Tony Judt’s Journey

April 23, 2015 Topic: Politics Tags: HistoryTony JudtTerrorismWar

Tony Judt’s Journey

Tony Judt’s When the Facts Change offers a valuable opportunity to survey his intellectual odyssey. Like all genuine historians, he spoke for the things he feared were vanishing.

remains distinctive among democratic states in its resort to ethno-religious criteria with which to denominate and rank its citizens. It is an oddity among modern nations not—as its more paranoid supporters assert—because it is a Jewish state and no one wants the Jews to have a state; but because it is a Jewish state in which one community—Jews—is set above others, in an age when that sort of state has no place.

The timing of the essay also took courage: October 2003, the irresistible height of the American celebration of victory in Iraq—victory by the sole superpower over any obstruction in its path. But how did Judt reason his way to this analysis? Had the facts of Israeli politics changed so suddenly? The title of this collection comes from a saying of John Maynard Keynes: “When the facts change, I change my mind—what do you do, sir?” A characteristic remark by a superior wit, and doubtless it stung; but the comment can be made to bear a morally lazy meaning that neither Keynes nor Judt intended. The facts, of course, do matter to an honest observer and, as Max Weber pointed out, the mark of a dishonest scholar is the suppression of inconvenient facts. But the mind also acts on principles that are prior to, and not reflexively changeable by, facts. Thus a defender of Soviet Communism in 1937, when shown convincing evidence that the Moscow trials were rigged with a tissue of lies, forgeries and coerced confessions, ought to have changed his mind about the nature of the Soviet system; but if the newly enlightened witness had found no previous clue that something was wrong with the system, he would have lacked an insight to spur his comprehension of the facts. A prodigy at the pure digestion of facts would have been inclined to believe the evidence of the trials—an exercise of credulity that many Western admirers of Stalin had no trouble performing.


FAR FROM tracing the profile of facts, Judt wrote and acted from certain principles of judgment; with a historian’s modesty, he brought them to light in an unmethodical way. His mostly encouraging prognosis for Europe in Postwar was founded on his belief that the biggest obstacle to enlightened progress after 1945 was Soviet Communism. This sense of things lasted well into the Clinton years, as his 1997 essay “Why the Cold War Worked”—a review of John Lewis Gaddis’s triumphalist history We Now Know—reveals in considerable detail. And yet, returning nine years later to a book by the same author on the same subject and expressing the same viewpoint, Judt (in a 2006 essay included in Reappraisals) sounded a very different note: “In Africa, as in Latin America, the cold war was a clash of empires rather than ideologies. Both sides supported and promoted unsavory puppets and surrogates.” He went on to speak of the destructive “proxy confrontations” between the United States and the Soviet Union “from Central America to Indonesia,” a “continuous accompaniment to the cold war” which encompassed “the mass killings of hundreds of thousands in Indonesia and Guatemala.” Both empires were now held to account; a historian was blamable for not weighing the violence on both sides. Further, according to Judt, Gaddis had refused “to make the link between the cold war and what has happened since.” Notice that this was not a case of the facts changing. On the history of the Cold War, roughly the same facts were available to Gaddis and Judt in 1997 and 2006. What had changed was the salience of one set of facts in the mind of Tony Judt. And this was caused by the light cast by a later history on the structure, the motivation and the characteristic coloring of earlier events.

In interpreting American power from 1945 to 2003, one popular narrative starts the account with the Berlin airlift and carries it through the Marshall Plan, the Korean War, the successful stalemate in Berlin and the reduction of Soviet influence in Africa, and winds it up with the fall of Soviet Communism, the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia and the creation of an independent Kosovo. This chain of events can be plausibly explained as all of a piece, the coherent expression of a wise policy executed by a succession of U.S. administrations. But a quite different emphasis is also possible. Start the account instead with the American continuation of the Vietnam War after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and accord a large importance to a large event—the ferocious decade-long war in Vietnam, commanded by Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, which killed between a million and three million Vietnamese; follow with the American bankrolling of the mujahideen in Afghanistan “to give the Russians their Vietnam,” the interventions by Ronald Reagan in El Salvador and Nicaragua, the eastward push of NATO by Clinton and the younger Bush, and finally the war on terror with its ambiguous record in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. The second version may seem to an impartial observer as persuasive as the first. The bias of a given history toward one version or the other depends on which way the historian casts his eye.

As this collection makes clear, the alignment of the facts began to change for Judt around 2002. But the effects are not registered all at once. A review of Joseph Nye’s Paradox of American Power, written in August 2002, takes the reliance on “soft power” to be the prevailing wisdom of American policy after 1945, a preference that fits with “common sense, and would have seemed that way to every postwar American administration from Harry Truman to George Bush Sr.” How true is this? Dwight Eisenhower ended the war in Korea and avoided the Suez debacle of 1956, but he also sent the first American military advisers to South Vietnam. John F. Kennedy allowed the Bay of Pigs invasion to go forward until its disastrous opening hours signaled defeat, and took the world to the brink of nuclear war in October 1962 in the worst of all hard-power confrontations. Johnson invaded the Dominican Republic and permitted the heedless slaughter of civilians in free-fire zones in Vietnam—an engagement in which the avowed purpose of defending Southeast Asia from the spread of Communism hid the privately acknowledged purpose of avoiding loss of face. If one adds just a few of the many instances of violent CIA operations known to presidents and not countermanded by them, the list grows much longer: Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954 are only the beginning. The largely forgotten U.S. invasion of Panama in December 1989—whose motives were explained in a sketchy and haphazard way by George H. W. Bush—aimed to prove the efficiency of American arms in a post–Cold War environment. It prepared the way for the 1991 Gulf War, a war the younger Bush imagined he was honorably completing in 2003.

From this point of view, it does not look as if soft power was the “common sense” basis of U.S. policy until the neoconservatives discarded it. And one may say so with a full awareness of the exorbitance of the neoconservative ambition: the visionary militarism of officials and opinion makers such as Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas J. Feith, Max Boot and Reuel Marc Gerecht certainly marks an extreme, but it was an extreme not unfamiliar to John Foster Dulles. Violent imposition of the American will in international affairs has been a constant temptation since Korea, and a temptation seldom resisted when the cost for the United States seemed local and finite. After the fear of Soviet reprisals disappeared in 1990, the military solution became increasingly the rule, whether it called its cause the destined spread of democracy or the defense of NATO or the “responsibility to protect” borne by a coalition of the willing.


MILITARISM, AS a fact of American politics and foreign policy, comes up for the first time in When the Facts Change in an essay published in 2005. It enters Judt’s argument by way of his respectful quotation of “a very senior and rather conservative Spanish diplomat”:

We grew up under Franco with a dream of America. That dream encouraged us to imagine and later to build a different, better Spain. All dreams must fade—but not all dreams must become nightmares. We Spanish know a little about political nightmares. What is happening to America? How do you explain Guantánamo?

By 2008, Judt is evidently shaken, and he says in his own voice that the adventurism of U.S. policy comes from ignorance of the suffering caused by war. As he now recognizes, this is a deficiency that may go further back than 2001, and he speaks of American force projection as a warning rather than an example:

The United States today is the only advanced democracy where public figures glorify and exalt the military, a sentiment familiar in Europe before 1945 but quite unknown today. Politicians in the United States surround themselves with the symbols and trappings of armed prowess; even in 2008 American commentators excoriate allies that hesitate to engage in armed conflict. I believe it is this contrasting recollection of war and its impact, rather than any structural difference between the United States and otherwise comparable countries, which accounts for their dissimilar responses to international challenges today. Indeed, the complacent neoconservative claim that war and conflict are things Americans understand—in contrast to naive Europeans with their pacifistic fantasies—seems to me exactly wrong: it is Europeans (along with Asians and Africans) who understand war all too well. Most Americans have been fortunate enough to live in blissful ignorance of its true significance.