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Over the past few days, there have been multiple diaries and heavy commenting on the situation in Ukraine.  What is notable about the arguments---apart from their intensity--is how often those commenting justify their position by reference to historical examples.  One poster in particular seems to believe that Putin really is exactly like Hitler and the Ukraine/Crimea crisis is exactly like the Czechoslovakian crisis of 1938.  The conclusion that this poster and others like him reach is that failure to "stop" Putin (not defined) will inevitably lead to World War III just as the Munch conference inevitably led to World War II.  When this claim is questioned, the sceptics have been told to "read history".  Well, speaking on behalf of History, I want to issue a cease and desist order on this line of reasoning. Why follows below the orange barbed wire

 Americans, as Gore Vidal never tired of pointing out, know virtually nothing about their own history or the history of other places.  As a former history teacher, I can say that history is indeed badly taught. For the most part, American history courses consist of long lists of "facts" which, once tested upon, disappear from memory.  Apart from AP classes--and the pass rate for exams in American history had fallen to about 16% the last time I looked--students are almost never asked to think.  
     Yet historians do think. They weigh evidence like jurors in a trial, and their conclusions are usually tentative and hedged with qualifiers.  "On the other hand" may be the favorite phrase of historians.  So when people use historical analogies as evidence for present day action, the people doing so are almost never professional historians.  Why? Because the most important thing that one learns in becoming a professional historian is that every judgement can be wrong. The more one knows, the more one is struck by how complex and the smallest issue is. Humility in making a decision, prudence and caution in drawing a conclusion--these are the virtues that really reading history convey upon the reader.
     Perhaps the most perfect example of properly using history to guide one's actions lies in those fateful 13 days in  October 1962.  The Soviet placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba was a clear provocation, and virtually every member of the Cabinet, almost every top Presidential advisor, and every top military officer, favored an immediate air strike followed by invasion and occupation of Cuba.  President Kennedy was an avid student of history, and he had just finished reading Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August, a classic study of the outbreak of World War I.  Kennedy drew from that book and from his awareness of history, the lesson that in a diplomatic crisis events can easily and rapidly spiral out of control. Resisting enormous pressure to bomb and invade, Kennedy navigated a cautious path through to a diplomatic settlement. Had he failed, none of us on this planet would still be alive. The higher the stakes, the more one must resist the temptation to fall back--as most of Kennedy's advisors did--on a cheap and easy analogy (Munich, 1938 was mentioned often in the Ex-Comm discussions) to justify incautious acts.
     Perhaps because of cable "history" channels, perhaps because high school history teachers have a plethora of educational movies on the origins of World War II to show, most Americans do have a vague memory of events leading to that war.  To summarize the common view, Wilson failed to get the U.S. to join the League of Nations, German hyperinflation led to wheelbarrows full of money, thus Hitler (wrong, of course, but in most textbooks the money wheelbarrow picture comes on the page before the Hitler picture), and because Hitler was not "stopped" in 1938, World War II.  Why was Hitler not "stopped"? Because of appeasement, meaning weakness--there are usually mysogynistic overtones as Chamberlain is believed not to be virile enough to "stop" Hitler.
     This common view is wrong in nearly every part,  and the "lesson" of 1938 which is then happily used to justify American military intervention over and over (Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Grenada,  Iraq I, Iraq II, etc etc) is fatally flawed.  Had Wilson been willing to accept a couple of minor adjustments (an explicit statement that only Congress could declare war being the main one), he could have had American membership in the League. As the history of the United Nations since 1945 proves, American membership in the League of Nations would have made no difference in keeping world peace.  The hyperinflation of 1923 was a deliberate German response to the French occupation of the Ruhr, and by wiping out the burden of war debts, cleared the way for economic growth in the rest of the 20's...Germany was highly prosperous by 1929, and as a result, extremist parties of the far Right (Nazis) and Left (Communists) were politically insignificant.  It was the Great Depression and the austerity measures which exacerbated it--the German governments of 1929 to 1933 were far more austerity-minded than Herbert hoover--and the resulting misery gave the opportunity that Hitler and the Nazis took.  Why was Hitler not "stopped" when he began to rearm Germany?  (1) Because the British felt guilty over the Treaty of Versailles which was viewed in hindsight as too harsh; (2) because the French had no desire nor intention of fighting an actual war to prevent a possible war; (3) because both the British and French viewed the revival of German power as a good thing since it counterbalanced the threat of Soviet Communism to the east. Hitler was viewed as somewhat comic, but the West genuinely feared Stalin.  
     And Chamberlain? What about his weakness, his lack of toughness in standing up to Hitler?  Totally wrong. Chamberlain had a domineering personality, and he imposed his will on his Cabinet like no peacetime Prime Minister before him.  If Chamberlain had a personality flaw, that flaw was arrogance. He believed that the European situation was tense because his predecessors had not possessed the toughness to make hard decisions and shove them down the throat of everyone concerned. He believed that he could clean up all the outstanding diplomatic issues between Britain and Germany in one fell swoop, and by doing so preserve the peace. Thus the Munich Conference and its sequel, in which Chamberlain bullied the Czechs and French into accepting the settlement. Chamberlain, too, had a historical analogy that guided him: August 1914. The lesson Chamberlain drew from that fatal summer was that if Britain had made its position clear early on, war would have been avoided.  As usual for historical analogies, Chamberlain was surely mistaken, as the German war plan assumed British entry into the war.
     So when we are told, as we have been told in these pages of Daily Kos in the past few days, that Putin is just like Hitler, and Obama is just like Chamberlain, and Ukraine is just like Czechoslovakia, and failure to "act" (very very rarely defined) will lead to World War III as the Russian tanks roll over the Polish border--when we are told this, I call bullshit.  Yes, maybe there are things we can and should do. Fine, let's discuss those.  But enough with the Munich analogy. Enough. Enough.  History does not give us a road map marked like a AAA trip-tik, it gives us the solemn warning that whether we act or stand aside we may be doing the wrong thing.  

Originally posted to Reston history guy on Sun Mar 02, 2014 at 04:30 PM PST.

Also republished by History for Kossacks.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (24+ / 0-)

    "Something has gone very wrong with America, not just its economy, but its ability to function as a democratic nation. And it’s hard to see when or how that wrongness will get fixed." Paul Krugman and Robin Wells

    by Reston history guy on Sun Mar 02, 2014 at 04:30:16 PM PST

  •  Tipped and Recced (8+ / 0-)

    Thank you for showing how complex stuff really is. Very much needed here.

    Time is of no account with great thoughts, which are as fresh to-day as when they first passed through their authors' minds ages ago. - Samuel Smiles

    by moviemeister76 on Sun Mar 02, 2014 at 04:56:19 PM PST

  •  Really? (3+ / 0-)
    Had he [JFK] failed, none of us on this planet would still be alive.
    •  Absolutely (7+ / 0-)

          Had Kennedy launched the invasion of Cuba that was just barely barely barely averted, we now know that nuclear missiles would have been fired from Cuba. (McNamara was stunned to learn this decades after the crisis). The U.S. had already pledged to respond to a nuclear attack from Cuba--which by itself would have killed 60 million Americans in 15 minutes--with a full retaliatory attack on the Soviet Union and its allies. Consider that this would have meant exploding thousands of hydrogen bombs--each one many many times more powerful than the simple atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Soviets, who possessed almost as many H bombs as we did, would have certainly answered in kind. So yes, virtually the entire population of the Northern Hemisphere would have been wiped out in the exchange of bombs and missiles.
           Why do I say no one would have survived? Because of the work of Carl Sagan and some of his colleagues in the 1970s and early 80s, it became clear that a nuclear war involving as few as 50 warheads would create a dense dust cloud blocking out the sunlight for many years. The "nuclear winter" that would follow would result in a catastrophic chain effect of extinction as the simple organisms which turn sunlight and CO2 into oxygen as they float in the oceans died. Humans, at the top of the food chain, would be scrabbling for food and gasping for air.  But imagine the effect of not 50, but 10,000 warheads and you can see why I claim no one would have survived.  An 11 year old at the time, I know I would have gone in the first hour.

      "Something has gone very wrong with America, not just its economy, but its ability to function as a democratic nation. And it’s hard to see when or how that wrongness will get fixed." Paul Krugman and Robin Wells

      by Reston history guy on Sun Mar 02, 2014 at 05:40:25 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Nitpick: (6+ / 0-)

        The Soviets had nowhere near as many as many nukes as the U.S. in 1962 and far more limited delivery systems. The ratio was, in fact, about 9-1 (27,297 v. 3,322). Still far more than enough nuclear gigatonnage to wipe out most of humanity through blast, burns, radiation and nuclear winter.

        Don't tell me what you believe, show me what you do and I will tell you what you believe.

        by Meteor Blades on Sun Mar 02, 2014 at 06:32:10 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  thanks for the correction (5+ / 0-)

          The Soviet H-bombs also tended to the super-megatonnage, the 50 and 100 megaton type, but the U.S. preferred smaller warheads aimed with greater precision. Either way, there was more than enough firepower to do the job on everybody. Sorry for not replying more quickly your comment, but no way in hell was I going to miss this week's episode of True Detective.

          "Something has gone very wrong with America, not just its economy, but its ability to function as a democratic nation. And it’s hard to see when or how that wrongness will get fixed." Paul Krugman and Robin Wells

          by Reston history guy on Sun Mar 02, 2014 at 07:18:49 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

      •  If you say so. I'm dubious of alternative (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Andrew F Cockburn

        histories. Missiles don't fire, bombs don't drop, humans make errors, fuzes don't fuze, horses lose shoes, and so on.

        The planet has suffered extinction events in the past where, apparently, everything didn't go extinct. Continents were much closer together then, as well. You apparently see homo sapiens ('us") as totally vulnerable.

        Maybe, maybe not.

        •  well you are right about alternative history (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          pimutant, RiveroftheWest

          but much of historical analysis consists of studying the options that were available to individuals at the time they made a decision, checking those against the options that the actors thought they had, explaining the differences between the two (there are always options that are realized only with hindsight), and trying to understanding why the option that was chosen was chosen by the man or woman who chose it. Finally, one analyzes whether a different choice, known and feasible at the time, might have been better.
               Now this is alternative history, I suppose, but to a very limited degree. Notice that alternative history novels are pretty plausible at the beginning, but gradually become more and more absurd as they diverge in time from the original decision point.
               In this case, we have the clear testimony of Robert McNamara, the Sec Defense in 1962, who participated in a symposium in Cuba after the end of the Cold War with other participants in the crisis. We have memoirs from Robert Kennedy and multiple others that all testify that all-out nuclear war was avoided by the narrowest of margins. Robert Caro's recent volume in his multipart biography of LBJ has a fabulous and terrifying chapter on the missile crisis.
               Now my assumption is that as humans are at the very top of the food chain, they are more likely to go extinct than little creatures far below (e.g. the big dinosaurs bite the dust but the little rat-like mammals survive). But I freely admit that without an experiment--which hopefully will never be made--we will never know if a handful of humans might have survived somewhere scratching out a wretched life.  In any event, as those of us alive in 1962 said to one another "I hope I go in the initial blast so I never know what hits me".

          "Something has gone very wrong with America, not just its economy, but its ability to function as a democratic nation. And it’s hard to see when or how that wrongness will get fixed." Paul Krugman and Robin Wells

          by Reston history guy on Mon Mar 03, 2014 at 09:52:13 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  Facts and logic... (11+ / 0-)

    make a long-overdue but nonetheless much-appreciated appearance.

    Shorter: You know what's just like Hitler and Chamberlain at the Munich Conference in 1938? Hitler and Chamberlain at the Munich Conference in 1938. That's it, that's all.

    Nice job, RHG. I hope this is widely read and taken to heart by folks.

    Insert your own pithy comment/angry screed/wise homily right here!

    by StratCat on Sun Mar 02, 2014 at 05:57:49 PM PST

  •  Sorry to not read your whole post; I have a bad (3+ / 0-)

    cold and need to get to bed.

    But I tutor in middle school (AVID, mostly kids whose parents have not been to college) and they LOVE "Lies My Teacher Told Me", which of course is what the author thinks should be in textbooks.  I try to explain that we will never know the ALL of history (or science) and we try to make it understandable to middle schoolers, and then high schoolers, and then college students, and finally the truly interested.

    That's why I like algebra - there is an answer, and just one in this multiverse!

    ...Son, those Elephants always look out for themselves. If you happen to get a crumb or two from their policies, it's a complete coincidence. -Malharden's Dad

    by slowbutsure on Sun Mar 02, 2014 at 06:33:44 PM PST

    •  bedtime for me as well (3+ / 0-)

      but I will check in the morning to see if there are any comments to which I can reply. Thanks to everyone who read my little piece.

      "Something has gone very wrong with America, not just its economy, but its ability to function as a democratic nation. And it’s hard to see when or how that wrongness will get fixed." Paul Krugman and Robin Wells

      by Reston history guy on Sun Mar 02, 2014 at 08:10:16 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Value of History (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I always looked at the study of history as an exercise in crafting arguments using data and evidence.  For any period of time, there are usually different viewpoints.  The difference between them is the data and evidence used to support those views.  Was the Civil War about states rights or slavery?  Was nuking Japan a way to save American troops or flex our muscles for the USSR?  I've always appreciated the "open-endedness" of history.

  •  Thanks for the fact and sanity check. (2+ / 0-)

    Much appreciated.

    Marx was an optimist.

    by psnyder on Sun Mar 02, 2014 at 08:56:31 PM PST

  •  That there is still a NATO suggests that (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Andrew F Cockburn

    the U.S. planners view Putin and successors as junior Stalins. An alliance with Stalin saved the U.S. from losing WWII, whereas the stigmatization of the Soviets threatened nuclear war. The Kruschev-Kennedy alliance could have acheived a global peace among the superpowers, empowering the UN. The inability to normalize relations with traditional ally Russia is as constrained by the past as was Chamberlain.  

  •  We also don't know anything about geography. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    A little time looking at maps would eliminate half the posts I have seen.

    The US military is going to stop Russia from invading Ukraine? That would be about as effective as the time we sent troops to stop the Bolsheviks from taking over Russia.

  •  the abuse of history (0+ / 0-)

    indispensable to propaganda !

    We're shocked by a naked nipple, but not by naked aggression.

    by Lepanto on Sun Mar 02, 2014 at 11:24:48 PM PST

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