In the first book of his account of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides, commenting on the difficulties of writing contemporary history, wrote:
With regard to my factual reporting of…events…I have made it a principle not to write down the first story that came my way, and not even to be guided by my own general impressions; either I was present myself at the events which I have described or else heard of them from eye-witnesses whose reports I have checked with as much thoroughness as possible. Not that even so the truth was easy to discover: different eye-witnesses give different accounts of the same events, speaking out of partiality for one side or the other or else from imperfect memories. And it may well be that my history will seem less easy to read because of the absence in it of a romantic element. It will be enough for me, however, if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future. My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last forever.”1
Theodore Draper would probably be embarrassed to be compared with the great Greek historian, but the similarities are there. His work in general is distinguished by the manifest intelligence and the skill in identifying and clarifying essential problems that have been called Thucydides’s greatest gifts.2 When writing narrative history, he is scrupulous in the use of sources and cautious in striking balances between them, and, when assessing the work of other writers on contemporary history, he has little sympathy for the subordination of reality to effect or the invention of the kind of detail that is intended—in the words of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pooh-Bah—“to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.”
In the case of Draper’s new volume of essays, another similarity may be noted. Interested as he was in recounting the military and diplomatic course of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides was equally intent upon showing the effects of the long conflict upon the institutions and the morality of the republics that were involved in it, which he described, in a famous passage on conditions at the end of the sixth year of the war, as a “general deterioration of character throughout the Greek world.”3 In the first three chapters of A Present of Things, Past—“Eisenhower’s War,” “American Hubris,” and “Reagan’s Junta”—Mr. Draper reflects upon the war that made the United States a superpower and the effects that this had upon how Americans viewed their role in the world as well as upon the integrity and responsibility of their public institutions.
The war against Hitler was waged, Draper writes, by
a British-American alliance and a British-American-Soviet “alliance.” Each was troubled to such an extent that it sometimes seems improbable that the coalition survived to the end of the war. The first managed to work itself out successfully, while the other virtually broke apart.
The troubles within the former combination were rooted in British doubts about the military capacity of the Supreme Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. (Mr. Draper’s essay was stimulated by Eisenhower’s grandson David’s book, Eisenhower at War.) Too young to have served in the First World War, Eisenhower had spent the next two decades in a series of schools and desk assignments in Washington and the Philippines, and when war broke out in 1939 he was chief of the War Plans Division and then the Operations Division in the office of the Army Chief of Staff, George C. Marshall. When he was appointed commander in chief of the Allied forces in the European theater and sent to North Africa in June 1942, he had never commanded troops in battle, and in his new assignment his headquarters in Algiers was remote from the fighting, which was in the hands of the two chief British commanders, Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander and General Sir Bernard L. Montgomery. Thus, he had still not proved himself when he was named Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Western Europe at the end of 1943 and went to England to prepare the cross-Channel invasion.
For the British his appointment was hard to take. They could have accepted Marshall with better grace, because they had learned, in a number of staff conferences, to appreciate his experience and toughness. But Franklin Roosevelt had decided that he needed Marshall in Washington, and they were not impressed by his second choice. The British chief of staff, Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, filled his diary with derisory comments about Eisenhower’s lack of strategical and administrative talent, going so far as to scribble on one occasion, “Ike has the very vaguest conception of war!” Montgomery, who was to be appointed commander of the British army in Europe, was worse, not only showing contempt for Eisenhower’s skills but intriguing incessantly to undermine his authority and to have all effective power of command vested in himself.
All of this Eisenhower bore with extraordinary patience, his attempts to appease Montgomery’s insatiable demands for troops sometimes going so far as to make his own field commanders, Bradley and Patton, rebellious; but he knew where to draw the line, and in a blunt letter in October 1944 he made it clear to Montgomery that any further disputes over the ultimate responsibility for operational decision must lead to Montgomery’s resignation or his own.
Even so, Draper writes,
the Allied setup for coalition warfare was so riven with rivalries and cross-purposes that it was a wonder Eisenhower was able to survive with his sanity intact.
He did so because, whatever can be said of his military competence, he possessed the temperament and the talent for coalition leadership that no other soldier in the war came close to understanding, let alone possessing. As Montgomery’s chief of staff said later, he “had a magic touch when dealing with conflicting issues or clashes of personalities; and he knew how to find a solution along the lines of compromise, without surrendering a principle.”
The issues that divided the British and the Americans were not, of course, purely questions of personality. At bottom, these were reflections of major differences about the most expeditious way of defeating Hitler and, after it became clear that his defeat was certain, of influencing the shape of postwar Europe. With respect to the first of these, the British, for various reasons that included a keen memory of the horrendous losses in the First World War, favored a peripheral strategy, striking the enemy in the Mediterranean, Africa, and the Middle East, but avoiding a direct onslaught against his main armies until Germany had been so weakened by blockade and bombing that the final push would be short and relatively inexpensive. The Americans wanted a cross-Channel invasion at the soonest possible date, and, although they agreed to the North African and Italian operations in 1942 and 1943, they did so reluctantly and regarded later proposals of the same kind with distrust and sometimes with anger. At the Cairo Conference in 1943, when Churchill argued the necessity of an Allied attack upon the island of Rhodes, General Marshall erupted, “God forbid I should try to dictate… but not one American soldier is going to die on that goddamned beach!”4
The Normandy landing in June 1944 put an end to this basic source of contention. There were other strategic debates as the Allied armies moved across France (notably the dispute between Montgomery and Eisenhower over the relative merits of a single-thrust endrun strategy and a broad-front advance), but the differences now became increasingly political in nature and concentrated more and more upon relations with the Soviet Union. As Draper puts it,
Once Germany neared defeat, the problems of the postwar era began. They brought on an acute crisis between the British and Americans and an incipient falling out between both of them and the Soviets, with such grave consequences that we are still living with them today.
The British became increasingly interested in the future balance of power in Europe; the Americans, to whom that term was anathema, continued to insist that the war must be won before political matters were discussed. Although some concern was voiced in Washington after the Soviet breakthrough at Stalingrad in 1943 about Soviet expansion to the West, it was never lively enough to inspire American plans to prevent it. At the second Quebec Conference in September 1944, when Churchill tried to persuade the Americans that it might be necessary to do something to stop the Red Army from going too far and suggested a military advance from Italy to Trieste and through the Ljubljana Gap to Vienna, they were unresponsive; and when, a month later, in a meeting in Moscow, Churchill and Stalin agreed on a tentative plan for spheres of influence in the Balkans, their disapproval was undisguised. Finally, in the last stage of the war, in March–April 1945, they outraged the British by deciding to stop the advance of their armies on the Elbe and to give the Russians the glory, and possible political advantage, of capturing Berlin and Prague by themselves.
This decision, which Draper says created “a more acute military-political crisis in the British-American alliance than anything else in World War II” was essentially Eisenhower’s, although he received the full support of George Marshall. His arguments were that, since the political authorities had already agreed upon postwar zones of occupation in Germany, the capture of Berlin by American troops would be pointless, since they would have to retire immediately to their assigned zone. It would also be dangerous, for one could not assume that the Germans would not resist (as some American generals seemed to believe) and, in any case, an unregulated meeting of Allied and Soviet troops would be “a terrible mess.”
This was a compelling argument—in the end, it cost the Soviets 304,887 men killed, wounded, and missing to take Berlin—but it did not convince Eisenhower’s detractors in Britain, who took the line that he had now proved their contention that he had no political-strategic sense. And it did not convince Winston Churchill, who saw more clearly than most that the defeat of their common enemy would mark the dissolution of the Soviet-Western alliance, and who wanted to seize Vienna, Berlin, and Prague before the Russians did and to push as far east as possible, in the hope of having bargaining chips with which to win a satisfactory settlement with the Soviets on all outstanding postwar questions. Churchill’s hopes were, in the circumstances, romantic and unrealistic, but in them Draper sees a recognition that the Soviet-Western alliance was already turning into its opposite, which had not yet dawned upon the Americans.
Enlightenment was not, however, long in coming. The war had a very inflationary effect upon the American self-image. In 1939 the United States was a great power only in name, with unimpressive military forces and exiguous influence in foreign affairs. Two years later, however, Franklin Roosevelt was thinking of the United States as a “world policeman” when the fighting was over, and by 1945, flushed by victory in the East and West and by the acquisition of the most powerful weapon the world had ever seen, Americans were talking of a novus ordo seclorum, a Pax Americana.
This sense of absolute power was of short duration, for the Soviets proved to be entirely unimpressed by the atomic bomb, and it was clear that its political uses were virtually nonexistent. Even so, Draper writes,
the illusion of a Pax Americana produced a sense of frustration in American leaders. It was never given up and it was never achieved. Every effort to make good on it has produced disappointment that the rest of the world persistently refuses to play its assigned role in the American scheme of things.
It received its first codification in the Truman Doctrine of 1947, a declaration intended to meet a specific situation but couched in such universal terms that it appeared to commit the United States to the defense of nations who felt themselves threatened by Communism wherever they were or whatever the circumstances. This invested US policy with a dangerous degree of automatism that was unaccompanied by any rational calculation of means and ends and any specificity in planning, so that we were often woefully unprepared for the wars we chose to fight. Moreover, as Thucydides said of an earlier time when action superseded reflection, “To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings.”5 To validate the application of the doctrine, Draper writes, it was
always necessary to use the words “vital interest,” “national security,” “free world,” “peace is at stake,” and, above all, some version of the “Soviet threat.” If these phrases were not employed, it might be necessary to do some thinking and explain the policy in less simplistic and apocalyptic terms.
The story of how the semantical game was played in 1987 when an attack upon an American tanker by an Iraqi plane was transformed into a major Soviet threat that demanded our sending ships to the Persian Gulf, is one of the most fascinating and depressing stories in Draper’s book. It is all the more depressing because we were so intent upon making other nations “recognize that the United States holds the status of a world power,” as Zbigniew Brzezinski said at the time, that we noticed only belatedly that we were being manipulated by the government of Kuwait.
It was perhaps inevitable that American hubris would make for a deformation of the country’s institutions for conducting foreign policy. In The Federalist No. 75, Draper reminds us, Alexander Hamilton argued that only the most exalted opinion of human virtue would justify placing “interests of so delicate and momentous a kind as those which concern its intercourse with the rest of the world” in the hands of a single man. Hamilton’s colleagues, who were skeptics and great readers of history, agreed and made other dispositions. But their imposed restrictions could not withstand the ambitions released once the United States had become a superpower, and ever since Franklin Roosevelt’s time, presidents have sought to win greater freedom for their actions in foreign policy by keeping Congress and the State Department in the dark and working through agents of their own choosing. An important way station on the road to the imperial presidency was the foundation in the immediate postwar years of the CIA, first as a fact-finding organization but soon afterward as one authorized to carry out secret operations abroad, and of the National Security Council, whose head, the national security adviser, was supposed to coordinate the policy options open to the president and the recommendations made to him.
About the first of these innovations, President Harry Truman came to have the strongest misgivings, writing that the way it functioned seemed to contradict our reputation for being a free and open society and telling a correspondent, “The CIA was set up by me for the sole purpose of getting all the available information to the President. It was not intended to operate as an international agency engaged in strange activities.” Similarly, Henry Kissinger, who as national security adviser was employed by President Nixon in ways that suggest that the President was intent on humiliating his secretary of state, has admitted in his memoirs that this was perhaps not quite the correct way to conduct affairs of state.
Truman and Kissinger were, of course, no longer in office when they expressed these regrets, which in any case did nothing to check the abuses they noted. The reason for this (illustrated most recently in President Bush’s State of the Union Address) is that presidential greatness has come, in the age of the superpowers, to be equated with brilliant strokes in foreign policy, and such coups are not to be expected if they have to be haggled over with Congress or prepared in collaboration with the secretary of state and his professional staff. The temptation to rely on secrecy, on “back-channel” communication, and the use of agents with no constitutional responsibility becomes, in these circumstances, very strong. The danger is that if it is yielded to, the results will be not only illegal but chaotic and beyond the power of the President to control.
The Iran-contra affair is clear enough proof of this. It all began, as Draper points out in his essay “Reagan’s Junta,” when President Reagan, on January 17, 1986, signed a secret intelligence “Finding” authorizing the sale of weapons and spare parts to Iran and stipulating that this should be kept secret, not only from Congress, but also from the secretaries of state, defense, and treasury and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It all ended with the parade across the television screen of dozens of people, some of them decidedly unsavory, of whom the American people had never previously heard, most of them admitting that they had engaged in any number of extraordinary activities in the name of the United States. Mr. Draper’s verdict is stern:
Reagan’s choice of a Presidential junta to carry out his policy was more characteristic of a leader of a runaway superpower than a leader of a healthy democracy. The deliberate decision to exclude Congress for many months from all knowledge, the degrading excommunication of the Secretary of State, the implied edict that disagreement cannot be tolerated and is punishable by exclusion from decision making, the morbid secrecy of the entire enterprise—these are political monstrosities in a democracy such as ours.
This is certainly true. But disturbing as these things are, they are no more so than the willingness of some of Reagan’s supporters to argue that the President’s responsibilities for the national security justify breaches of law when they are necessary or to talk of the difficulty that intermittently faces the chief executive when he is called upon to choose between fulfilling his obligations as leader of a superpower and his duties as leader of a democracy. Admission that such a choice exists is a sign of how far hubris has brought us all and ground for hoping that the present revolution in world affairs will put an end to the illusions of superpowerdom.
Six of the essays in this impressive book have to do with the writing of history. One of these deals with an article that sought to prove that Max Eitingon, a close associate of Sigmund Freud for many years, was a Stalinist assassin who helped prepare the secret trial and execution in 1937 of the highest leaders of the Red Army and was in the same year involved in the disappearance and probable execution of the White General Yevgeni Miller in Paris. By meticulous analysis of the sources used and by reference to those not consulted by the author, Mr. Draper shows that his thesis is completely untenable and his article nothing more than a clumsy exercise in sensationalism.
Two essays deal with the work of a number of self-styled new historians of American Communism who have been engaged in an attempt to rehabilitate the American movement by conveniently forgetting its politics and arguing that it is the social history of the movement that is important and that makes it an authentic expression of the American radical tradition. Himself a distinguished historian of the Communist movement but a frequent target of the new school—(one of its members linked him with “Midge Decter, Sidney Hook, and other aging members of the cold war establishment,” all of whom “dream with Ronald Reagan” of past glories)—Mr. Draper goes about his critical task here with a Hazlittian gusto. He points out that to cry foul every time anyone mentions the undeviating support given to the Moscow line by the American Party marks one as an ideologue rather than a historian. He also has some incisive comments on the mistake of waxing sentimental over professors in American universities who have complained vociferously about the infringement of their right of academic freedom while they continued to support a Party that closed its eyes to similar infringements in the Soviet Union. The question of how much illiberalism a liberal society should tolerate is a difficult one, he adds, but it is not one that the new historians are willing to ask, preferring to treat their communists as if they were liberals.
Mr. Draper is nothing if not catholic in his choice of targets, and two other groups of historians engage his critical attention here. Thucydides believed that “owing to the passage of time [historical events are] mostly lost in the unreliable streams of mythology.”6 Mr. Draper is inclined to the view that there are people engaged in helping this process along, and in a lively chapter on neoconservatives he writes of the kind of myths that they propagate and asks what induces them to do so.
He singles out three versions of the past which have won a considerable amount of credence, the story that Franklin Roosevelt gave Eastern Europe to Stalin at the Yalta summit, which first arose during the Truman administration and was revived in the mid-1980s by Commentary; the claim that the Soviet Union was given three seats in the UN Assembly at Roosevelt’s initiative, which has been made by such people as Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick and Churchill’s sometime secretary, John Colville; and the notion, which has been aired by Robert Nisbet, that Roosevelt had a “strong disposition to trust Stalin, even over Churchill’s cautionary advice.”
Mr. Draper disposes of these fabrications briskly enough, pointing out that the Russians were already in possession of most of Eastern Europe at the time of Yalta and that, in any case, if anyone should be accused of inviting Stalin to take over Eastern Europe it was Churchill with his spheres of influence plan in 1944, with which Roosevelt had nothing to do7 ; that, similarly, it was Churchill rather than Roosevelt who urged that the Soviet Union’s votes in the UN Assembly be increased to three; and that there is not a scrap of evidence in the Roosevelt-Churchill correspondence, to which Nisbet referred in a general way, to indicate any strong disposition on the part of Roosevelt to trust Stalin or any attempts by Churchill to caution the President on this score.
What then, apart from historical ignorance, explains this ardor for myth making? In Mr. Draper’s view, it is an ideological hatred for “liberal internationalism,” of which Franklin Roosevelt is, in the eyes of neoconservatives, the notable representative, and of liberalism in general, which, as the 1988 presidential campaign demonstrated, can be blamed for everything that is, in their eyes, wrong in the nation and the world. Neoconservatives believe themselves to be caught up in an apocalyptic struggle between good and evil, but many of them are conscious of the fact that they are fighting against enemies who were once allies, and nothing enrages them more than the liberal with whom they once shared the same views but who has refused to recant. The remaking of history is important to them because it enables them to “indulge themselves in ideological imperatives and infallible hindsights. Thus,” Mr. Draper adds in a telling and persuasive thrust, “their treatment of history is peculiarly guiltridden, with the guilt often displaced onto others.”
Finally, Mr. Draper turns to that bane of all professional historians, the book, usually by a journalist, about high politics in Washington, which claims to be authoritative without naming the authors of its revelations or which is written like a novel, telling us of the appearance and mood of its characters and exactly what they said to each other in meetings, in elevators, in taxicabs and restaurants, without neglecting to include expletives, laughs, belches, and frowns, but without making clear how they know all this. Since the beginning of the Reagan administration, we have been in danger of being inundated by what Mr. Draper calls novelistic journalistic history.
The problems posed by this genre are not new. Even Thucydides was aware that putting words in the mouths of real persons was a delicate matter, and he wrote:
In this history I have made use of set speeches some of which were delivered just before and others during the war. I have found it difficult to remember the precise words used in the speeches which I listened to myself and my various informants have experienced the same difficulty; so my method has been, while keeping as closely as possible to the general sense of the words that were actually used, to make the speakers say what, in my opinion, was called for by each situation.”8
This is frank enough and tells us what to expect. This is rarely so in the more sensational books about Washington politics, like the one cited by Mr. Draper that has President Reagan, after the dismissal of Oliver North, saying to him on the telephone, “Ollie, you’re a national hero. This is going to make a great movie one day.” The authors’ notes printed in the book do not support this version of the conversation, and diligent searches by Mr. Draper have revealed that it was a combination of two separate remarks reconstructed from second and third rate sources. We are in fact being fobbed off with fiction disguised as fact, and one would expect that respectable publishers might be more concerned about this growing practice than they appear to be.
Leaving the question of bogus quotations aside, much journalistic history is offensive because it is neither fish nor fowl. It is not journalism, because by appearing in book form it claims to be more, and it is not history because it hides behind sources that cannot be checked. In addition, it raises ethical questions of the first order, representing as it does, as Mr. Draper justly remarks, “the ominous collusion between anonymous officials and favored journalists, together engaged in surreptitiously feeding the public a version of events for which no one can be held accountable.” To the extent that this enables public officials to control the history of their own policies this practice is surely a threat to the democratic process, and the fact that it is so widely tolerated is disturbing.
In view of the pace of current changes in the Soviet Union and the widespread speculation about the future of perestroika and its author, brief mention must be made of Mr. Draper’s chapter on Soviet reformers from Lenin to Gorbachev, which was written in 1987 and published in Dissent. After recounting the fate of earlier revolutions from above, he describes Gorbachev’s dilemma as being one of needing Party discipline to loosen Party control, while knowing that the loosening process may in itself lead to factional struggles like those that followed the end of the New Economic Policy in the late 1920s or cause him to suffer the same fate as Khrushchev. At the time of writing, he was not exactly sanguine about Gorbachev’s chances of pulling it off. Whatever the outcome may be, Mr. Draper outlined some of the deep difficulties Gorbachev was bound to encounter and is still trying to resolve today.
March 15, 1990
Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, translated by Rex Warner, with an introduction and notes by M.I. Finley (London: Penguin, 1972), p. 48. ↩
See Paul Robinson, “Why Do We Believe Thucydides?” in The Greek Historians: Literature and History: Papers Presented to A. E. Raubitschek (Anma Libri, Department of Classics, Stanford University, 1985), p. 22. ↩
Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, p. 244. ↩
Forrest C. Pogue, George C. Marshall: Organizer of Victory, 1943–1945 (Viking, 1973), p. 307. ↩
Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, p. 242. ↩
Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, p. 47 ↩
Even such a critic of the Yalta agreement as the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, who recently wrote that the agreement “provided Stalin’s insatiable hunger for territories with an ambiguous legitimacy,” observes that “Yalta was not the cause of Poland’s postwar destiny, and the Western powers were incapable of undoing the presence of the Red Army.” See “Warsaw: A Yalta Read Right Would Mean Another World,” in The International Herald Tribune, February 5, 1990. ↩
Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, p. 47. ↩