History, Used and Abused

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.  

Munich was also produced as a justification for the Vietnam War and President Bush’s war of choice in Iraq. 1930’s appeasement – a word that elides diplomatic engagement and the rejection of military options – was said to remind us of what would happen if South Vietnam was not defended and Iraq not invaded.  We know what happened in both countries.