tv History and Policy Makers CSPAN March 28, 2015 2:39pm-4:01pm EDT
>> you are watching american history tv, all weekend every weekend on c-span3. to join the conversation, like us on facebook at c-span history. on american history tv, cornell university history professor fred logevall talks about how policymakers use and misuse the past. he cites a number of analogies and how they have been used by contemporary policymakers including neville chamberlain's pre-world war ii appeasement policies and the vietnam war. southern methodist university hosted this event. it is about 80 minutes. host: my main purpose is to introduce you to professor fred logevall, a professor of history at cornell university and the vice provost for international affairs. he is those things but much more. those further attributes are the reasons why you're here tonight,
here to listen to one of the truly great minds working the field of history today. let me be more specific when i call fred one of the truly great historians of our day. he is in my opinion -- and i am biased but i have the microphone -- nothing less than a foremost historian of vietnam working in the country today. vietnam, of course, vietnam that word which has come to mean so much in american society. it means a war, an era, a period when the united states was perhaps ripped apart at the seams internally more than any other time in recent memory. it is a moment and bloodshed seemed endemic. vietnam looms large over the field of american contemporary history. there are three basic types of
american historians. those who study the civil war. those who study the vietnam war. and then there is everybody else. to be at the peak of one of these three pinnacles i think is no mean thing and no small feat. let me tell you why i think fred is there. because he asks and answers not only the questions of what happened but why. why the united states intervened in vietnam an intervention that colors so much of the johnson president. why france returned to vietnam after world war ii and why a series of american president despite the rhetoric of the decolonization and sovereignty why a series of presidents , continued to support the mission of reestablishing colonial rule in vietnam. and why, and this is of course the topic he will address this evening, why history itself loom so large over the oval office.
and what the history means for the president of have to make decisions that -- affect the world. fred is the author of numerous works in the recipient of numerous prizes, including the pulitzer. he is a gifted educator. he is also an inspiring lecturer. let me add, he is also a dear friend and a mentor to a generation of rising diplomatic historians. it is a great honor to have known fred logevall before he was fred logevall. [laughter] thus, it gives me great pleasure to welcome him to the podium. please join me in welcoming professor fred logevall. [applause] professor fred logevall: jeff, you are much too kind. please join me in welcoming and that was more of an introduction and i should've received but i will accept it with gratitude. i am just very pleased to be here this evening and to have an opportunity at smu to share a
few thoughts with you, to talk a little bit about presidents and their use of history. before i do, i want to express a special thanks to everybody involved in making this happen to the university and a special thanks to jeff engle. all you know that jeff is the director of the center for presidential history here. he is also on the faculty in the history department at smu. what some of you may not know is that he is a leading historian of u.s. foreign relations history. and is at work on a book that i think is going to be profoundly important -- a study of george h.w. bush and the end of the cold war. we now have the requisite amount of archival source material, interview transcripts and a range of other bodies of evidence where we can do that subject justice.
so jeff's book is already much-anticipated. i look forward to seeing between two covers before too long. thank you for having me come. when jeff and i talked about the topic for this evening some months ago, the united states was in the midst of a crisis that arguably still exists in ukraine and crimea. countless analysts analogized that situation to crises in the past. in particular to munich, 1938, in which the attempt to accommodate hitler, to appease him, only invited and guaranteed more aggression. in the same way, the commentator said a few months ago -- some are still saying -- president
obama's inaction in the face of vladimir putin's efforts amounts to naïve and dangerous appeasement. it is munich all over again. according to these analysts. in fact, this crisis continues. today, we could read the ukrainian and russian forces are battling it out in the eastern part of ukraine. i think we are going to continue to have this debate. other analysts, meanwhile, who were skeptics regarding a vigorous american response in the crisis invoked other historical examples. hungary 1956. czechoslovakia 1968. urging president obama to follow the lead of dwight eisenhower and lyndon johnson who chose not to respond with force to aggressive soviet actions in those two countries.
so, perhaps what i should do with the outset is to say that i'm grateful to vladimir putin and barack obama for giving my talk this evening special contemporary resonance. what i want to do and by the way, i want to make sure we have time for discussion, because it is key for me at least during these encounters to get a chance to interact with my audience. i want to make sure we do that. i will cast a glance at my watch. but i want to talk today about history and its uses by leaders, in particular american presidents. a lot of what i am going to say this evening can be applied to decision-makers in other countries as well, but the focus in particular will be on american president. along the way, i want to probe
deeper questions about we can and cannot learn from a careful study of the past and what utility that knowledge has for the pressing issues of our day. now, as a student of u.s. foreign policy, i have long been fascinated by, confounded by this interaction between history and decision-making. especially at the presidential level. fascinated by it. because, by this process, the past becomes a kind of partner in the making of new history. so that is the part i find especially fascinated. but i'm also confounded by it because the role of history in this process remains both ambiguous and hard to fully comprehend. it remains perplexing. why? well, it is ambiguous because when you think about it, all thought which leads to decision
of public policy is in essence historical. public decisions in contemporary politics or more distance politics implies a guess about the future derived from the experience of the past. it implies an expectation or some might say a hope that certain actions tomorrow will produce the same kinds of results or similar actions produced in history. this guess about the future may be based on a copper has a -- comprehensive theory of historical change, as with. marxism. or based on specific analogies -- and i'm going to talk about analogies drawn from the past. or as a third possibility, it could be based on a more intuitive sense, an unstated sense of the way things ought to happen and typically do happen.
but whatever it is based on, i think it involves either explicitly or implicitly historical judgment. history is bound to be utilized. so, that is why a think there is ambiguity. it's perplexing to go to the other word i use, it's perplexing because when explicit historical judgments intervened, you immediately encounter a question, which is very, very hard to answer. even with full access to official documentation in the archives. and of course, jeff and i and others, historians, depend on access and use of archives. that is our bread and butter. but even when you have that full documentation, you face the following question -- is the history that is invoked in the documents, is the history invoked really the source of the
policy, or is it more the source of arguments designed to vindicate policies made for other reasons? policies adopted for antecedent reasons. derived from other perspectives. in other words, is history just being used to justify something you decided to do for some other reason? that's a very important question that i struggle with my own work. an example could be the bush administration's invocation. the bush and ministrations -- administrations use of munich, reference in munich in the lead up to the invasion of iraq in 2003. could it be the bush team invoked munich not because it believes that saddam hussein was another hitler, but because it thought referencing hitler referencing the nazi, would help
close the deal with the populace, would cut off debate in congress, would reduce the matter to a satisfyingly clear danger between evil in the form of saddam hussein and good in the form of the united states. moreover, even when history is the source of the policy, the lessons of history are often hard to fully pin down. they themselves can be ambiguous. and therefore, the antecedent reasons often determine the choice between alternative historical interpretations. so, for example, france between the wars. this'll be my one reference to a non-us situation. in france, some senior french leaders through one set of
lessons from world war i, while another set of leaders drew another set of lessons. so history is the source of the policy, but there are differences about how to interpret that history. however, having said all of this, the cynical approach which dismisses the flexion of history in public policy to that of near rationalization i think is insufficient. because historical models often acquire a life of their own. once a president, shall we say or a national security advisory for secretary of state begins to identify the present with the past, he or she may in time be carried away with take that analogy farther than she had planned to. she is -- a victim of the allure of the analogy.
i will explain this a bit more as i proceed. so i want to focus on this. i want to consider why presidents are so often captivated by analogy. why indeed we all are. it is in some degree built into us as human beings. there is a deep-seated human desire to believe or maybe in a something to believe that if the thing worked once, it will work again. or if a thing brought disaster in the past, it's also going to bring disaster the next time around. i want to suggest, ladies and gentlemen, that it's imperative we understand both the limits and the utility of analogies in history. in other words, both what they can give us and what they cannot. and to guard against what has been called the suffocating power of the lessons that we
carry around, or the lessons we carry around in our heads. note what i am not saying here. i'm not saying we should embrace the kind of historical nihilism, meaning the active forgetting of past episodes. like many academic historians, i will confess i'm skeptical about the success of history as a means of prediction. i understand, i think like most of the historians in this room that historical -- confers no automatic wisdom, alas, in the realm of public affairs. i wish it did, but i am not sure it does. for me, history is in many respects its own reward. i love as an historian to be able to study the past for the intellectual for it brings me, hopefully also the reader. for the aesthetic for film and the historical study brings.
i find in the disciplined effort to reconstruct and interpret the past just a marvelous opportunity for those who do it to consider both humanity's heroism and foolishness. but that is not the only reason why i do what i do. i do see. here i would be interested to see if historians agree or disagree. i do think, i want to say that what i do has the utilitarian purpose. because i do think that history can help us better understand the present and foresee the future. it is our collective memory. just like a person who suffers from amnesia would have a difficult time knowing where she is and how she has gotten to
where she is, unless she is told and then she would forget it again. so, society in this case, the united states needs to understand its history. it can help us to better figure out where we are and where we are going. history repeats itself enough to make at least some historical generalizations possible. and because generalization sufficiently interconnected can generate insight into the likely shape of things to come. mark twain famously said this, "if history never repeats itself, sometimes it rhymes." now, again, i think i'm probably on shaky ground with some professional historians in the
room, perhaps jeff can set me straight. some professional historians certainly some historians elsewhere, will say on that contrary, fred, history teaches nothing. they would agree perhaps with a great french historian, i'm not sure he would endorse that notion completely but he said this -- that for the historian, it is all about "the thrill of learning singular things." that's marc blanc. i get that. it's true it is precisely the commitment to reconstruction against abstract generalization that distinguishes history from the social sciences. yet, i want to suggest it seems silly to insist that no generalization is possible.
as the disinterested storing of france -- brinton once put it. "the doctrine of absolute -- the doctrine of the absolute uniqueness of events in history seems nonsense." or the great yale historian john lewis gattis is correct when he reminds us that theory is ultimately generalization and without generalization historians would have nothing whatever to say. the very words we use to generalize complex realities -- this is again, john gattis -- words like past, present and future, we cannot do without them as historians. and i think he is right about that. the key. again, i will spend a few minutes comparing what we as historians do with what social scientists might. the approach they might take. i think we historians tend to embed our generalizations within our narratives.
we draw, we're theoretical, but we draw upon whatever theories we can find to help a show how past processes, past developers, past events produced the present situation. explanation is our chief priority as the stories -- as historians. we are interested in what is general in the unique. social scientists tend to do the reverse. they will implant their narratives within generalizations. what they want to do is they what they want to do is they want to prove a hypothesis or, as the case may be, disprove a hypothesis. that makes narration for many social scientists secondary to that task. the theory comes first.
whereas for historians, it is generalization lost within time versus generalizations for all time. so, to use an example that is close to my heart, historians will generalize about ho chi min's revolution but all revolutions. they tend to be narrower in their resort to generalization. i'll come back to ho chi min in a few minutes. we tend to reject what has been called the doctrine of immaculate causation which seems to be implied the idea that you can identify a single cause, identify an independent variable. we historians tend to find
monocausal history as unsatisfactory in terms of excavation. historians tend to have a weblike sense of reality everything connects. that can be frustrating to social scientist when we have discussions together. i also believe personally that it's important for historians to create causal hierarchies. it is not enough to simply say everything connects. i believe as a historian of decision-making that i need to prevent -- produce a ranked order of causes. with lyndon johnson in vietnam in 1965, what i have tried to do in some of my work is to say ok, johnson chose to make vietnam a large scale war in 1965. how do i explain that? i decided mono causal history will not be enough. i have got to produce this ranked order.
most historians are prepared to acknowledge tendencies and patterns. they except the proposition that historical generalizations and a number of areas, for example the processes of economic development, the impact of industrialization and urbanization, the effect of sea power on international affairs can serve to increase the wisdom of policymaking, giving perspective and depth to her responses to the crises of the presence and giving her a better sense of the likely direction of events. i think more than anything it is this that history brings. what i tell students at cornell and elsewhere and parents of history, why study history? i often say that what history can show, history can help us to see patterns. history can help us to see patterns. and i think that is very useful including to policymakers.
secondly, an understanding of history and the study of history can help us understand that not everything is new under the sun. so, when commentators, when journalists tell us this is unprecedented, we've never seen something like this before. students of history, and this is not just professors but those of us who read the past and study the past can say, wait a minute. maybe this is unprecedented. maybe not. the result of all this is i would suggest historical insight. that is, a sense of what is probable in human affairs derived from a feeling for the continuity and discontinuity of the human condition. it's not a deterministic approach, seeking scientific certainty.
i think this is where the marxists went off the rails. a deterministic view in which fixed causes produce results and humankind moves along a certain predestined path to a predestined conclusion. it's not a rigid system. it is not an absolute system of historical interpretation. but it can be, it can give us historical insight. now, if you are with me to this point, and i hope you are, you may be asking yourself, what is the problem? well, the problem is that even under this more supple approach i am trying to lay out for you here, in which we invoke history as an analogy but not as theology, even then a certain a fatalism can set and the logic
of the historical analogy can seem all-powerful, inescapable. and the reality is this -- as a rule, policymakers tend to use these analogies badly. when resorting to an analogy presidents and their advisors -- keeping this focused on the united states for the moment although we could extend it more broadly -- they tend to seize a hold of the very first analogy that comes to mind. they tend to not search more widely for other potential analogies. they tend not to test its applicability or ask how this analogizing could mislead. ernest may established this many
years ago. some decades ago, he established again the policymakers tend to use analogies badly. his harvard colleague richard neustadt did this as well. they did some of this very important work together. there is also a crucial reinforcing phenomena in work in that the first analogy comes to mind is often one that others have trumpeted. that is why you think of it. which now gets reasserted. the result can be thinking that is constricted, that is choked off, and does not consider these broader possibilities. i think i would also suggest the following -- that for american presidents, who again are my main concern, history appears as a negative rather than a positive model. it's telling them what they should not be doing, than what they should be doing, whatever it is they are focusing on at the moment.
and no negative example has loomed larger and policymakers mines over the past 3/4 of a century than munich 1938. i want to linger a few minutes on munich, and talk a little bit about vietnam before i wrap up. here is the capsule history of munich. in that year of 1938, with the world on the bank of war british prime minister neville chamberlain sought to find a way out of the crisis by meeting with eight of history on the german -- by meeting with hitler at munich, the nerve center of the nazi party. there neville chamberlain made his pact with the devil. together with his french and italian counterparts, he agreed to let hitler annex a large chunk of czechoslovakia in return for a pledge of peace.
and chamberlain returned to england to a hero's welcome. carrying his signature umbrella. and waving the munich agreement in his hands, he proclaimed that his policy of appeasement had produced peace for our time. less than a year later, europe was at war. although the united states was not in agreement -- was not a party to the 1938 agreement, americans would access over munich from that day to the present. for over seven decades, munich and appeasement would be among the dirtiest words in the american political lexicon.
they are really political four letter words. to americans, the terms are synonymous with weakness implying a craven willingness to barter away a nation possible vital interests for empty promises. but certainly, in the minds of most historians, munich was a major mistake. even one that, in the context of its time, had a certain logic. there has been a swing in historical interpretations in this regard, at least to some degree, looking at the context and the poor set of choices that chamberlain in particular had. still, the take away for most later observers and historians was that appeasement of a highly wound up and heavily armed totalitarian state, in the context of a relatively firm and articulated continual
equilibrium of power, was likely to upset the balance and make further aggression likely, perhaps inevitable. but, when considering the munich accord and its legacy, we would also do well to remember that franklin roosevelt initially greeted the signing of the agreement with calmness, even relief. and we should note that hitler was infuriated by the agreement. like many informed americans and europeans, roosevelt suspected that britain and france were not ready for war at the time. he knew that the american public had no desire to be drawn into another european conflict. fdr responded by cabling
chamberlain the words, "good man," even as he privately knowledged that the englishman was taking very long chances. hitler wanted war in 1938. he was angry that he allowed himself to be maneuvered into a diplomatic agreement. the deal bought the democracies time. hitler understood, and it stood in the way of his ambitions. for chamberlain, munich represented a tactical victory of sorts. it provided britain with a way to build strength in preparation for the showdown that was to come with this juggernaut, the nazis. when the war came the following year, the not see -- the nazi invasion of poland came in 1939, when that war began, munich became a symbol of diplomatic naïveté. by the time chamberlain died in 1940, his reputation was in
tatters. he said, few men can have known such a tremendous reverse of fortune in so short a time. he said that not long before his death. the point for us this evening, is that u.s. policymakers henceforth would come to see all instances of potential compromise with adversaries as another munich, evidence of appeasement. to americans, chamberlain showed only a kind of gutless willingness to bargain away the nation's vital interests for empty promises. it was but a short step from that belief on the part of americans, to concluding that even to negotiate with an adversary, that is, merely to with an adversary, to say
-- to talk with an adversary, to say nothing of making mutual concessions, to merely talk to an adversary is to appease, and thereby, to invite catastrophe. to see the problem with this kind of thinking, we can actually look to the great contemporary of -- critic, i should say, winston churchill, who would succeed chamberlain as prime minister and was widely considered, not least in this country, as one of the great statesmen of his age or any age. in his multivolume history of world war ii, churchill wrote, those who are prone by temperament and character to seek sharp and clear cut solutions of difficult and obscure problems, who are ready to fight whenever some challenge comes from a foreign power, have not always been right.
on the other hand, those whose inclination is to bow their heads, to seek patiently and faithfully for peaceful compromise are not always wrong. on the contrary, in the majority of instances, they may be right. not only morally, but from a practical standpoint. diplomacy, churchill suggests, is often the way to go. talking with adversaries is the way to go. 16 years after munich, when president eisenhower invoked the munich analogy to persuade the british to join the americans in bolstering the faltering french war effort in indochina, and i argue in my most recent book that eisenhower came closer to military intervention to save the french position than is often suggested, and that it is
the british who ultimately kept them from doing so, when eisenhower tried to get the british to come along, churchill, then prime minister was unimpressed. churchill explicitly rejected the munich analogy. this, parenthetically, did not prevent churchill's successor, anthony eden, from seeing egypt's leader and the middle east in terms of 1938 and committing his nation to the suez disaster. eden would invoke the munich analogy. but, churchill refused it. commenting on this episode, and others like it, the historian and presidential aide arthur schlesinger, who has written perceptibly about some of the things i am talking about, schlesinger wrote that they
illustrate that -- depressing part -- persistence of the mentality that makes policy from stereotypes through historical generalization wrenched illegitimately out of the past and enclosed mechanistically in the future. un-quote. that is arthur schlesinger. he wrote this in the mid-1960's. i don't think he had any idea -- he couldn't have had any idea how depressingly persistent it would become. which churchill understood. i believe he understood, that no case can be judged apart from individual circumstances. no case can be judged apart from individual circumstances. this is why reasoning by analogy is potentially so problematic. there is a president who i believe understood this more than any -- certainly, any in
recent history. that is john f. kennedy. in the aftermath of the cuban missile crisis in 1962, kennedy privately expressed the fear that people would conclude from his victory that all the united states would have to do thereafter in dealing with the communists was to be tough and that they would collapse. this, kennedy said, was not true. for kennedy, the missile crisis had three features. one, it took place in a area in which the u.s. enjoyed local superiority. two, it took place in an area where the soviet national security was not directly engaged. three, it took place where the russians lacked a case which they could convincingly sustain to the world. things would be different, kennedy said, if the situation were one in which moscow had
local superiority, where russia's national security was trickling gauge, and where russia could persuade others that they were in the right. this is kennedy. even with the success in the missile crisis, kennedy endured republican attacks for his decision to negotiate with the soviet leader during and after the crisis. kennedy's vice president, lyndon johnson, pay close attention. fearful of appearing soft on national security, johnson repeatedly invoked the munich analogy to defend his administration's commitment to bolstering south vietnam. when he announced, johnson, when johnson announced the escalation of the u.s. amendment in vietnam in 1965, he referred confidently to history. this is johnson, 1965. we learned from hitler at munich that success only feeds the appetite for aggression.
the battle would be renewed in one country, then another, bringing with it even larger and crueler conflicts as we have learned from the lessons of history. that is lyndon johnson. parenthetically, let me ask and answer parenthetically, did this historical explanation drive johnson's decision to escalate the war? i don't think so. i will come back to that in a moment. in terms of justifying it, in terms of explaining it to the american people, in the middle of 1965, it mattered a great deal. as the war in vietnam dragged on, johnson's's reading of the past would be questioned. with over half a million men on the ground, and overwhelming
firepower being used. it stressed the futility of force. the ghosts of munich had to contend with the ghosts of vietnam. i am sometimes reminded when i think of the limits of historical analogy, and here is mark twain again, twain's vivid quote following the equator, this is twain. we should be careful to get out of and experience only the wisdom that is in it, and stop there. lest we be like the cat, that sits on a hot stove lid. she will never sit down on a hot stove lid again. that is all well. but also, she will never sit down on a cold one.
analogizing across time and space is a fraught proposition ladies and gentlemen. munich, 1938, was munich, 1938. it was not suez, 1956. or, hanoi, 1965, or baghdad, 2003, or damascus, 2015. the adversaries in these cases were real, but they were not hitler. the unique challenge of the nazi leader demanded that he be stopped and his regime be destroyed. but it won't do to stop there. i will go for a few more minutes. it won't do to stop there. within a certain geographical and temporal context, the wise leader can nevertheless, notwithstanding what i've just
said, i think the wise leader can fruitfully generalize from past experience. but, in order to do so, he or she needs to seek alternative analogies and parallels. instead of merely projecting a trend, he or she can investigate the forces that produced those other analogies, or that's trend, and ask whether those forces will persist in the present case. in my recent book that jeff mentioned, "embers of war," i concluded that u.s. officials in the late 1950's and early 1960's should have learned from the french experience in trying to subdue ho chi minh's revolution in vietnam, it turns out that a great many of the problems of the americans encountered in vietnam had been endured before by the french. so, concerns, for example, about the dedication and the fighting skill of our vietnamese allies as opposed to our vietnamese
adversaries, concerns about the committed nets of politicians at home. worries about whether or not support could be sustained over the long term. a disinclination to negotiate, find a negotiated solution out of the war. so many of the problems the americans encountered had been experienced before them by the french. and yet, american leaders for a long time convinced themselves that these similarities between the french experience and their own, were not really there. the french, after all, were colonialists. they are just trying to prop up their imperial system. we are not. we are americans. this time, with us there, the vietnamese have something to fight for. and the kind of cupidity and
fence sitting that the french had to endure with respect to their vain enemies allies, we will not have that problem. now, we are here to help the vietnamese in their hour of need, do defend freedom, and then we will go home. that is the american argument. we are the united states, we are the champion of freedom, the engine in the global drive to stamp out communist expansion. that is what we are doing. that is the american argument about their involvement. this was, i submit to you this evening, most -- mostly self-delusion. it turns out that france's war was also america's war. the u.s. supplied most of the weaponry, the u.s. bankrolled the war effort after the french
tired of the war, and sought a way out through negotiations, it was the americans that pushed french leaders to stay in. by the end, the u.s. and leaders more committed to the french war then were the french themselves. long before the end of the french war, ho chi minh and his colleagues consider the u.s. not france, to be the principal foe. i mentioned a moment ago churchill's claim that each case, that individual circumstances have to be considered in each and every case. and i do think john f. kennedy to come back to kennedy, understood this perhaps better than anyone else, certainly of his own era. indochina presents an interesting case here. kennedy's indochina doubts were formed early, and it is the
nature of those doubts i want to draw your attention to hear briefly this evening. he saw through, kennedy did. he went to indochina in the 1950's as a congressman with his brother and their sister. he saw, he questioned, whether france, or by extension any western power, could succeed in subduing ho chi minh's nationalist revolution. the doubts he exhibited on that initial trip in 1951, i don't think, ever went away, even after he begat -- became president a decade later. he showed, as president, a willingness to consider multiple analogies, not simply the first one that came to mind. during the cuban missile crisis, he thought not only of pearl harbor, the surprise japanese attack it led to world war ii, he also considered past european crises including the slide into
world war i. kennedy had just read "the guns of august," and he took away from reading that, that giving way to pressures within one's government can lead you into a catastrophic situation. from time to time, kennedy, as president and as senator expressed doubts about the ability of the west to use military means to solve asian and african problems that were at their roots, political in nature. on several occasions, notably in the fall of 1961, kennedy resisted advisors's call for committing u.s. ground forces to vietnam. and always, always for kennedy the french experience gnawed at his sensibility.
when he invited -- confided to in age early in his presidency if vietnam were ever converted into a white man's war, we would lose it just as the french lost it. in 1957 before you -- before he became president, on the subject of algeria, in arguing for a cautious american approach that would ultimately be supportive of decolonization, he said on the floor of the senate, the most powerful single force in the world today is not communism, or capitalism. neither the hydrogen bomb nor the guided missile. it is man's eternal desire to be free and independent. but here is the paradox. here's the paradox with jfk and vietnam. this same kennedy, deep in u.s. involvement -- deepened u.s.
involvement in vietnam during his presidency. in major american increase in 1962, terms of support for the south vietnamese government, a lot of american military advisers flew into the country some of those were authorized to take part in combat. how do we counter this? i think we account for this by looking at domestic politics. ultimately, kennedy and johnson, and later next in, found what a long line of french leaders had found before them. in vietnam, the path of least immediate resistance, especially in domestic political terms, was to stand firm in the hope, and hope it -- was all it was, that things would turn out fine or be handed off to the successor. i want to conclude and i will do so by making two points. first, presidents who have broken free of the suffering -- suffocating power of the munich analogy have achieved success.
contrary to much prevailing sentiment today, since the 1930's, the success or failure of american foreign-policy has been to a great extent hinged on the willingness of the president to withstand the inevitable charges of appeasement that accompany any decision to negotiate with hostile powers and to pursue the nation's interests through this -- diplomacy. diplomacy, that is to say, can be a very powerful weapon in the arsenal of an american president. sometimes, those negotiation efforts fail. sometimes, success was of marginal utility. i don't want to over-promise what diplomacy can bring. but, those presidents who have braved the munich bugaboo produced some of the most important breakthroughs in american foreign-policy.
ronald reagan and his negotiations with gorbachev, especially in his second term. those who didn't, those presidents who did not take that opportunity, begat some of the nation's most enduring tragedies. vietnam is the one that is closest to my heart. the disinclination of successive american administrations to engage in active negotiations, and before that, to counsel the french to negotiate with ho chi minh and his colleagues, seems to me was ill-advised, to say the least. barack obama, i think, understands the diplomacy is potentially a very powerful tool. since election, he has expressed the conviction that by engaging rationally and persuasively with adversaries, one can achieve results that enhance american
security. that is the first point i wish to make. the second, i do not want you to conclude this evening as we move to discussion, that what i have presented here is an argument against knowledge of history. i hopefully already made this point, but i want to underscore it. when i presented is a case -- a case against a superficial knowledge of history. a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and the more cursory our knowledge of history, the easier it becomes for people to draw in plastic lessons on the past. -- in plastic lessons from the past. all of us in this room, and certainly myself as well, for us as for our leaders, the antidote to a shallow knowledge of history is a deeper knowledge. the knowledge that produces not stubborn and unthinking a certitude, but perceptive, diagnostic skill.
not clairvoyance, but inside. a historical set -- study should make us less egocentric, should reveal how other humans have confronted problems in other times. it should enhance our capacity for empathy. which, i think, is key. it should expand our reservoir of experience, and as such, and hence freedom, stimulating creative imagination and lifting bonds, suggesting larger possibilities for us. on a societal level, history should enable us to escape short range perspectives and understand better the origins of the present, and should aid in the creation of a more intelligent future. never merely a book to be read or a series of articles to be digested, historical study is a process of entering into the past, a process that is often as important as the information we actually learn.
in this way, historical study should pull us away from self-centeredness, make us more aware of the likelihood of our actions, and necessary for a step in development of maturity and wisdom. just like living in a different country a different culture can make us better understand our own country, those of you who have spent time away from the u.s. know what i mean, and as a native of sweden, i certainly think i have insights in some ways into swedish society and swedish politics and culture from living outside sweden than i would if i were merely inside the country. in that way, immersing oneself in a different time, is history.
it helps one to transcend assumptions common to our age, to rise above what has been called the flux of temporal advancement. i like how the philosopher of history would put it, and i quote. knowing yourself means knowing what you can do. and since nobody knows what he can do until he tries, the only thing that man can do is what man has done. the value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done, and thus, what man is. i thank you. [applause]
moderator: as always, we have time for questions. i would ask you, after you identify yourself, allow the microphone to get to you. we want to make sure your words are left for future historians. i will leave it to you. dr. logevall: i will be like phil donahue with the mic here. yes, sir. >> i am mel cline. i will preface this by saying i am a lifelong democrat, but i do not march in lockstep. is tehran munich? is obama chamberlain? are the centrifuges czechoslovakia? is it inviting defeat to jaw jaw with the adversary as he builds
his arsenal? isn't appeasement anticipatory surrender? dr. logevall: my answer is to say, no. as i suggested earlier in the talk, munich 1938 is munich, 1938. this does not mean, however, that the threat with respect with tehran and nuclear weapons is not real. it does not mean that barack obama is wise to pursue negotiations with the irani and government. i happen to think it is the right policy for him to take at this time. of course, it mandates and requires that he and his advisers be very rigorous in those negotiations clear-sighted in what they wish to achieve. that i don't think the threat that tehran represents can be equated with the threat that
hitler presented to the u.s. and its allies in the 1930's. it doesn't rise to that level. >> you had mentioned that a lot of times, we need to be careful and temper our reactions in the public. i wonder, nowadays, it seems like with so much media and pictorial coverage immediately that we get from around the world, now it seems like a lot of the public reaction is very strong about the terrorists or the mideast problems, because we see what they are doing, and they are so her and us or atrocious and unspeakable in our own public view, that we often times want to react stronger and quicker without tempering, and without patience and negotiation.
is that more a thing of -- more a thing now than it was 100 years ago? dr. logevall: let me just push you a little bit. you are suggesting, you sense that this tendency is greater now than it was before? >> i am wondering, because it seems like a lot of the public sentiment that i see, a lot of the push for action that we see, is because of beheadings and slaughterings and things that are atrocities that we see now whereas, back in hitler's time we didn't even know about concentration camps and all of that until after the event. and, we were very slow, dragging our feet to get in. now, we are ready to jump on a missile and kill them all. dr. logevall: to some extent,
this may be true. but, you could also question that sentiment, in the sense that i think americans have not been by and large eager to jump on the next missile and respond to the isis threat with military action. i don't sense that john q citizen and jane q citizen feel strongly that barack obama must pursue greater, more vigorous military response in response to the beheadings, appalled though people were. there are certainly many especially on the republican side, there are many others on the current policy establishment in washington, who argue that case. but i'm not sure that people out in the country feel as strongly. i was interested when the syrian crisis seemed to reach a kind of crisis point, a little more than a year ago.
and, when the administration, as you may recall, seem to be going in the direction of having a major military intervention, one reason it didn't happen was because i think, not only was their skepticism in congress but i think it became clear that americans, more broadly, were not eager to pursue a military solution at that time, even though the administration seemed to advocate this. so, i guess i am not quite sure i would go where you are going. >> [inaudible] dr. logevall: i could be a minority of one in this room but i think, in many respects, it is a healthy thing.
i give barack obama some credit for shifting sentiment in this regard, that more americans are willing to support strenuous efforts at reaching political solutions to these problems. that is, pursue negotiations and to be more conscious of the ultimate limits of american military power. it isn't necessarily going to achieve what you want it to achieve. yes, right here? >> i'm a political scientist teaching at smu. my question, international relations. tells that leaders made the decision with uncertainty, according -- incomplete information problem.
do you think the deeper knowledge of history helps to solve, alleviate, incomplete information problem? do you think the deeper knowledge of history will help the leader to find the information from intelligence, more certain? dr. logevall: the obvious answer is, yes. a deeper understanding of history on the part of the president himself or herself and senior advisers, is going to help make up for that uncertainty and help to make them -- with the many better position to decide in the best course of action. but, as i suggested earlier, it is no guarantee. i have long since disabused myself of the notion that
historical knowledge is any kind of guarantee that, when the time comes, good decisions will be made. decisions that are best for the country. woodrow wilson was an historian. he made some good decisions, and some not so good decisions. that, as a generalization, if i understood the thrust of your question, there is no question that an appreciation for the this is in two of history -- the vicissitudes of history, and understanding of history, is invaluable. i think john f. kennedy had a sense of those vicissitudes. he had a deep it -- interest in. he cared about it. as far as his foreign policy goes, and he is the subject of my current research, in his
foreign policy, i give him pretty high marks, broadly speaking. yes, right here, sir. that's ok,, p or. >> my name is bonnie cobb. it seems to me that, looking at vietnam, you should look at afghanistan, because there is certainly a history of colonial powers, england and then russia, both unsuccessful. and so, we should have, i don't know if we looked at those two areas when we were considering going into vietnam. and also, there is the question, if you are going to negotiate, how you do it with all the tribes in the pashtun?
>> i think the afghanistan analogy was not one that american decision-makers considered with respect to vietnam. you mentioned vietnam. they looked to other historical examples. they might have looked to afghanistan, even in that instance. but more recently, in terms of america's intervention in afghanistan, there was ample reason to be skeptical in terms of what could actually be achieved. i think there was a pretty interesting analogy between the vietnam case and the afghanistan case. which is, that one of the lessons i take from the vietnam experience for the united states is that ultimately, it is about politics. ultimately, it is about having a government in saigon, and the american case, that has broad support among the people, that is able to do its part for its own defense, and that is not plagued by massive corruption. i think you could make the argument that vietnam in the
late 1960's is very much like afghanistan was recently, in terms of not having those conditions. this was something that the united states sort of failed to take from the vietnam case in considering how best to proceed in afghanistan. but you are right, the experience of afghanistan or historically -- more historically is one that should give paz to anyone you says that this will be something the united states, or any other power, can swiftly resolve. yes, sir. right here. >> [inaudible] iran and russia? dr. logevall: the simple answer
to this, and i'm not deeply familiar with the specifics of the agreement, that in terms of the broad outline, the obvious historical lesson i would draw from it is, one should be careful about anticipating that very much will come from it. and, that both sides, in reaching that agreement, and in terms of what we can expect going forward, will utilize the agreement -- that's not the right word, to the extent that they want to. but, more than that, yes, right here. >> john jackson. i went to a thing last night and i'm here tonight. one thing you have not spoken to that i wondered, you treat the
decisions of vietnam, for example, kind of unilaterally, if we had on those days, and even now, treaties out there that we would come to the aid of certain countries in the event of aggression or whatever. do you advocate treaties? if you go through the dilemma of should we or shouldn't we, you have this compelling thing, and isn't that a chance to pick up resignation if you don't follow through? dr. logevall: that is a fair point. the united states was a signatory to a treaty, the southeast asia treaty, and one could interpret that treaty with respect to vietnam. you could also make this point more broadly, with respect to your question, you could conclude from that that the u.s. had an obligation to intervene to defend south vietnam and ultimately, to make large-scale war in south vietnam.
the counterargument, which many in the administration actually made when the doors were closed, is that we have long since fulfilled our obligations to that treaty. we have long since demonstrated, both to the south vietnamese, to the north vietnamese, and to the broader international community, that we have supported this government, we have sustained it to a large degree, we have helped build it up, we have committed major resources to south vietnam. and now, it is up to the south vietnamese. we have done what we could, and we satisfied any terms of the treaty. for me, i don't think it drove johnson's decision.
escalated in 1964 and 65 because of the treaty. there are those who said we have already done this, mr. president. we have shown how committed we were to the cause. they are just not living up to their end of the bargain. as a broad generalization, i agree with you. it is something we have to consider. >> israel. are we stuck with israel going back to the time we helped create and they need our absolute support to help them survive? are we continually in that historical moment and not in the modern context for things that are happening in the israeli relations with the countries around them? dr. logevall: i would not say
that is true. i do think, if you look at the early years of the u.s.-israeli relationship, it was arguably quite close from the beginning. but the connection is not nearly as close as it has been in more recent times. if you were suggesting that we are still sort of living with the initial agreement in 1948, the late 40's and the 1950's, i don't think that is true. moreover, there is a compelling set of reasons, at least two supporters of the close relationship, that argue for maintaining it to the end -- the nth degree. some say it is a vital security interest of the united states to maintain close relations.
there is a powerful moral argument, that is made as to why the united states must maintain a relationship. but the historical ties, which is what you are referring to matter as well. this is a long-standing agreement, or set of agreements, and a long-standing alliance with the two countries. it continues to be extremely powerful. you don't hear much discussion about changing the basic parameters of that alliance. imo not sure if i quite got to the thrust of the question, but -- >> [inaudible] dr. logevall: i think that we could. i don't know necessarily the history, and the nature of that relationship, should and needs to determine what is -- what it
is now, and what it will be going forward. but, it is hard to know. one more question. this gentleman, right here. >> thank you. my name is paul. my name is paul. i am a fellow here with the tower center. i will try to be brief. i'm a social scientist, a historically minded social scientist. i consider myself that. moderator: so you are confused? >> i found what you said compelling. i want to push you a little bit on part of the thesis of, we need to understand the past, because resident of what happened and how it is similar and different to events of today. my question is, is there a way to convey that?
is there a skill set to convey to students and policymakers of how to do that better? or, is it just, well, realize history and think hard about it? [laughter] >> that is an excellent question. i think about this a lot actually. i would love afterwards, if you hear someone else, about how we can do this. i don't know that there is any substitute for learning about the past reading about it, , reflecting on it. i suppose, since there is an infinite amount of work that one could do, zeroing in on those areas that interest you the most, and that could have, if you are a decision-maker or somebody would buys his -- somebody who advises
decision-makers, zeroing in on those areas that might have the most utility for you in that regard. i do believe that what it can do, as nothing else can, is that it can help us see patterns, which i think is very helpful. not just in foreign policy, to domestic policymakers as well. not just national, but on state and visible levels. it can protect us against drawing straight lines through historical analogizing, and cause us to at least insist on looking at more analogies. i don't know that there is a substitute. i wish i could say, in response, the this is how you get there. moderator: let me offer a brief answer. it strikes me that the one thing that one is sure to draw from the study of history, no matter the topic, is that it serves as
an antidote for hubris. the one thing we learn from history is that smart people before us, who were probably smarter than we, but they have the right plan, and were wrong. consequently, what that does is teaches us whenever we think we have the right plan, we should take a step back and think about it some more. dr. logevall: but how does that -- [applause] but how does that go to paul's question? do we get that through any other means except through reading history? how do we get to that point? dr. engel: the way i would interpret the question, spinning the question to my liking, is to say that, as a policy maker, i am likely to be presented with solution -- situations that i'm not prepared for. but at least i will not be so eager to jump in with the analogies that i possess from other readings and from other
experiences into new situations if i recognize the people have done that in the past have usually been wrong. so taking further time to investigate the subject as best i can without simply saying, munich is helpful for europe but is it really helpful for afghanistan? or, southeast asia? or do i need to learn the history of afghanistan to make a better decision? dr. logevall: i know we are probably out of time, but let me say one other thing that i know is true about the study of history. history teaches that each of us has a birthday coming up. nothing is better for a birthday than a new book. i would remind you that once we finish thinking fred for this chat, there are copies of his book for sale in the lobby. it would make a fine birthday present.
christmas is coming up. [applause] dr. logevall: if you should read the book, i personally guarantee that you will not intervene in southeast asia at any time with military force. [laughter] it has been wonderful. i thank you for coming out on this evening and for being here, for listening, for your great questions. pleasure to be here. thank you. [applause] [captions copyright national cable satellite corp. 2015] >> you are watching american history tv, a weekend every weekend own c-span3. like us on facebook. >> this sunday, erik larson on his new book "good way," the crossing of the lusitania --
"dead wake," the last crossing of the lusitania. eric: why was the lusitania allowed to enter without escort and the detailed warning that could have been provided but was not. this has led to some very interesting speculation about was abusive essentially set up for it. the ship -- leadership essentially set up for it. i found no smoking memo and i would have found a smoking memo which is to say there was nothing from church oh two anybody -- churchhill two anybody saying let's let it get sunk. >> history