When I was about three years old, my Dad just beamed when I was asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I would say, “A history teacher like my Dad.” In later years both my brother and I followed in his footsteps and majored in history. Intellectual history is more my brother’s bent, while I tend toward Modern American history as well as ancient history — two ends of the spectrum. When you were around my father you literally breathed history so the fact his children and a granddaughter followed in his footsteps is not surprising. He read and studied and taught history for over 40 years and made it come alive to generations of students here in Glendive.
Whenever someone says to me, “I always hated history.” I tell them, “You didn’t have the right teacher.” And it is true. If you like history I think it is because you have a respect for the discipline. History is not a dead subject, rather history is alive and all around us and it is as recent as your morning breakfast or this evening’s news.
Some years ago I ran across a directive from the Montana Office of Public Instruction that discussed the idea of dropping American history from the high school curriculum requirement list. There was a question as to how “relevant” history really was at the time. Contacting K. Ross Toole, imminent historian, author, and professor at the University of Montana, was my first action and it definitely was the right thing to do because he led the charge as to the importance of history in our society and in our personal lives.
Nearly every decision we make is the result of our personal history. Past actions are fixed in our brains and we either continue to follow the same path, do a course correction or we can become lost in a muddle of mis-placed behavior. This can happen to nations as well as people. As I get older I watch a lot of television programs with an historic flavor. The Smithsonian channel has some fantastic pieces on ancient civilizations. There are a great many programs on military history. And other channels focus on American history. On the PBS channel the other evening I saw a program on Gertrude Bell, a woman ahead of her time who was active in the politics of Iraq just after World War I as well as providing the groundwork for archeological preservation in that country. She was a fascinating woman, but as the program pointed out, one who dealt with her personal demons as well.
Studying history, theology, and philosophy are often viewed as subjects of no value in our fast paced technologically oriented society. I have a difficult enough time trying to figure out my newest version of the smartphone let alone sink back in subjects that require directed thought and concentration and opinions of men and women long dead.
But there is a craving in each human being for something deeper. That there has to be something more to this life than just living in the moment. History requires a different thought process than just immediacy. Recent political analysis on our news programs find reporters going back in our history to the presidential scandals of Reagan, Nixon, Agnew and Clinton. And back even further to try and understand the precedents for what is happening now.
When starting out a new history class each year Dad would write on the board the following quotation: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” As I listen to news and follow the progression of the issues of our time I find myself often thinking, but can’t they see this is what happened before? My brother is a deeper reader and thinker than I am and he often can help me see the patterns of history and why we need to re-read earlier histories to help us better understand our own times. Robert F. Kennedy’s name has been appearing more often of late in some analysis. I am reading a biography of RFK and discovering, as is usually the case, he was much more complicated than the public ever knew.
Who are we? Why do events sometimes seem out of control? Where do we find the roots of our behaviors and actions? Reading history, reading opinion columns, reading biographies is the key. Understand history is vital to finding our way as a people, as a nation and as a world.
(Kind of long-winded on this one.)
I just ordered the new book by Ronan Farrow called The War on Peace. Farrow recently received the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for his investigative work on Harvey Weinstein. Farrow worked with Richard Holbrook, Assistant Secretary of State under Presidents Bush and Obama for a time, and since then has been an investigative journalist. The older I get and the more carefully I read, the more I see the incredible interplay between money and power and politics. It is a world we “poor people” can never hope to inhabit. We can only watch from afar as these power brokers play their games with our hopes and dreams.
But, it is a fascinating world. As he left the presidency, George Washington warned the new country to beware of entangling alliances with foreign powers and encouraged a policy to keep us isolated from the problems of Europe. Eisenhower, also a military general, warned against the military-industrial complex. Diplomacy is that art of walking a tightrope and making decisions, often contentious at home, that hopefully work for the good of the nation. The United Nations was the diplomatic move at the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, to keep the Communists at the peace table. As the nuclear threat became more dangerous it was conceived as the only way to attempt to keep the peace. Today as well as throughout history, it takes men and women of rare insight to be able to see the bigger picture, a view of the world beyond our limited vision.
In a recent interview, Farrow said the decimation of the office of Secretary of State was begun as early as the 9/11 tragedy. As diplomacy lost some of its luster, ISIS was able to work its way into center stage. And diplomacy is always a balance between when to come to the peace table and when to rattle sabers threatening military action. According to Farrow we seem to be moving into a period when military action is more the norm than the art of diplomacy. Since the end of the Cold War, America has backed away from its historic role as one of the leading powers in the world. Some observers see the shadow of Chinese influence moving in to fill those vacuums.
History is never black and white. The tragedy of Viet Nam was a military solution to attempt to contain the growth of communism. John Foster Dulles, a controversial Secretary of State under Eisenhower, was a proponent of containment. Diplomacy and military action both lost out in Viet Nam.
When studying world history we see examples of the art of diplomacy stretching back as far as nations interacting with nations. Daughters of kings were a priceless commodity because they could be married off to an enemy in the hopes that family ties would bring nations together. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 ended the Thirty Years
religious wars as well as numerous other wars between feuding kingdoms. In 1814, the Congress of Vienna was an attempt to restore Europe to the boundaries and ruling families that were uprooted during the French Revolution and the Napleonic Wars. The power brokers of that day were conservatives who were not comfortable with revolution or a sense of the new nationalism that was arising. The Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I was to make this the war to end all wars and Woodrow Wilson, serving almost as his own Secretary of State, worked himself into a stroke
attempting to promote the League of Nations which eventually led to the United Nations following World War II. In its own time the League was defeated by American isolationists led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. Lodge’s grandson is a good example of the workings of diplomacy that led into our modern era.
One source notes concerning the younger Lodge: “Believing that the Republican party needed to shed the isolationism that had long guided its views on foreign policy, Lodge helped Eisenhower win his battle for the Republican nomination against the isolationist Senator Robert Taft of Ohio. . .As a liberal internationalist, Lodge worked to foster a healthy American relationship with the United Nations and the Third World but, as an ardent cold warrior, he also advocated a tough line of opposition against the Soviet Union. . .As ambassador to South Vietnam from 1965 to 1967, Lodge supported President Johnson's decision to escalate American involvement in the Vietnam War, believing strongly that a communist takeover in the South would be disastrous for U.S. foreign policy goals.”
This snippet from the history of foreign diplomacy only underscores how complicated a path it is. As long as we have power struggles we will always have the decision before us. Do we choose a military action or a diplomatic one? Currently the Department of State is decimated and diplomacy, while apparent, is not the direction we are heading. In his book, Farrow interviews every living secretary of state and also men and women who are lifelong civil servants in the pursuit of diplomatic solutions.
The decisions made are way beyond our ‘pay grade’, but they influence our lives in profound ways. Diplomacy is an art, much more than the simple decision of “war or peace’. We can only hope there will be intelligent, courageous, and strong men and women to walk that path for us as a nation as we come to new and critical crossroads in our contacts with other nations.
In enduring some political rhetoric the other day I was really put-out with something Ted Cruz said. He was angry (of course) about President Obama’s decision to nominate a candidate for the Supreme Court. Like others his feelings are that the new president should be the one to make that decision.
But what really irritated me were his comments that should the President be able to have his candidate confirmed, this candidate for the Supreme Court would, by virtue of his or her opinions, nullify everything that was central to the American way of life. Candidate Cruz has no love for the Supreme Court even though he served as a clerk in the Supreme Court. I would wonder at his civics’ classes in school.
Maybe I am incredibly naive (probably so), but I put more faith in the institutions of government than to think one person could bring down this republic. In my studies of history, I remember the story of President Chester A. Arthur. He came to office when President James A. Garfield was assassinated. Arthur, the vice president, was a political hack and a tool of Boss Roscoe Conkling whose gang ran the spoils’ system in New York City. Conkling believed by having Arthur in the White House, he would have control of the civil service jobs. It is said Arthur really agonized over his own position when Garfield died, but when the story was told he informed Conkling that he could no longer be a member of his organization. That the office of president had given him a higher calling. Part of that calling was a massive reform of the spoils’ system that resulted in the establishment of the Civil Service Commission.
When President Nixon resigned there was concern in the government over the possibilities of a military takeover. The transition of power went smoothly and the then Minority Leader of the Senate returned to his office and wrote on official congressional stationery, “Mr. Madison, It worked.” Meaning the Constitution and the processes it outlined for our government worked without any upheaval.
Now granted, it is a political year and it seems this year any person can make the most outrageous comments, comments that are crude and rude, and get away with it. To be angry is the call of the day and rather than moral and civil discourse where issues to help the country are discussed, the candidates seem to be trying to see what they can get away with and what is the limit the public will accept. By the most recent comments floating around and the results of the primaries in South Carolina, we don’t seem to have reached our limit as yet.
Government is more than a personality. Government exists when people have faith in the government and the principles on which it has been founded. When we are aware that the branches of government have endured many different personalities we realize that a sense of history is necessary to get beyond this one moment. All we have to do is look at governments in the Middle East, in Africa and in Central America to see what can happen when poverty and a lack of education allow dictators to rise to power and where a sense of history has no place in the discussion. No one has any faith in anything and nothing endures.
Sometimes what you see is what you get and this year I am very concerned.