IS OUR culture suffering from an excess of historical awareness? At first glance, it seems like an absurd question. Surveys have repeatedly revealed that when it comes to history, the American population is anything but well informed. According to a 2008 Common Core survey, more than half of American teenagers had no idea when the Civil War was fought, while a quarter believed Columbus came to the New World after 1750. In a video that deservedly went viral, Texas Tech undergraduates, interviewed at random in 2014, were unable to say which side won the Civil War, or from which country the United States gained its independence.
Besides, is it even possible to have too much historical awareness? Surely we can better face the challenges of our own time if we know as much as possible about the historical roots of these challenges, and about similar challenges in the past. For a professional historian like me, you would expect these propositions to be articles of faith.
In recent years, though, I have grown increasingly dispirited at the way certain historical references continue to dominate American political discourse, particularly on foreign affairs. The problem is not that the people who invoke these references get the history wrong (although they often do). It is that they get the present wrong, seeing it insistently through the prism of a history that has less and less relevance to the early twenty-first century. Indeed, even the vocabulary used to discuss foreign affairs—first and foremost the words “war” and “peace” themselves—comes freighted with historical meanings that are increasingly outdated and distracting. References that were already misleading a generation ago have become dangerously absurd. The putative lessons of history have become imprisoning, rather than enabling. In this sense, we really do suffer from an excess of it.
The history in question is, almost entirely, that of the World War II era, and this fact is hardly surprising. In these years the world experienced a spasm of violence and cruelty whose magnitude remains almost impossible to grasp. It included the Holocaust, the horrific aerial bombing of cities (including the atomic bombings), the cataclysmic losses suffered throughout Eurasia in World War II (as many as twenty-eight million victims in the Soviet Union alone) and an almost endless catalogue of other horrors. The United States faced one of the gravest threats in its history, and mobilized a greater percentage of its population for military service than in any conflict since the Civil War. While many scholars have described the Holocaust as a kind of collective trauma that still scars modern consciousness, the idea applies just as plausibly to the war years as a whole.
For Americans, this history also provides a singularly clear and attractive moral lesson, despite such blemishes as the internment of Japanese Americans (or, more controversially, the bombings of enemy cities, up to and including Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Secular Americans today may have trouble putting a face on absolute goodness, but they have no trouble doing so for absolute evil: it is Adolf Hitler, the uncontested devil of modern times. Those who risked their lives to defeat Hitler and his allies quite rightly have the status of unalloyed heroes—the “greatest generation,” in Tom Brokaw’s cloying phrase. Meanwhile, those who tried to appease Hitler enjoy nothing but scorn, a phenomenon that took off as early as the publication of the indictment Guilty Men in England in 1940. Americans today also have no trouble putting a face on foolishness and weakness in international affairs: it is that of the umbrella-toting Neville Chamberlain, as he waved a piece of paper in the air upon his return from Munich in 1938 and proclaimed “peace in our time.”
Nothing since 1945 has compared in sheer power, drama, horror or clarity to the events of this era, so it is understandable that they have had such staying power in our political imagination. Ever since the war, populist politicians who excel at whipping up national or ethnic hatreds are tarred as “fascists” or “Nazis.” Meanwhile, as early as the summer of 1945, American officials were already invoking the supposed lessons of Munich with reference to new foreign challenges. Soon after Hiroshima, for instance, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal warned against sharing nuclear secrets with Stalin with the words “we tried that once with Hitler. There are no returns on appeasement.” Ever since, it has been de rigueur for Americans to justify action against alleged foreign threats with Hitler analogies, and to denounce the alleged appeasement of such threats with Munich analogies. Sometimes, the comparisons have been laughably inappropriate. Speaking of Manuel Noriega, the tin-pot dictator of Panama, whom Washington was accusing of protecting drug smugglers, Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger declared in August 1989, “That is aggression as surely as Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland fifty years ago was aggression.” Four months later, the United States invaded and deposed him.
Meanwhile, neoconservative commentators like Charles Krauthammer and Norman Podhoretz deploy Munich analogies in virtually everything they write about foreign policy (in Krauthammer’s case, the list stretches from China in 1989 and North Korea in 1994, through Iraq in 2003, to Iran and Russia today). But they have hardly been the only ones to do so. Bill Clinton’s Czech-born secretary of state Madeleine Albright confessed in 1997 that “my mind-set is Munich,” while Clinton himself dragged out the Hitler comparison for Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. In 2014, John Kerry called Syria’s use of chemical weapons “our Munich moment.” Every American president since the war has also received his share of Chamberlain comparisons. The scholars Sam Kleiner and Tom Zoellner have noted that “when President Eisenhower returned from a summit with the Soviets in 1955, he gave his remarks in the pouring rain without the courtesy of an umbrella,” because of the umbrella’s associations with Chamberlain.
So ingrained have World War II references become in our political culture that some commentators use them without even knowing what they refer to. Famously, in May 2008, conservative commentator Kevin James went on Chris Matthews’s show Hardball and compared then presidential candidate Barack Obama to Chamberlain because of his willingness to negotiate with Iran and other adversaries. Matthews humiliated James by asking him again and again to explain what Chamberlain had actually done in Munich. The blustering James, who refused to answer, clearly had no idea.
Yet even when wielded by ignoramuses, these references have the ability to introduce a brimstone-tinged whiff of apocalypse into any political debate. Speak of Munich or fascists and the hand of the clock always jumps to one minute to midnight. In the ordinary course of political life, it may be important to stand up to bullies, but with the recognition that if a particular strategy fails to work, it can be refined or replaced. But invoke Munich, and the message is that if you fail to stand up to an enemy with all the force at your disposal, it is only a matter of time before bombers decimate your cities, tanks pour across your borders and millions of your citizens perish.
THE COMMENTATORS who invoke Hitler or Munich never seem to appreciate the massive irony that the events of the war itself—and above all its nuclear ending—ensured that the events of 1939 to 1945 could never, in fact, come close to repeating themselves. At the moment when James Forrestal denounced possible “appeasement” of the USSR, the United States enjoyed a nuclear monopoly that made any direct threat to its territory unthinkable. When the Soviets acquired their own nuclear weapon a few years later, a new and apocalyptic threat arose, but the nuclear deterrent and the premise of “mutually assured destruction” made any actual attack unlikely.
Yet over the following decades, the difficulty of imagining nuclear war arguably helped World War II keep its dominant position in the American political imagination. Nuclear war was so terrible to contemplate, and so wholly outside human experience, that few prominent political figures dared treat it as a real possibility, or argue for the “first use” of nuclear weapons against America’s adversaries. (Of course there were some, such as General Curtis LeMay, who urged the use of nuclear weapons in the Korean War.) Disarmament movements might invoke the specter of nuclear war, but those who believed the Soviet Union posed a threat to the West that needed to be confronted and contained naturally found it far easier to justify their policies by invoking an earlier time in which nuclear weapons did not yet exist.
Yet at least with the Soviets during the Cold War, analogies with this earlier time still had some credibility. In addition to its nuclear arsenal, the Soviet Union had a huge conventional military and, as the experience of Joseph Stalin showed all too clearly, few safeguards against absolute power coming into the hands of a brutal paranoiac. The USSR was a totalitarian adversary that supported revolutionary forces across the globe, and its official ideology aggressively described its social system as the destiny of the human race. Historians have endlessly debated the Soviets’ actual strategic intentions, and the question of which side bore more responsibility for the Cold War, but no one can doubt that the Soviet Union had the ability to pose a real conventional military threat.
With the end of the Cold War, however, this one at least somewhat-plausible stand-in for Nazi Germany disappeared from the scene. Since then, not a single foreign adversary has come close to posing the sort of mortal threat to the West that Nazi Germany did during World War II.
China, while possessing massive armed forces and a considerable nuclear arsenal, remains primarily a regional power in its ambitions, and despite its massive population and explosive economic growth, has a defense budget less than one quarter the size of America’s. Some of China’s actions in Asia have arguably called for firm responses. But there is little reason to think that the country has any interest in seriously damaging the United States, its largest trading partner and debtor, or that any single agreement with China could have the sort of devastating, cascading consequences attributed to Munich.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin would seem like a better candidate for the “new Hitler.” Enough people think so that Googling the names “Putin” and “Hitler” together returns over thirteen million hits, including a plethora of articles making the direct comparison. Putin is a repressive autocrat with a cult of personality (although nothing compared to Stalin and Hitler), and is driven by dreams of revanche for the humiliation incurred by the USSR at the end of the Cold War. He has acted aggressively against Ukraine, sending units of the Russian army in disguise to help seize Crimea, and then openly supporting secessionist movements elsewhere in the country. To some, the historical parallels have seemed painfully obvious. “Putin,” wrote the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen, during the Ukrainian crisis of 2014, “is demanding for Crimea more or less what Hitler wanted for the Sudetenland.” Lest anyone miss the point, Cohen hammered it home: “Vladimir Putin has turned us all into Neville Chamberlain. The umbrella, please.”
Yet here, too, the analogy breaks down quickly. Those decrying Putin’s revanchism often seem to forget that he only moved against Ukraine after an uprising that toppled a pro-Russian regime in this large former Soviet republic, opening up the possibility of entry into the European Union, and possibly even NATO. American conservatives claimed that in the crisis, President Obama’s Chamberlainesque weakness emboldened Putin. In a typical expression of contempt, conservative political commentator Marc Theissen wrote, “you could hear laughter emanating from the Kremlin.” Yet more serious observers have recognized that Russia had actually been losing ground around the world, and that Putin, far from cackling diabolically at American weakness, saw a powerful and aggressive America conspiring against him. As Slate’s Fred Kaplan recently put it, “The portrayal of Vladimir Putin as a grand chess master, shrewdly rebuilding the Russian empire through strength and wiles, is laughable.”
Ironically, the group that almost certainly set a record for most frequent Hitler analogies during the Crimean crisis was not American neoconservatives, but the Russian media, which incessantly attacked the new regime in Kiev as “fascist,” and discerned in the overthrow of the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych a quasi-Hitlerian Western plot to subjugate Russia. While Putin has shown an aggressive interest in bringing ethnic Russians under Russian rule and reestablishing Russia as a regional power, he seems far removed from any Hitlerian program of unlimited conquest. And despite Obama’s supposed spinelessness, there has been little sign of the moves against the Baltic states, which so many of the president’s critics insisted—in line with the Munich analogy—were imminent if he didn’t toughen up.
THEN THERE is Iran. Conservative politicians and commentators were pretty much unanimous in labelling the recent nuclear agreement a new Munich, and comparing Obama, yet again, to Neville Chamberlain. (Presidential candidates Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham all did so explicitly.) Dick and Liz Cheney called the agreement “tragically reminiscent” of Munich, and predicted it would lead to the first use of nuclear weapons since Nagasaki. But Iran is a regional power that spends at most one-twentieth of what the United States does each year on its military. Far from expanding aggressively, it has seen its regional position deteriorate in recent years, thanks to the turmoil engulfing its ally Syria and the rise of the fiercely anti-Iranian Islamic State. Benjamin Netanyahu claims that the new agreement makes Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons imminent, but he has been making such predictions since the early 1990s. And even if the Iranians get a nuclear weapon, it is hard to believe they would actually use it. Any strike against Israeli or American targets traceable to the regime in Tehran would almost certainly result in a devastating nuclear response, and the Iranians give little indication that they wish to commit collective suicide. In January, the UN nuclear watchdog confirmed Iran’s compliance with the nuclear agreement, while the Iranian regime sought to lower tensions with the United States through its freeing of American prisoners, and its quick release of an American naval vessel that had inadvertently entered its territorial waters.
Finally, there are terrorist organizations, up to and including the Islamic State. Immediately after the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino at the end of 2015, the Republican candidates for president tripped over each other to paint the struggle against ISIS and other terror groups in the most apocalyptic terms possible. Chris Christie called it “the next world war,” while Jeb Bush insisted that “we need . . . to destroy ISIS before it destroys us.” Ted Cruz, not to be outdone, declared that “the front line with ISIS . . . is in Kennedy Airport and the Rio Grande. . . . ISIS and Iran have declared war on America.”
Of course, there is always the threat—remote for now, but disturbingly plausible—that a terrorist group could get a nuclear weapon and detonate it on American soil. Such an action might not amount to destroying the United States, but it would certainly justify apocalyptic rhetoric. But, at least for the moment, there are no indications that ISIS or any other terrorist organization has come close to being able to realize this ultimate nightmare scenario. These groups threaten terrorism, mostly low-tech and low-level, that could take tens or hundreds of lives at a time. Such attacks are dreadful, and the United States is justified in taking extraordinary measures to prevent them. But, to state the obvious, they have nothing in common with the massive military threat once posed to the West by the Axis powers. Even the 9/11 attacks, dreadful as they were, could not compare with what Hitler wrought. The 9/11 attacks took 2,977 lives. During World War II, the Soviet Union lost that number every four hours, for a period of nearly four years.
Regarding the Islamic State, it is hard not to agree with President Obama’s words in his 2016 State of the Union address:
“As we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands. Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks, twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages—they pose an enormous danger to civilians; they have to be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence. That is the story ISIL wants to tell. That’s the kind of propaganda they use to recruit.”
And as the president also remarked: “The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. Period. It’s not even close. . . . No nation attacks us directly, or our allies, because they know that’s the path to ruin.” Needless to say, Obama’s words convinced no one on the opposite side of the aisle. Ted Cruz immediately poured scorn on “a president who will not even acknowledge the evil that we’re facing, much less do anything serious to stop it. . . . President Obama and Hillary Clinton, they put their heads in the sand like ostriches, rather than acknowledging the threat of jihadists who want to murder us.” Like all the other Republican candidates for president, Cruz repeatedly stated that ISIS “has declared war on us,” and demanded that the United States do everything to win this war, including if necessary finding out whether “sand can glow in the dark.” And the comparisons to World War II flow on, uninterrupted. As the Fox News analyst Ralph Peters wrote in November:
“The generals who won World War II would start by leveling Raqqa, the ISIS caliphate’s capital. Civilians would die, but those remaining in Raqqa have embraced ISIS, as Germans did Hitler. The jihadis must be crushed. Start with their ‘Berlin.’ Kill ten thousand, save a million.”
IT IS easy to sputter against the incessant invocations of World War II in our politics, and to decry the Munich obsession of neoconservatives. Many authors have done so. But it is important to realize that this erroneous and tendentious language is actually just part of a larger conceptual misunderstanding. The words media and politicians use most to describe foreign affairs are outdated and inadequate to explain the strange and confusing world we are now living in, starting with the words “war” and “peace” themselves.
“We are at war.” President George W. Bush used the words repeatedly after 9/11. Barack Obama used them after the San Bernardino attacks. French leaders François Hollande and Manuel Valls used them after the Paris attacks of January 2015, and again after the attacks of November. The Republican candidates for president used them in virtually every appearance they made. And the words have a certain thrill to them. One imagines the solemn delivery of declarations to foreign ambassadors, the tearful farewells as men say goodbye to their families, soldiers marching across borders and bombers taxiing on runways.
But what is a war, in the twenty-first century? If a war is what the world experienced between 1939 and 1945—a violent confrontation between sovereign states, involving the large-scale deployment of air, land and possibly sea forces by both sides in pitched battles, and the mobilization of civilians on “home fronts”—then today we live in a world without war. Indeed, the world has not seen a war, defined in this way, for many decades. The operations that the United States and its allies launched against Iraq in 1991 and 2003 came closest. But in both cases the Iraqis were so outmatched that they mostly proved incapable of taking part in serious engagements. These “wars” involved virtually no battles, if we define a battle as a sustained and intense military encounter in a well-defined area. In the entire Gulf War, fewer than 150 American personnel died. Civilian life in the United States went on without any significant civilian mobilization, except for the call-ups of reserve units in both 1991 and 2003.
In fact, the last “war” that at all resembled World War II was the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88). This conflict, like World War II, involved large-scale, sustained encounters between modern, mechanized armed forces, including tanks, artillery, airplanes and missiles. It had an identifiable front line, at least some of the time. And it ultimately cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of combatants—perhaps over a million.
But even the Iran-Iraq War was one of a relative handful of wars of this sort that have taken place since World War II. A full list would include the Korean War, the Arab-Israeli wars (up to the Yom Kippur War of 1973–4), and the Indo-Pakistani wars, but not much else. The Iran-Iraq War was far deadlier than any of these others, but even it could not begin to compare in destructiveness to World War II. Measuring battles is always a tricky business for historians, involving somewhat arbitrary distinctions (was World War I’s “Battle of the Somme,” which stretched over four and a half months, a single battle or several?), as well as wildly uncertain and disputed casualty figures. But by most commonly accepted definitions, not a single battle of the Iran-Iraq War, or any other battle fought after 1945, would come anywhere close to the top of a list of the bloodiest battles of the past century. In author Matthew White’s imaginative amateur attempt to produce such a ranking, only five battles from after 1945 figure in a list of the ninety-four bloodiest of the twentieth century, and the highest-ranking entry, the Iran-Iraq War’s Operation Karbala-5, comes in at thirty-ninth. The invention of nuclear weapons and (since the end of the Cold War) the enormous military predominance of the United States have changed the meaning of war beyond recognition.
The political scientist John Mueller, surveying evidence of this sort, has not hesitated to conclude that “war has almost ceased to exist.” He and other social scientists, most notably Steven Pinker in the 2011 The Better Angels of Our Nature, have argued that humans today have a smaller chance of dying violent deaths than at any moment in the history of the species. Terrorism, even on the scale of 9/11, has taken far fewer lives than virtually any modern war between sovereign states, and by many measures terrorism itself, despite the spectacular attacks of the past year, has itself been declining in intensity for decades.
Just as traditional definitions of war no longer fit the types of organized violence seen in the world today, in the twenty-first century sheer military power also seems to have lost much of its earlier significance. Before 1991, there was never a moment in history when one single state possessed the sort of overwhelming military advantage that the United States gained with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Over the past twenty-five years the United States has not come close to losing this advantage. As often noted, its defense budget is as large as that of the next eight or nine largest powers combined. Its weaponry is the most advanced and powerful, its military personnel the best trained. And yet, for all this strength, the United States seems frustratingly unable to impose its will on the rest of the world. Of course, the rest of the world doesn’t see things this way, and in many senses the rest of the world is right. But there is a difference between America’s vast economic and military influence, which resonates so strongly throughout the world, and its ability to force particular recalcitrant actors into line on particular issues. President Obama was quite right to scoff at the idea that a few thousand “fighters on the back of pickup trucks” could pose an existential threat to the most powerful military force the world has ever seen. But if the mismatch is so great, why can the United States not eliminate these fighters and their pickup trucks once and for all? It is no surprise that Donald Trump’s promise to “cut the head off of ISIS and take their oil” has proven so popular with American voters.
Finally, in the twenty-first century the concept of “peace” has also lost much of its traditional conceptual salience. After 9/11, Americans widely agreed that the country was no longer at peace. Lest there be any doubt, we then staged a military invasion of Afghanistan, followed two years later by the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Did these wars ever end? Has peace returned? Today, the United States has withdrawn from Iraq, and has largely done so from Afghanistan, but there have been no celebrations of “peace.” And in Iraq and Afghanistan themselves, as in dozens of other conflict areas throughout the world, the situation can’t be easily described as either war or peace. There are no front lines, and conflict is not constant, but horrific violence nonetheless flares up, involving terrorist attacks more often than direct confrontations between armed groups.
In the United States itself, to be sure, the current situation is effectively indistinguishable from peace. Even for members of the armed forces, the odds of dying at the hands of an armed adversary or terrorist remain extremely low. But the current situation does not feel like peace to most Americans. However less violent the world as a whole has become, even with so many smoldering conflicts, the fact remains that with existing nuclear arsenals, humans still have the capacity to kill a far larger number of other humans, and do so more quickly, than at any moment in history. The risks of a nuclear exchange, or of terrorists deploying weapons of mass destruction, while presumably low, still remain almost impossible to calculate, which makes them all the more terrifying. Meanwhile, the risk of dying in a conventional terrorist attack may be low, but such attacks are spectacular, seemingly unpredictable and out of the victims’ control—much like shark attacks, plane crashes and serial killers. As with these other stalwarts of popular culture, Americans stand about as much of a chance of dying from conventional terrorism as they do of being accidentally crushed under their own furniture. But the prospect of terrorism is no easier to banish from one’s mind than the prospect of a plane crash in a plane that has just run into significant turbulence at thirty-five thousand feet.
AS AN academic, I would love to believe that we could fix our dysfunctional politics by fixing our terminology. Stop using the words “war” and “peace,” whose historical meanings have so little sense in the world in which we live today. Find new words that more precisely describe the sort of conflicts and challenges the United States faces in the world. Stop seeing these challenges through the lens of World War II, as if we could defeat ISIS with a new version of Operation Overlord, or order a massive and successful bombing attack on Iran’s nuclear program without severe consequences. Erase the word “Munich” once and for all from our political vocabularies. Remember, always, that the year is not 1938.
But no such terminological “fix” could actually achieve much in practice. The unpredictability and uncertainty of the worst challenges facing this country make them almost impossible to sum up in a catchy new word or phrase. Any such terminology would have to capture the disparity between the massive physical force that our country commands, and our inability to make use of that force, with any degree of certainty, to eliminate the scariest and most spectacular threats to our safety. In some ways, the United States today resembles a person trying to kill viruses with a hammer. It is no surprise that our media and our politicians have so little desire to acknowledge this terrifying impotence openly. Far easier to pretend we are still living in a world in which the sheer level of conventional military force is what matters, in which we could march off to a clearly defined war, win clearly defined battles and impose a clearly defined peace. Small wonder that so many Americans would prefer to pretend that the year is in fact 1938. The world of 1938 was predictable and controllable—at least in the popular imagination—in a way the world of 2016 is not. And so we can expect World War II to remain a central part of our political vocabulary long after anyone who actually remembers the conflict has died.
But it can still help if as many people as possible take the time to remember just how false the comparison actually is, and if they keep in mind that a keen sensitivity to the parallels between the past and the present is not always a good thing. When it comes to the moral lessons of the terrible years the world lived through between 1939 and 1945, particularly those of the Holocaust, we must always remember. But when it comes to the strategic lessons of that era, we might do well, sometimes, to forget.
David A. Bell is the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor in the Era of North Atlantic Revolutions at Princeton University.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/A. L. Tarter