John Lewis Gaddis: How history might regard Bush





... Presidential revisionism tends to begin with small surprises. How, for instance, could a Missouri politician like Truman who never went to college get along so well with a Yale-educated dandy like Acheson? How could Eisenhower, who spoke so poorly, write so well? How could Reagan, the prototypical hawk, want to abolish nuclear weapons? Answering such questions caused historians to challenge conventional wisdom about these Presidents, revealing the extent to which stereotypes had misled their contemporaries.

So what might shift contemporary impressions of President Bush? I can only speak for myself here, but something I did not expect was the discovery that he reads more history and talks with more historians than any of his predecessors since at least John F. Kennedy. The President has surprised me more than once with comments on my own books soon after they’ve appeared, and I’m hardly the only historian who has had this experience. I’ve found myself improvising excuses to him, in Oval Office seminars, as to why I hadn’t read the latest book on Lincoln, or on—as Bush refers to him—the “first George W.” I’ve even assigned books to Yale students on his recommendation, with excellent results.

“Well, so Bush reads history”, one might reasonably observe at this point. “Isn’t it more important to find out how he uses it?” It is indeed, and I doubt that anybody will be in a position to answer that question definitively until the oral histories get recorded, the memoirs get written, and the archives open. But I can say this on the basis of direct observation: President Bush is interested—as no other occupant of the White House has been for quite a long time—in how the past can provide guidance for the future.

Presidents who’ve sought to shape the future have generally done so by proclaiming doctrines, mostly unsuccessfully. A few, like those of Monroe and Truman, have indeed influenced succeeding Administrations for decades to come—in Monroe’s case, for well over a century, in Truman’s for almost half a century until the Cold War came to an end. Most doctrines, however, faded from view as soon as the Presidents who announced them left office, sometimes even before they did. Who today, apart from historians, remembers the doctrines of Hoover, Eisenhower, Nixon, Carter, Reagan or Clinton?

Three things, I think, made the Monroe and Truman Doctrines transfer across time and space: They drew on a long history, they related that history to a current crisis, and in doing so they set a course the nation could feasibly navigate into the future.

The Monroe Doctrine reflected a long American tradition—extending well back into the 18th century—of associating liberty, prosperity and security with continental expansion. Its principal author, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, related that history to the crisis caused by the apparent intention of European monarchs—Great Britain’s excepted—to re establish their colonies in the Western Hemisphere after Napoleon’s defeat. The course Adams set was that “the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintained, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” Its feasibility lay in the fact that the British tacitly agreed with that policy and were willing to use their navy to enforce it. The Monroe Doctrine was unilateral, as presidential doctrines must be. But it was based upon a realistic calculation of power within the international system, as all doctrines should be.

The Truman Doctrine drew upon an equally long American tradition—reinforced by involvement in two 20th-century world wars—of opposing the domination of Europe by a single hostile power. Its principal author, then-Under Secretary of State Acheson, related that history to the crisis caused by the outcome of World War II, which left the Soviet Union in control of half of Europe. The course he set was that “it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” Its feasibility lay in George F. Kennan’s great insight that the Stalinist system and the international communist movement carried within themselves the seeds of their own destruction, so that the passage of time would favor the West if it could hold the line. The Truman Doctrine, like the Monroe Doctrine, was unilateral; but it, too, was based upon a realistic calculation of power within the international system.

Neither of these doctrines promised immediate results. Both looked beyond the crises that gave rise to them—beyond even the administrations that proclaimed them—to say, in effect: “Here’s where we’ve been as a nation, and in the light of that, here’s where we need to go.” Both functioned as beacons, providing the guidance necessary for the course corrections ships of state must from time to time make. And both did so within a single memorable sentence.

So is there a Bush Doctrine, and if so will it meet this test of transferability?...


comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


Arnold Shcherban - 9/1/2008

There is no Bush doctrine of for that matter Truman one. The American doctrine after WWII, and even before it, was quite consistent and transparent all this time: world economic, social, and military hegemony by all means.
To deny this conclusion is to go against overwhelming factual evidence and its logic.


Raul A Garcia - 8/31/2008

As has been said, even a good knowledge of past history is no guarantee that one will use that knowledge. Many great historians have cozied up to dictators or have evaded reality as well when it did not fit their philosphical gut. The other danger, simplification of history, whether by Marxist/economic determinism, conspiracy theories, cozy armchair tenured-insulated elite synthesis, or that issuing from great tumblers of whisky, also miss the mark. We at least, can safely speak our mind- not in Myanmar, Cuba, .....but at least the list grows smaller.


James Lee Winningham - 8/30/2008

I would say the Bush Doctrine was closer to the Truman Doctrine. However, Bush goes further and advocated not just supporting other nations threatened by outside influence, but militarily intervening in those countries at his discretion. I don's think history will judge this docrine well since it is not a a realistic calcualation of power like the Truman or Monroe Doctrines (though I am sure people wcan debate on that issue). I have come to believe there is nothing realistic about Bush's foreign policy.


Tim Matthewson - 8/30/2008

Not long ago (2005) Gaddis rushed into print to endosed the Bush administration's articulation of a new "grand strategy." The terrorist attacks of 9/11, Gaddis wrote, made it clear that America's earlier policy of multilateralism was now insufficient to ensure American security.
The Bush administration has, therefore, devised a new grand strategy whose foundations lie in the nineteenth-century tradition of unilateralism, preemption, and hegemony, projected this time on a global scale. How successful it will be in the face of twenty-first-century challenges is the question that confronts us.
Gaddis's thoughts were articulated in his book Surprise, Security, and the American Experience (2005). Has Gaddis changed his mind about unilaterialism and preemption? It sounds like it


Lorraine Paul - 8/29/2008

Bush couldn't even pronounce or spell the word 'doctrine'!!


Mike Schoenberg - 8/29/2008

We have had a president who came in with a surplus and who's tax cuts quickly eradicated that. We have a president who lied to get is into a war, who lowered taxes with the idea that everyone hates government. Of course three years after Katrina what do we have to show, except that there is supposed to be 3-5 trillion dollars in infrastructure that needs upgrading, i.e. bridges in Minn. Not to mention his congress which acted like those wicked Democrats, spending money like it is going out of style. The ultimate test lately which Republicans started with Reagan was how well the stock market did under him. Of course it did even better under Clinton but the last 8 years have been dismal.
As for your comment about unintellectual presidents, remember this is one who doesn't read the paper and judging from show like "Are you smarter than a Fifth Grades", neither does the majority of the country.


Andrew S Ward - 8/29/2008

I guess flattery will get Bush everywhere. He has lied about everything else, why not his deep admiration for Professor Gaddis?


Sol S Shalit - 8/29/2008

The Comments, so far, do not rebut Gaddis, but reflect a prejudice against Republican presidents in general, and a special discomfort with unintellectual presidents who happen to be highly intelligent.


Lisa Kazmier - 8/29/2008

I guess that means we won't find out the extent of his idiocy until he dies.


Jim Good - 8/29/2008

"As far as history goes and all of these quotes about people trying to guess what the history of the Bush administration is going to be, you know, I take great comfort in knowing that they don’t know what they are talking about, because history takes a long time for us to reach."— George W. Bush, Fox News Sunday, Feb 10, 2008


Ruel J. Eskelsen - 8/29/2008

I have heard commentary that Richard Nixon was one of the smartest and history-savy presidents of the U.S.(Alan Greenspan on PBS Newshour interview, I think).

That did not seem to help him in making good presidential decisions.


Frank Cousins - 8/29/2008

In order for this article to be legitimate one must first reconcile themselves to accepting that Bush actually told the author the truth. I for one can not. So I believe that this article is pure fiction.


Christopher K. Philippo - 8/29/2008

As Tim Matthewson wrote, the article seems to lack impact.

And maybe it's my own Bush-hating prejudice, but I have a hard time believing Bush really reads books or comes up with comments about them (beyond infantile nicknames for their authors). I'm sure his staffers do this for him. Though I suppose one can still reword the author's question as "well, so Bush's staffers read history; isn't it more important to find out how they use it?"


Tim Matthewson - 8/29/2008

So what?