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September 26, 2007

Why We Need More Historians

Or at least more Rick Perlsteins. I've been spending a lot of time saying that I think America is acting uncharacteristically tremulous before the specter of Iran's leading civil servant being allowed to have public conversations in our country. Others have suggested that that's not true, and America is simply being strong. Perlstein went to the tape:

[W]hat is the American character? Hard to say, of course. But I daresay we know it when we see it. Let me put before you an illustrative example: one week in September of 1959, when, much like one week in September of 2007, American soil supported a visit by what many, if not most Americans agreed was the most evil and dangerous man on the planet.

Nikita Khrushchev disembarked from his plane at Andrews Air Force Base to a 21-gun salute and a receiving line of 63 officials and bureaucrats, ending with President Eisenhower. He rode 13 miles with Ike in an open limousine to his guest quarters across from the White House. Then he met for two hours with Ike and his foreign policy team. Then came a white-tie state dinner. (The Soviets then put one on at the embassy for Ike.) He joshed with the CIA chief about pooling their intelligence data, since it probably all came from the same people—then was ushered upstairs to the East Wing for a leisurely gander at the Eisenhowers' family quarters. Visited the Agriculture Department's 12,000 acre research station ("If you didn't give a turkey a passport you couldn't tell the difference between a Communist and capitalist turkey"), spoke to the National Press Club, toured Manhattan, San Francisco (where he debated Walter Reuther on Stalin's crimes before a retinue of AFL-CIO leaders, or in K's words, "capitalist lackeys"), and Los Angeles (there he supped at the 20th Century Fox commissary, visited the set of the Frank Sinatra picture Can Can but to his great disappointment did not get to visit Disneyland), and sat down one more with the president, at Camp David. Mrs. K did the ladies-who-lunch circuit, with Pat Nixon as guide. Eleanor Roosevelt toured them through Hyde Park. It's not like it was all hearts and flowers. He bellowed that America, as Time magazine reported, "must close down its worldwide deterrent bases and disarm." Reporters asked him what he'd been doing during Stalin's blood purges, and the 1956 invasion of Hungary. A banquet of 27 industrialists tried to impress upon him the merits of capitalism. Nelson Rockefeller rapped with him about the Bible.

Had America suddenly succumbed to a fever of weak-kneed appeasement? Had the general running the country—the man who had faced down Hitler!—proven himself what the John Birch Society claimed he was: a conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy?

No. Nikita Khrushchev simply visited a nation that had character. That was mature, well-adjusted. A nation confident we were great.

And it's worth saying that the Soviet Union really was murderously evil. It didn't merely deny the existence of massacres, but did its level best to perpetrate a couple. It didn't merely say threatening things about America, but actually possessed the weaponry to destroy us thousands of times over. And we may have been scared. But we didn't run, and we didn't back down from the challenge.

I don't know how to prove this, but my sense is that the dawning realization that we're globally unpopular is having profound effects on the American psyche. There's a lot of talk about how we don't care about what other countries think, but like the kid repeating mantras of self-esteem in the corner of the playground, saying it doesn't make it true. If we felt more secure that the rest of the world had some faith in our intentions, would Ahmadinejad be anything but an annoyance? Is the reason we fear to negotiate with Iran because we believe that, when it comes down to it and we ask for an end to their nuclear program, they'll refuse, and the world will agree with them and not us? Is America growing afraid of rejection?

September 26, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

In 1959 America was only a few years past the hysterics of McCarthyism and was still hysterical about school integration and Jim Crow laws.

It's pretty sobering if we as a nation don't even have that much character anymore.

Posted by: Evan | Sep 26, 2007 2:52:28 AM

That is the nation I was born to...the nation that ten years later would land on the moon and return safely...

That nation is slowly dying in a bipartisan rape of our forbearers great efforts and hopes.

Today's elite have no shame, they greedily swallow the planting seeds of years to come.

Posted by: S Brennan | Sep 26, 2007 3:05:03 AM

Wasn't the Cold War when the US came up with the idea of MAD - that it needed to develop, build and deploy nuclear weapons to counter an aggressive military power with superior conventional forces?

Is the reason we fear to negotiate with Iran because we believe that, when it comes down to it and we ask for an end to their nuclear program, they'll refuse, and the world will agree with them and not us?

Why on earth would the world do that?

Posted by: Phoenician in a time of Romans | Sep 26, 2007 3:46:53 AM

Is the reason we fear to negotiate with Iran because we believe that, when it comes down to it and we ask for an end to their nuclear program, they'll refuse, and the world will agree with them and not us? Is America growing afraid of rejection?

Mmmmmmm....no.

The frame of "fear to negotiate" is simply wrong. Iran, unlike the Soviet Union, is run by religious zealots who are more likely to be irrational with nuclear weapons than the secular Soviet Union. *AND* I believe the fact that Iran held American hostages for 444 days may also have something to do with the distrust and hard feelings. Who here believes that Iran will not lob one on Tel Aviv if given half a chance?

Posted by: El Viajero | Sep 26, 2007 3:57:37 AM

The national insecurity is mirrored in Bush's own personal insecurity -- or may be an extension of it. I mean, I think the President of Columbia was more confident that, on a stage next to Ahmadinejad, he'd come off looking like the good guy, than the President of the US is. If Bush invited Ahmadinejad to tour NYC with him, visit a church, a synagogue, a Hindu temple and a mosque, take in a Broadway show, meet whoever our current version of Shirley MacLaine is, and so forth, I think he'd be anxious that Ahmadinejad would look like the comfortable, worldly, charming one, and he, Bush, would be the awkward, ill-liked loudmouth uncle.

Posted by: brooksfoe | Sep 26, 2007 4:12:51 AM

my sense is that the dawning realization that we're globally unpopular is having profound effects on the American psyche.

I don't think it's quite all of this - conservatives have been willfully defiant of any notion that we're unpopular, or, if they must admit that people don't like us, it's "we don't care anyway." And I tend to take them at their word. My own sense of what's happened - and this really does seem to have shifted in my lifetime - is that we don't seem to like each other nearly as much as we used to. In 1959, you just don't see the kind of pronounced divisions between right and left that you see now. Even the ugly stain of McCathyism didn't sour relations permanently (it's only now, when Ann Coulter tries to prove McCarthy right that we re-argue that fight - and even conservatives from that period aren't altogether willing to buy it).

I think what did change it was Vietnam, and what's happening today is not a repeat Vietnam but a Vietnam redux. There are conservatives who believe, seriously, that the reason we "lost" Vietnam was because we didn't try. And they blame the Antiwar movement for that. And in Iraq they plan to make their stand. That's why, I think, you see this sort of odd emphasis on all of us "standing for the troops" and the like. The right is convinced that we can "win" these things if only our morale is good And Bush, oddly simplistic as he is, seems to buy all of this theory). And so you see this strain of criticism from conservatives that questions how "American" people on the left are - we like to dismiss it as cynical or overly partisan - but really, scratch the surface and you'll find they're serious. And it's that doubt about us - about our "patriotism", our determination, and the like that drives their fear of outside elements coming in making mischief.

It's not that conservatives don't think we measure up in the world - their real doubt is that we don't measure up at home. Their fear - barely expressed - about Ahamdinejad is that he'd come here, talk about how he's really a good guy and Iran's a paradise and someone will believe him. No one, seriously, from what I can tell, thought Kruschev would be convincing, win people over to Communism, anything like that. What we don't trust, right now... is each other. And that strikes me as a far more dangerous and depressing state of affairs than our loss of standing in the world.

I think the point, though, is that Iraq can't be what conservatives want it to be, and they're beginning (only beginning) to realize it... but they can't let go of blaming us for the faiure. What worries me is that I think the left is nervous about taking this head on - about calling this fear of Americans on the right for what it is. And I think as long as we try to pretend it's not there, it just festers and gets worse. Until we deal with this perception directly, we can't really take it apart and try to reset our expectations of each other. Losing standing in the world is in some ways a by-product of that, which is why I think it needs to get fixed first.

Posted by: weboy | Sep 26, 2007 6:20:33 AM

Um, El, the Soviet Union wasn't run by reasonable people with reasonable beliefs. Religious fanatics aren't the only nutjobs, as believing that you have the dynamics of history on your side apparently induces the same type of delusion.

And, yes, Iran held US hostages in 1979. We then sold them weapons to fight Iraq during the 1980s.

The Soviets gave military aid to the North Koreans during the Korean war, and to North Vietnam during the Vietnam war. Any doubt---at all---that Soviet weapons killed Americans during those wars? Not just some, but a lot? Not to mention when they shot down the spyplane. There's much more conclusive proof then than now against Iran.

Posted by: JoshA | Sep 26, 2007 6:24:54 AM

A lot of things have changed since 1959, and Iran isn't the USSR, so it is probably silly to focus on one thing, but I believe people in 1959 had confidence that the "American Way" was right (in many senses) which most people probably no longer have. Global unpopularity may well be part of that, but lots of things have happened since then to shake that faith.

From there, I think the argument is sound--less confidence leads to more posturing.

Posted by: matt wilbert | Sep 26, 2007 7:23:43 AM

There's also an element of Greatest Generation envy.

Threats must be magnified to the level of those posed by Hitler and Stalin, no matter how improbable the results -- cf Iraq -- otherwise those confronting the threats are not themselves magnified. Call it the Valiant Little Tailor Syndrome.

. Who here believes that Iran will not lob one on Tel Aviv if given half a chance?

Me. Israel has a survivable, submarine-launched nuclear second-strike capability, and a proven reputation for ruthlessness. And as El Pendejo points out, religious states are notoriously unreliable and irrational.

Posted by: Davis X. Machina | Sep 26, 2007 8:09:58 AM

i remember the day kruschev came here.
it was a long time ago.
i was in the school auditorium, and the principal announced that kruschev had arrived at the united nations. it was an important day.
this post made me think about the changes.

i believe we were a more humble nation at that time.
for whatever it is worth today, there was more decorum.
...regardless of intent, people did have better manners and in the day-to-day, there was more civility.
....there was a greater sense of respect toward world leaders, whether we agreed with them or not.
it was a time when men actually gave up their seats to women on a bus, tipped their hats and women wore hats and gloves to go shopping downtown.
...perhaps this seems irrelevant, but it was a gentler time.
if you were invited into someone's home, there was often a home-baked cake, a filled candy dish and a cup of tea...our leaders treated visitors in the same way.
actually, no-one would have expected anything less from dwight and mamie eisenhower.

Posted by: jacqueline | Sep 26, 2007 9:05:11 AM

as i wrote that post, though, i remembered that while men would get up to give my mother a seat on the bus, african americans were still sitting in the back of the buses in the south.
....many things have changed.
but not enough.

Posted by: jacqueline | Sep 26, 2007 9:08:06 AM

Brooksfoe @4:12:51 nailed it.

Bush signaled how insecure this country was and to a disturbing degreee still is. Bush is not the merely cause of much that ails the US; he is more a negative catalyst and a symptom.

Posted by: Bragan | Sep 26, 2007 9:09:50 AM

There's a lot of talk about how we don't care about what other countries think, but like the kid repeating mantras of self-esteem in the corner of the playground, saying it doesn't make it true.

Well said. I've long had this image in my head of Bushian-America-as-brat, a defiant kid with his fingers stuck in his ears going, "La la la, I'm not LISTENING...". Whereas plenty of people are listening, or at least absorbing, what's going on and what's being said around the world--how can one ignore the televised coverage, sparse though it may be, of Bush's visits abroad, almost all of which are met by throngs of protesters carrying anti-war signs, effigies, etc.? When I go to dinner with friends, one of whom is Iraqi, and the first topic of conversation begins with someone saying (to my friend Rashad), "I just want to say, I'm really, really sorry about the man in charge of our country right now, he doesn't represent me...", well, I think that's a good indication--albeit an anecdotal one--of the level of national distress about our position in contemporary geopolitics.

Posted by: litbrit | Sep 26, 2007 9:09:52 AM

I meant to say that the re-election of Bush in 2004 signaled how insecure this country was and to a disturbing degree still is.

Posted by: Bragan | Sep 26, 2007 9:11:08 AM

Is the reason we fear to negotiate with Iran because we believe that, when it comes down to it and we ask for an end to their nuclear program, they'll refuse, and the world will agree with them and not us?

I wouldn't go that far. Though I will say that if Bush decides that his last hoorah will involve attacking Iran, you will see US embassies around the world -- including friendly capitals -- getting the Tehran '78 treatment.

I think it comes down to something deeper and more primal, and it's one of Digby's big themes: the stuffed-pants swagger that can only conceive of toughness in terms of capacity to intimidate. In that context, unpopularity just reinforces the idea that more swagger is needed, because confidence is for pussies. weboy's right: this is machismo politics, where the Daddy party is deeply insecure, and has no-one to blame but itself.

*AND* I believe the fact that Iran held American hostages for 444 days may also have something to do with the distrust and hard feelings.

Ah, so it's another of those stupid, fuckwitted old grudges. Never mind that half of Iran's population wasn't even born at the time, nor that Iran was busily unseating its own dictatorship. But then again, that's such a formative moment for the conservative movement it's understandable they cling to it like a child's safety blanket.

On the CBC this morning, you had Peter Galbraith and good-riddance Canuck David Frum, who should really have jumped in the sea after coming up with the whole 'Axis of Evil' idiocy. Galbraith noted that the Swiss ambassador in Tehran received a set of proposals, and that BushCo wouldn't 'negotiate with evil'.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Sep 26, 2007 9:16:08 AM

El -

I'm not sure how old you are - maybe you lived through the insanity of the Cold War days or maybe you didn't - but the leaders in Iran don't look any crazier to me than the Soviet leadership did back in the day.

In fact, Iran looks a heckuva lot less crazy in a lot of ways. Their society seems to be a bit more open, for one thing, and their citizens seem to know what's going on in the world. The citizens there are also fairly well off, unlike the average Soviet citizen, and therefore have much more to lose. Soviet society was much more geared towards militarization than Iranian society seems to be - heck, the Iranians still allow their students and university professors to somewhat openly criticize their government policies - something that would have been unheard of from anyone living in the USSR.

No, I was much more terrified of the Soviets deciding to go for broke than I am the Iranians. The people of Iran are actually mostly sick of their leadership and really want change. We screwed up some really good chances to encourage that in the late 90's and early '00 era - especially when they reached out to us post-9/11. After we snubbed them, the clerics were able to re-assert their power, kicked out the reformers, and got hardliners like Ahmadinejad into power. But the people don't like him for the most part and they still want reform. If we didn't keep rattling sabers towards Iran, and we didn't have chaos roiling right next door in Iraq, the people of Iran might be less scared of us and more willing to speak out again (as they were in the 90s when things were relatively calm in the Mid-East).

Posted by: NonyNony | Sep 26, 2007 9:17:40 AM

Great post, and Perlstein is awesome.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Sep 26, 2007 9:29:59 AM

"maybe you lived through the insanity of the cold war days"

monthly air raid drills in case of attack:
the school sirens would go off in our public school, and all of the classes would line up, single file into the hall.
we would all take a space against the wall, cover our faces with our right hands, close our eyes and put our heads against the wall...sirens blaring.

we didnt know if we would turn into glowing skeletons, or what would happen to us. but the air raids were pretty scary.


Posted by: jacqueline | Sep 26, 2007 9:33:40 AM

the stuffed-pants swagger that can only conceive of toughness in terms of capacity to intimidate.

Along with that is having ever interaction, every statement, every move be perceived through the lens of whether someone "wins" or "loses." Like, we can't allow Ahmadinejad to speak at Columbia because that would allow him to "win." Or we can't come up with some sort of arrangement in Iraq because they might benefit, allowing them to "win" and thus meaning that we will "lose."

It's a bunch of social preening that should be limited to high school students and investment bankers.

Posted by: Tyro | Sep 26, 2007 9:43:10 AM

jacqueline, my Mum remembers a big scare in the early 60's when the Soviets did some sort of nuclear testing and a cloud of strontium (sp?) floated over northern Europe--there was fear that the grass would be radioactive, and thus the cows' milk would harm the babies and children, so mothers were required to go to health centers to get special government-supplied canned milk for their babies (like me) until the scare was over and the cows all tested clean.

I can't even imagine living through something like that with my boys.

Posted by: litbrit | Sep 26, 2007 10:07:12 AM

litbrit...

the canned milk must have worked fine.
look how well you have turned out!
much to all of our good fortune!

Posted by: jacqueline | Sep 26, 2007 10:11:20 AM

It's not social preening. It's Social Dominance Orientation.

Posted by: Chris | Sep 26, 2007 10:41:18 AM

Was this before or after, or during, the speech he had at the U.N. where he banged his shoe and embarrassed his country?

Posted by: Brian | Sep 26, 2007 11:02:50 AM

Chris, that's an incredibly interesting (if rather massive) PDF, which I've only had time to scan but which would appear to explain a lot about our current, ah, leadership. From which book is it excerpted? I'd be interested in reading the whole thing. Thanks.

Posted by: litbrit | Sep 26, 2007 11:23:53 AM

litbrit: I believe the document is posted on the site for the book. Maybe if you delete the document name from the Uniform Resource Locator, it will bring you to that site.

Sorry for the stilted explanation, but the stupid spam filter seems to be dumping on me.

Posted by: Meh | Sep 26, 2007 12:11:35 PM

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