Margaret Scott

History, Used and Abused

Historical events are frequently used erroneously, if not tendentiously, to draw analogies to, and bolster support for, current foreign policies. But sometimes the analogies are correct, as is the case with the invocation of the Vietnam War-era "domino theory" to oppose abandoning the West's efforts in Afghanistan.

LONDON – In her brilliant book, “The Uses and Abuses of History” the historian Margaret Macmillan tells a story about two Americans discussing the atrocities of September 11, 2001. One draws an analogy with Pearl Harbor, Japan’s attack on the US in 1941. His friend has no idea as to what this means.  “You know,” the first man replies, “It was when the Vietnamese bombed the American fleet and started the Vietnam War.”

Historical memory is not always quite as bad as this.  But international politics and diplomacy are riddled with examples of bad and ill-considered precedents being used to justify foreign policy decisions, invariably leading to catastrophe.

Munich – the 1938 meeting between Adolf Hitler, Édouard Daladier, Neville Chamberlain, and Benito Mussolini – is a frequent witness summoned to court by politicians trying to argue the case for foreign adventures. Britain’s disastrous 1956 invasion of Egypt was talked about as though Gamal Nasser was a throw-back to the fascist dictators of the 1930’s. If he were to be appeased as they had been, the results would be catastrophic in the Middle East.  

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