Margaret MacMillan: Things not to learn from history





Not long ago, Dick Cheney took time out from his U.S. vice-presidential duties to school the media on the lessons of history.

The determination of George W. Bush and his administration to invade Iraq, Cheney told a network TV reporter, will one day be vindicated by historians, in the same way that former president Gerald Ford's decision to pardon his Watergate-plagued predecessor, Richard Nixon, is now favourably regarded.

Hmm. Even if we concede there is a possibility, however slim, that hindsight will look kindly upon the 2003 Iraq invasion, that still leaves the other part of the equation. Many observers would take issue with Cheney's assertion Ford's exoneration of Nixon showed "great courage and great foresight."

If it had happened sooner, the Cheney tutorial would have been ripe for inclusion in The Uses and Abuses of History, a relatively short but thought-provoking new book by Margaret MacMillan.

The esteemed Toronto historian makes the argument that historical knowledge is useful, if only to protect us from those who use history manipulatively – like, say, trying to convince an unknowing public that Saddam Hussein posed the same threat to the world security that Adolf Hitler once did.

"It's a funny thing," MacMillan says. "In many ways, people know less and less about the past. But the political leaders say, `History tells us we must do this.' So we really do need a good understanding of history to know that Iraq is not exactly like Germany in the 1930s."

It is always helpful to be reminded that history is not merely a bunch of facts strung together or, as is sometimes wryly observed, "one damn thing after another." It is an interpretation, in which some events are amplified and others are left out altogether. Even in the hands of capable and responsible historians, the past can look entirely different depending on the perspective....

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