Why History Matters
For much of the 1950’s and 1960’s, this photo – Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin together at Yalta in February 1945 – served as the iconic evidence that hard headed, authoritarian Russian Communism rolled over idealistic western democracy at the end of World War II.
In the most popular narrative, largely unchanged for more than half a century, the Cold War started at Yalta and the U.S. and Britain were easily rolled by that cagey Commie Uncle Joe Stalin.
The truth, of course, is much more complicated, more nuanced, and much more important. A new book – Yalta – The Price of Peace – by Harvard historian S.M. Plokhy tells the nuanced story of Yalta and the account helps explain why the famous gathering in the Crimea was neither a victory nor a defeat for the west, but rather one step in the long march of history that helped shape the post-war world.
Sen. Joseph McCarthy and others exploited many of the myths about Yalta, including the notion that FDR was naive about dealing with the Russians and that somehow Churchill and Roosevelt should have been able to get a better outcome for Poland.
Plokhy’s research makes clear that FDR was far from naive. He went to Yalta to make a deal in the interest of getting Russian approval of his outline for the creation of the United Nations and, under intense pressure from his military advisers, to get Stalin to commit to joining the war in the Pacific against the Japanese. He accomplished both objectives. He also got agreement on post-war occupation of Germany and secured for the French, who Stalin wanted out of the picture, a major role in both the U.N. and western Europe. By contrast, neither Churchill nor FDR had much leverage over Stalin when it came to Poland, since, by early 1945, Red Army troops were occupying much of the country and would win the race to Berlin.
That is the history and the nuance, yet as recently as 2005, George W. Bush, choosing to read (or remember) history with an ideological bias, was declaring that Yalta led to some of “the greatest wrongs of history.” No word on what the former president thinks of Karl Rove’s new book that acknowledges no Bush-era culpability for American military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that’s another history lesson. Still, both cases – Yalta and the post-war and Iraq today – prove a fundamental truth: where there is no nuance, history gets distorted; where history is abused in the pursuit of ideological ends there can be no truth.
“History can help us be wise,” Margaret MacMillan, the Canadian historian, writes in her new book – Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuse of History. “It can also suggest to us what the likely outcome of our actions might be.”
MacMillan is the best kind of historian; a skilled researcher and a lively writer on the search for truth. Her last book – Paris 1919 – tells the story of the Versailles Treaty that ended World War I and helped set the stage for the next war. The book should be required reading for every American politician, since all seem to need to understand the rule of unintended consequences.
Ultimately, history is about trying to arrive at truth, which is why MacMillan tweaks Bush and Tony Blair for invoking Munich of the 1930’s to justify an invasion of Iraq in the 21st Century. But she is no ideologue, also pointing out that a “liberalizing” China is unwilling to deal with the legacy of Mao and that even normally circumspect, mild mannered Canada experienced a full-throated controversy in the 1990’s when a documentary suggested that there might be questions of morality associated with Canadian aircrews and their wartime strategic bombing of Germany.
I think Margaret MacMillan might agree that one of the profound challenges facing the American Republic is a deepening and profoundly troubling lack of understanding of our history coupled with the fact that history is ever more regularly twisted to suit some need to score immediate partisan politic points.
Frank Rich, writing in the New York Times over the weekend, made this fundamental point in a starkly effective way. Rich quotes a former Bush White House press secretary and the ever present Rudy Giuliani, as saying “we did not have a terrorist attack on our country during President Bush’s term.” Say what?
Obviously, this ultra selective “abuse” of history was rolled out in an effort to portray the current occupant of the White House as “soft or terrorism.” Barack Obama may or may not be soft on terrorism, but abusing the reality of recent history to make that case is beyond comprehension and should be labeled for what it is – a distortion or, if you prefer, a lie. As the old saying goes, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts, or their own history.
The recent race to raise America’s educational standing in math and science has generally meant a diminishment of teaching of what we normally call the humanities, most importantly history. I’m all for better math and science education, but I also know that too many Americans, as surveys and Jay Leno’s sidewalk interviews have shown us, don’t know much about their history.
No less an historian than two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough said a while back that the lack of knowledge about our history is jeopardizing our way of life.
We don’t all need to ponder the real impacts of Yalta in 1945 or know in detail the terms of the Paris peace conference in 1919, but we do need to know enough about our own history to call foul on those who would distort it. We can’t rely exclusively on historians to hold the ideologues of the right and the left to account for “abusing” history. Democracy doesn’t – or can’t – work that way.
If we fail to know enough of our history, or, as David McCullough has said, to “know who we are” or we misunderstand “how we became what we are, we’re going to start suffering from all the obvious detrimental effects of amnesia.”
That truly is a threat to our way of life.