Blogs > Cliopatria > Memories

Feb 11, 2011 3:07 pm


If journalism is the first rough draft of history, then memoirs are perhaps a second draft, or a rebuttal of the first. In the latter category fits Donald Rumsfeld's newly published memoirs, Known Unknowns. Rumsfeld pulled the title from a press conference at which he waxed eloquent about knowledge. Hart Seely put Rumsfeld's ruminations into poetry form:
The Unknown
As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don't know
We don't know.

Controversial events or eras seem to spark waves of biographies, as the participants work furiously to justify their own actions. Post-World War I, British politicians and generals wrote a raft of histories and memoirs to explain and justify their actions. David Lloyd George's War Memories were just such a set of books, designed to"explain and vindicate" his actions in the First World War.[1] Winston Churchill was past master at such literary exercises, producing multi-volume works that laid out his roles in both world wars, albeit as histories of the wars, rather than simply memoirs. Perhaps Churchill's ego was too small to be contained by mere autobiography. As Arthur Balfour, a British politician of the time, wrote, The World Crisis, Churchill's account of the First World War was"autobiography, disguised as a history of the universe."[2] In that desire to vindicate comes an equal temptation to shape the events favorably, a desire that Rumsfeld seems not to have escaped, as Fred Kaplan points out at Slate:

Many autobiographies exhibit [the tendency to self-aggrandizement] to some extent. It can even be tolerable if it's joined to an engaging style or sage insights about broader matters. Rumsfeld's book has no such redeeming features. And even if it did, its distortions and lies (I use the term advisedly) are just too blatant to be countenanced.
Rebuttal, indeed.

[1] G.W. Egerton, “The Lloyd George” War Memoirs”: A Study in the Politics of Memory,” The Journal of Modern History 60, no. 1 (1988): 55-94.
[2] John Perry, Winston Churchill (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 102.

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Andrew D. Todd - 2/14/2011

Well, a good many years ago, I took a reading seminar with David Alan Rosenberg at Temple. Rosenberg was a naval intelligence officer (Lieutenant Commander), among other things, and he'd had the opportunity to watch Casper Weinberger at fairly close quarters, and had known the officer who carried the "football" for president Reagan. Rosenberg's observation was that people in power don't think, they merely react, that a certain mentality is more or less inherent in the condition of being in power.

Predictably, Rumsfeld and company, faced with a new situation, dug out the old plan for Desert Storm, based on conditions which had ceased to exist some time before, and extended the plan beyond its natural limits. Doing otherwise would have required thought.

If power is a drug, Rumsfeld has now been in detox for four years.

President Obama may be reaching the point where he will start to react instead of thinking. He's still sound on the conventionally defined big issues, but there's a certain mental weakness about emergent issues, meaning things like Wikileaks. These are areas where, to proceed logically, you have to have a good deal of uncommon knowledge. Once in power, it is difficult to impossible to acquire such knowledge.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/13/2011

Turns out that Bacevich had a similar reaction to mine:
In fact, this very thick account of his public life points to an altogether different conclusion. The known knowns turn out to be the real problem. When the “things we know we know” prove to be false or misleading, statesmen drive their country off a cliff. Yet being alert to truths that are not true requires a capacity for introspection, a quality manifestly absent from Rumsfeld’s make-up."

David Silbey - 2/11/2011

I agree with you about the quote. I think part of the issue was that the idea of the SecDef lecturing reporters on epistemology was a bit much.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/11/2011

I've always thought that Rumsfeld got unfairly beat up for that quote, which is actually a very compact and true epistemological statement.

He left out self-deluding errors, though, those things we think we know that are actually wrong. Otherwise, I'm fine with it.

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