Why Liberal Historians Opposed to the War Are Sounding Shrill


Mr. Radosh is author of Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left and is a senior adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute.

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Americans already know what the Hollywood community thinks of the war to liberate Iraq, and they are fairly disgusted. Entertainers are disdained for using their celebrity as a tool to drum up dissension regarding the war and for crude attacks on President Bush for being both "dumb" and a "cowboy." Far more important, however, are the attitudes of many in the intellectual community, whose analyses of the issues are more serious and, in the long run, more consequential.

With the dust nowhere near settled, certain American historians have begun to weigh in with what they say is an assessment based on historical perspective. Rendering an early judgment of Bush administration policy -- with the supposed credibility of a knowledge of history at their backs -- they are arguing that the Bush administration is committing an act of aggression on the level of Hitler's Germany and imperial Japan during World War II.

So far, the most egregious example of this phenomenon is a recent op-ed by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. in the Los Angeles Times. There, our most distinguished and well-known historian went so far as to write that the Bush administration¹s foreign policy "is alarmingly similar to the policy that imperial Japan employed at Pearl Harbor." Calling Mr. Bush¹s policy one of "preventive war" -- not even preemptive war, as some critics have allowed -- Mr. Schlesinger says that as a result "today it is we Americans who live in infamy." Any sympathy for our nation after 9/11, according to Mr. Schlesinger, has been dissipated in a "global wave of hatred of American arrogance and militarism."

Mr. Schlesinger was well known during the early Cold War as an advocate of the "Vital Center," in which America avoided the trap of moving to the realms of the far left and right, while maintaining equilibrium and stability of the democratic Republic. Now, it seems, his critique echoes that of the farthest reaches of the anti-American left. He writes that "the Bush doctrine converts us into the world's judge, jury and executioner" and that the "religious fanatic" who is our attorney general has done great damage to "our civil liberties and constitutional rights."

Mr. Schlesinger¹s harsh and extreme judgment, however, is based on a fallacious analysis of the dangers posed by Saddam Hussein¹s regime. In his eyes, Saddam has "grown weaker" since the first Gulf War, and his "weapons have been exposed and destroyed under the United Nations' inspection regime." How he knows that this is the case is something Mr. Schlesinger fails to explain -- perhaps his knowledge of history has given him insight unavailable to our nation's intelligence agencies. He resorts to arguing that the only reason we are acting against Iraq is that we can't act against North Korea "because it has nuclear weapons." Would Mr. Schlesinger prefer we wait until Saddam Hussein has them too?

In an interview conducted by Newsweek On-Line, Mr. Schlesinger expanded upon his op-ed and reiterated that American policy now is "the doctrine with which the Japanese justified Pearl Harbor." It is the Bush policy -- not Iraq and radical Islam -- that engenders hatred of America around the world.

Mr. Schlesinger somehow ignores that Mr. Bush appealed to the United Nations to enforce 1441; received a declaration from Congress endorsing his actions, and put off going to war to allow Secretary Powell to seek U.N. approval despite the opposition of his own hard-line advisers. And against all evidence, he somehow believes that Saddam "was contained for 10 years." He thinks history proves that Saddam would not have acted aggressively once he achieved nuclear power and implies that America should have waited until he did instead of "invade him."

Mr. Schlesinger is not alone. A historian at the University of Wisconsin and the author of two major books on Richard Nixon and Watergate, Stanley Kutler, recently wrote a piece for the Chicago Tribunecharging that "the Bush administration¹s interest is to discredit, even foreclose, dissent." As proof, Mr. Kutler cites that fact that the notably antiwar senator, Robert Byrd, "is a powerful man within congressional boundaries, but he is readily dismissed as a caricature of sorts in the media, and elsewhere." Strange, I seem to recall Mr. Byrd¹s statements against the war covered in scores of different news sources. Mr. Byrd's antiwar statements were even reprinted as a full-page ad in the New York Times. So far, I have not seen equivalent ads endorsing the administration from any of its supporters.

Messrs. Schlesinger and Kutler are good historians who have made major contributions to our understanding of America¹s past. But in this case it is they, rather than the Bush administration, who sound like part of a group of ideologues.

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dan - 5/6/2003

The U.S. didn't undermine UNSCOM...

The U. S. government actively guided Mr. Blix search and research, giving him specific locations to search, all of which were negatives.

The only question is "was it an intentional program of disinformation, or was it a case of poor intelligence?"

dan - 5/6/2003

The U.S. undermined UNSCOM more than the Ba'athist regime did?

Considering the number of WOTs found, I'd say that is a definite "affirmative."

Herodotus - 4/12/2003

Mr. Dryden,

You claim that the United States undermined UNSCOM.

The U.S. undermined UNSCOM more than the Ba'athist regime did?

Clayton E. Cramer - 4/11/2003

Perhaps you can deal with the point Radosh makes: to Schlesinger, a war fought by the U.S., Britain, Poland, Australia, the Czech Republic, with public support and largely symbolic offers of use of airspace and bases by dozens of other countries is "unilateral."

Rick Schwartz - 4/11/2003

I love a well-reasoned debate between an author and a poster -- I guess I'll have to look to someone else besides Mr. Matjecko for the pleasure.

Rick Schwartz - 4/11/2003

"To even imply..."

There is no implication here concerning Mr. Schlesinger's views about America. None -- and to charge otherwise is a measure of how quickly some want to claim offense when their views are challenged.

To state that two people have similar viewpoints/arguments says nothing about how they arrived at that point. Pat Buchanan and Nancy Pelosi both feel we should not be in Iraq but linking them together in this sentence certainly doesn't imply that they are in agreement on any other issue/philsophy.

I Matjecko - 4/10/2003

Are we really expected to take this seriously? And they accuse the liberals of "political correctness!" Geez.

Herodotus - 4/10/2003

Any good historian would understand that the first thing you take into consideration about another historian's work is his background.

In this instance, for all of Professor Schlesinger's accomplishments, he's a product of a much earlier generation. His world view is that of the mid 20th century, when states acted against one another, not rogue terrorist groups intent on mass destruction and willing to martyr themselves in the process.

Outdated, his views now do him discredit. It is simply a different world we live in now.

mark safranski - 4/10/2003

The U.S. didn't undermine UNSCOM ( that was the French and the Russian's doing in subsequent SC resolutions) and while no one cared for Hans Blix in the White House - 1441 strengthened UNMOVIC's mandate and effective reach which was weaker than the original UNSCOM had been.

j horse - 4/9/2003

Schelsinger is getting older (aren't we all) but he's still sharp as a tack. Don't take my word for it, read his two LA Times articles (Good Foreign Policy a Casualty of War, March 23, 2003 and Unilateral Preventive War: Illegitimate and Immoral, August 21, 2002) for yourself.

Getting back to Radosh's implication that Schlesinger is "anti-American." I think its wrong not only because its not true but also because name calling leads to a state where we are no longer talking to each other but talking at each other. To be fair this is not only a condition that afflicts the Right but also the Left.

Joe Dryden - 4/9/2003

If we were so concerned about proliferation of WMDs, why did we undermine UNSCOM for so long? WMDs were the pretext, not the reason.

Tacitus - 4/9/2003

Arthur Schlesinger is simply showing his age.

mark safranski - 4/9/2003

A fair question. Here's my answer.

As Herodotus amply pointed out, Iraqi WMD's are coming to light as we write and I expect more in the future as Iraq is secured and Iraqi government personnel are debriefed. But set that aside and presume hypothetically that we find nothing much.

I've researched this area and the Iraqi WMD programs were enormous prior to the Gulf War (I) as documented by UNSCOM - and most of what they found was because of fortutitous high level defections. After 1998 they have existed on a smaller scale - the nuclear team is still intact and chemical and bioweapon production capability was maintained - the latter two are relatively easy to " crank up " on short notice unlike a nuke program. Having the ability and the motive to create WMD Saddam simply needed sanctions enforcement to become a dead letter and just bide his time to have efectively a status quo ante situation. Ken Pollack reviewed the decline of sanctions enforcement quite well in _The Threatening Storm_. So in this instance, removing Saddam as a preventive measure makes eminent good sense.

My opinion would change only if it came to light that we had concrete evidence that Saddam had made a political decision to abandon pursuit of WMD's and we ignored it. However, if Saddam had made such a decision his actions in the last 12 years regarding the U.S. and the U.N. would have been entirely different - unless we are to believe that Saddam wished to forgo the power-benefits of WMD's while reaping all of the disadvantages he incurred by having the world believe that Iraq has WMD's.

j horse - 4/8/2003

According to Ronald Radosh, Arthur Schlesinger's "critique (of the Iraqi war) echoes that of the farthest reaches of the anti-American left." To even imply that such a distinguished historian as Arthur Schlesinger has "anti-American" views says more about Radosh than it does about Schlesinger. Its not Schlesinger who is sounding shrill.

Herodotus - 4/8/2003

Your question is irrelevant now in the light of so many discoveries of weapons of mass destruction.

But to further the debate: if you were in Bush's shoes, and knew that there was a risk of someone selling to Al Qaeda and similar anti-American terrorists horrible, unspeakable weapons with which to kill thousands or possibly millions of innocent people...wouldn't you do all you could to make sure that such terrorists did not get their hands on those weapons?

maxvintage - 4/8/2003

Where are they? So far we have only found 14 barrels of something that may be constituents of nerve agents--in a country the size of california. deplorable indeed,s hould it turn out to be WMD. But worth 80 billion, thousands of lives, and the collapse of dimplomatic relations?

They may indeed be there--we'll see. But I'd like to ask Mr Safranski: if we do not find any WMD, will his opinion change?

mark safranski - 4/8/2003

Kudos to Dr. Radosh for taking Schlesinger to task - perhaps the center was only vital when the Democrats needed conservative help deflecting the isolationist views of far Left and far Right extremists.

Secondly, the Japanese were not fighting a " pre-emptive war " at Pearl Harbor. Terribly bogged down in an endless war of their own making in China, Japan's strike at Pearl Harbor was an attempt " to run wild " in the Pacific before negotiating an inevitable peace with America from a position of strength instead of weakness. The Japanese leaders, except for the most fanatical and uninformed, had few illusions of prevailing in a long, all-out war with the United States. In other words, Pearl Harbor was a tactical objective in a much larger though unrealistic political strategy.

The United States objective with Iraq is entirely strategic - removal of an irreconcilably hostile regime dedicated to aggression, WMD proliferation and terrorism run by an unchecked dictator of appallingly bad judgement. There was no " sneak attack" in Iraq; instead we had in an intricate 12-year long diplomatic ballet that antiwar propagandists lyingly called " a Rush to War " where Saddam was given a thousand opportunities to comply with UN disarmament demands. There is nothing tactical about regime change nor was it a surprise to anyone except possibly Saddam Hussein.

Schlesinger, like the scribblers of " American Empires " are engaging in political myth-making.