International Episodes

Present History

by Theodore Draper
Random House, 458 pp., $19.95

Theodore Draper’s book collects his essays, long and short, published at various dates during the past decade, and dealing mainly with international affairs during the same period. The first two sections, “On Nuclear War” and “Where Are the Allies?” are closely related, and make up more than one-third of the book. These are also the most recent in date of composition, and will have the freshest interest for readers now. The two essays that make up the section “On Nuclear War” both appeared in The New York Review of Books in the second half of 1982. Those who read and admired those essays at the time—as the present reviewer did—will be interested in re-reading them, in the context of other writings by Mr. Draper on the same subject, notably the long and closely reasoned essay. “The Western Misalliance” which opens the second section in the present book, and first appeared in The Washington Quarterly in 1981.

I shall come back to these first two sections, which seem to me to contain most of the much that is excellent in Present History. The remaining five sections of the book are more diverse, and more uneven. The section “The Arab-Israeli Wars” consists of three essays written in 1973, 1974, and 1979. Very properly, Mr. Draper has refrained from revising these in the light of hind-sight. Most of them stand up well to the rather severe test (in relation to the Middle East especially) of re-publication as long as ten years later, but the things that don’t stick out. An obvious example is: “In the event of an Arab-Israeli war, Hussein is sure to take Jordan into it, whatever the state of his preparedness.” Anyone who has risked such confident affirmations (as the present reviewer too often has) ought to paste that on his writing desk, making the mental note: “The fact that the fellow has acted this way several times before doesn’t prove he’s going to act this way next time around.”

Another pitfall in writing about current affairs for immediate publication—a pitfall whose contents are likely to appear on re-publication—is a temptation to magnify the long-term historic importance of some dramatic recent event. Thus having chided the United Nations for its role (as he interprets it) in relation to the Yom Kippur War, Mr. Draper concludes: “This war may well be to the United Nations what the Italo-Ethiopian war was to the League of Nations.”

It must have been a chilling thought at the time, since the “failure of the League” (code language for backing down by Britain and France) over Italy’s attack on Ethiopia is generally regarded as the beginning of the chain of events that led to the Second World War. The chill comes off the thought, to a degree or two, when one realizes that the span of time that separates Mr. Draper’s “may well be” (in 1973) from our own day is already more than twice the span that separated the Italo-Ethiopian war from the outbreak…

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