay their retirees thousands per month, those idiots that didn’t want personal accounts can count on maybe $500 per month. If you’re under 40, just kiss you SS contribution every month goodbye, you will never see a dime of it. Since i’m over 65 and drawing my SS, the hell with the rest of you nuts. You play with the stupid, you pay.

  21. Ariel Says:

    Steve,

    I just realized that you could have just as easily been writing about the judgment of the historians on Bush as much as anything I wrote. I shouldn’t have personalized it.
    Regards,

  22. Steve Says:


    No, Steve, I wasn’t making a political statement. That was very presumptious of you. Perhaps you liked Carter?

    Actually, Ariel, I wasn’t really thinking of you but rather the people cited by Neo and in the article. Talk about presumptuous. ;-)

    I never liked Carter when he was president. I agree he wasn’t a very good leader.

    On the other hand I have always respected his intellect and his insight.

    I think LBJ and Nixon get bad press because of Vietnam, to put it simply. I guess with presidents you have to evaluate their achievements, you also have to evaluate their leadership, and finally you have to evaluate them free of circumstances under which they had no control.

    For example, Clinton. Booming economy, mostly because of the internet, and advanced telecom, computers, etc. Life was good. But he accomplished nothing, was no leader, and inherited all the good things. My verdict: terrible. But, as with Carter, how he handles his retirement will affect the outcome.

    Bush #1: Managed the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the collapse of East European communism, the unification of Germany, and the first Gulf War. The economy declined, but that wasn’t really his fault. Not a very good leader domestically, because he had no charisma, but in foreign policy, second only to Nixon.

    Reagan: Vastly over-rated, for the simple reason that he was the most presidential president we have had since JFK and FDR. Leadership, via his face to the American people, absolutely tremendous. Gets credit for winning the Cold War, which is fine, but probably more credit should go to Nixon and Bush #1.

    Carter: In retrospect, a complete non-entity as president.

    Ford: a time server.

    Nixon: Set the model for US foreign policy for the second half of the 20th Century, and carried on LBJ’s legacy.

    LBJ: Set the model for US domestic policy for the second half of the 20th Century, in particular, with regard to civil rights.

    JFK: A tremendously charismatic politician, great leader, his impact was like Reagan’s only stronger, because of his youth. His value was intangible. But accomplishments? I can’t think of much.

  23. Steve Says:

    Ariel: Okay, we’re cool.

    Somebody:

    I give Bush great credit for being willing to deal with critical issues at their roots. Three examples: terrorism, K-12 education, and social security.

    All I know is that I know a lot of people in education and they absolutely despise Bush as well as No Child Left Behind.

    Someoone:


    I thought professors (or an excuse for a professor) were supposed to teach the use of facts, not opinions.

    I quite agree, but the fact is most professors don’t do that.

    Furthermore, don’t confuse professors with guys who write history books for mass layman consumption. Those guys are invariably agenda driven (like Neo’s Irving) because they are trying to sell books to their target audience. Of course, from time to time you will find a professor who writes books for laymen consumption, and also to make money, Niall Ferguson is one who comes to mind. In his case, however, he does try to be more or less objective, even while being deliberately provocative.

  24. Steve Says:

    Justa: Fill me in: I’m curious.

  25. Ariel Says:

    Steve,

    You’ll note that I realized that, late but finally. So, yes, I was presumptuous. I’ll go find and kill a crow. Any particular sauce I might use?

    Regarding your summation of Presidents, we are pretty much in full agreement. I would give Reagan more credit than you, and agree wholeheartedly that FDR, JFK, and RR were the most presidential.

    LBJ I think was more corrupt than you give him credit for, but I agree with you on the rest. Frankly, I still remember the sorrow I felt for that broken man we he gave his speech on not running again.

    Hoover is an example, to me, of a great man who was not up to the situation he faced, thus making him a failed President. He was, also, one of the greatest humanitarians of the 20th Century, something forgotten in his failure to deal with 1929.

    For this post, I only considered their time in office..

  26. Mango Says:

    Bush? The smirking frat boy who pretended to land on an aircraft carrier? Bush will be remembered for sitting in befuddlement reading “My Pet Goat” for long minutes after learning of the second WTC attack, then flying off to hide first in Louisiana, then in Nebraska. Ultimately he spoiled the worldwide the sympathy shown America after 9/11 (including that in Iran) and demonstrated that Saddam’s leadership in Iraq was better than his.

    Saddam is not Hitler, and Bush is not Churchill. Those days were tragedy; these days are farce.

    Carter? –The man who commanded a nuclear submarine during the cold war, and once lead a team of volunteers in to a dangerous radioactive environment to make repairs. His was a tragic presidency because it was often frustrated by institutional resistance to his somewhat naive attempts to make American actions match American rhetoric. (And likely sabotaged by a treasonous dirty trick hatched by Republicans to keep the hostages locked up until after the 1980 election.)

    Freed from institutional resistance in his post-presidential years he has shown himself to be one of the most thoughtful and sincere men ever to hold the office.

  27. Mike H. (ad calendas graecas) Says:

    The history of the glorious hero James E. Carter, wherein he single handedly saved an entire ship of the line and all its crewmembers while a retired reservist. Well the underwater line, the editorial we, mean. Fortunately while negotiating with the reactor he didn’t start glowing badly enough that his wife had to throw a niteshade over him in order to sleep.

    h/t mango

  28. # Says:

    His ‘Compassion for Mordor’ — the Jihadist, is contemptable none the less.

  29. JB Says:

    $500 billion is basically one year’s budget for the US military and slightly less than the amount of wealth transferred from the young to the old via social security. It’s a lot of money, sure, but put it in context monkyboy. What is freedom worth?

  30. Ariel Says:

    I am amazed at how often Carter is portrayed as a victim of circumstances. He failed, he was a “non-entity” as president. His accomplishments from Panama to Camp David were ephemeral.

    Regarding being a Captain:
    http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0008/15/lkl.00.html

    “KING: Nuclear — you never commanded a sub, though.

    CARTER: No, I didn’t command. I wasn’t that senior at that time.”

    He left service while still a Lt. (O-3) which is called a “Captain” in the Army, for example. Anyone who commands a ship or cutter will be called “Captain” but a Lt, will never command a nuclear submarine or any other large, nuclear armed vessel. You give your toddlers a .45 Magnum to play with?

    Mango, that bird won’t fly cuz it was never born.

  31. Sergey Says:

    The worst mistake a politician can make is to become deluded by his own rhetoric to the point of actually believing it. Carter did exactly this.

  32. goesh Says:

    In 40 years, 70% of our population won’t even know who Bush was or who Clinton was for that matter. We have people today who couldn’t tell you in what region of the nation Texas is or Montana or California. I bet half our population couldn’t even find Iraq on a map of the world. We exagerate our importance by assuming large numbers of intellectual equals exist ‘out there’.

  33. Steve Says:


    In 40 years, 70% of our population won’t even know who Bush was or who Clinton was for that matter.

    In 40 years, 70% of our population will speak English as a second language.

  34. Mango Says:

    Okay Ariel, I spoke from memory without checking on that fact, thank you for the correction.

    But the toddler with a .45 is still clearly GWB, and we and the rest of the world, particularly Iraq are suffering that consequence. And now the whole process of world politics in many countrys will be engaged to cleaning up George’s mess.

    The Camp David accords were clearly an astounding feat, and the Panama Canal agreement gave the Third World some evidence that the U.S. can be trusted, and won’t always act as a greedy imperialistic power. THAT assurance, unfortunately, has proved ephemeral, but you can blame subsequent administrations for it, not Carter.

    I think what infuriates conservatives about Carter is his sincerity and fair-mindedness.

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