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From the Letters to the Editor column of the April 2005 Perspectives

Drawing Lessons from History

Sheldon Watts, April 2005

To the Editor:

I was somewhat disturbed by certain parts of James Sheehan's article, "How Do We Learn from History?" published in the January 2005 Perspectives.

An example of the "lessons from history," he writes, "is the use of the ‘Munich analogy' to explain why preemptive military action against Iraq was both necessary and justifiable." In the text that follows, Sheehan nowhere denies the validity of the second half of this analogy. It would have been better had Sheehan realized that it is perhaps too early for historians to come up with an objective assessment of this proposition.

However, it is now becoming increasingly clear to many non-politically motivated observers that 10 years of sanctions against Iraq had succeeded in so weakening Saddam Hussein that he no longer posed a threat to any other country. Many contemporary historians thus lean towards the alternative interpretation which holds that the stated rationale for the U.S.-U.K. invasion of Iraq was a pretence, a cover for the real reasons for the invasion (among which are oil, the perceived security needs of the state of Israel, and corporate profit for the multinationals).

If one were to discuss "lessons from history," one would perhaps do well to begin with the Spanish-American War of 1898 in which an aggressive new power found a pretense to attack an old decaying empire (largely for economic reasons). Spanish historians assure us that Spain's defeat and humiliation led to all sorts of unpleasant long-term results in the homeland from which Spain has only finally begun to recover in the last 20 years. And as a historian of Germany, Sheehan might do well to review "lessons from history" derived from the first half of the 17th century—the triumph of religious fanaticism and absolutism, ending in the Thirty Years' War.

Two summers ago I re-read Suetonius's Lives of the Caesars. Among other "lessons from history," this exercise alerted one to the way in which "Republican Values" were subverted by a dictator (Caesar Augustus) who covered his tracks by allowing the institutions of the republic (such as the senate) to continue to exist, but stripping them of any real power. Today, one need not be "a liberal" or adhere to any of the other ideologies which the "neoconservatives" brand as anti-American to realize that we are already well along the path that Suetonius warned us about.

From the time of Plato onwards until the 18th century, many philosophers cautioned that a community in which the principles of democracy were followed would inevitably be replaced by a state of anarchy followed by a dictatorship. Throughout most of human history a dictatorship (by whatever name it might be called) has been the standard form of government. This, then, is another true "lesson from history."

The recent survey of opinion (by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation; updated on February 3, 2005) of 100,000 U.S. high school students, which shows that a third of their number do not regard the First Amendment (in the Bill of Rights) as necessary, demonstrates that we, as U.S. scholars and educators, have failed in our duties as citizens.

As a historian with a deep commitment to the principles on which the United States was founded, and as a former U.S. Army Officer, I hope that the leadership of the American Historical Association is aware of this situation (which of course it is) and that, more importantly, it is prepared to take a stand and to warn its members and the general public of the great peril in which we stand.

— Sheldon Watts