Roundup: Talking About HistoryFollow RU: Talking About History on RSS and Twitter
This is where we excerpt articles about history that appear in the media. Among the subjects included on this page are: anniversaries of historical events, legacies of presidents, cutting-edge research, and historical disputes.
SOURCE: Foreign Policy (10-12-12)
Stephen Sestanovich is Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. His book, The Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama, will be published next year by Knopf.
Is there a better measure of an international crisis than how long we keep arguing about it? This month, umpteen retrospectives will remind us that it has been 50 years since the United States and the Soviet Union were "eyeball to eyeball" over nuclear weapons in Cuba. The basic facts have been known for a long time, yet the arguments about this legendary confrontation go on and on.
The latest entrant in the wars over the Cuban missile crisis is Leslie Gelb, whose article "The Myth That Screwed Up 50 Years of U.S. Foreign Policy" appears in Foreign Policy's November 2012 issue. Gelb is one of the most stimulating and provocative interpreters of American diplomacy, and he has an interesting story to tell. John F. Kennedy and his advisors, he says, falsely claimed to have given nothing away in getting Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to back down in Cuba. By keeping secret their promise to withdraw Jupiter missiles from Turkey, they made "toughness and risky dueling with bad guys" the default mode of U.S. foreign policy.
"American leaders don't like to compromise," Gelb explains, "and a lingering misunderstanding of those 13 days in October 1962 has a lot to do with it." For him, what we really need to remember about the missile crisis is that the key to resolving it was flexibility, not rigidity. The same flexibility, he suggests, might enable the United States to make headway with Tehran, the Taliban, and others.
A bold reading like this shows how much new juice can be squeezed out of events half a century in the past. But there are two problems with it...
SOURCE: LA Times (10-14-12)
Jon Wiener is a professor of history at UC Irvine and the author, most recently, of How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey Across America.
In 2007, when President George W. Bush's White House spokesperson, Dana Perino, was asked a question about one of the biggest foreign policy crises in American history, she drew a blank. "I was panicked a bit because I really don't know about … the Cuban missile crisis," she later told NPR. "It had to do with Cuba and missiles, I'm pretty sure."
Perino was 35 in 2007, and thus had been born about a decade after the famous "13 days in October" 1962 when President John F. Kennedy confronted Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev over Moscow's installation of missiles in Cuba. The history books describe it as the closest the world has come to nuclear war.
Perino's ignorance revealed a striking shift in conservative perception. At the time of the Cuban missile crisis, Republicans expected that it would be remembered for generations as a moment when a Democratic president squandered a historic opportunity. Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley all suggested at the time that Kennedy's handling of the crisis represented a capitulation to the Soviets; that the president had bowed to Soviet threats when he promised not to invade Cuba. They believed Kennedy's actions had guaranteed that a communist outpost would remain, 90 miles from our shores, and that the president should have taken the opportunity to liberate the Cubans from their communist overlords.
These days, most conservatives wouldn't make such arguments...
SOURCE: The Atlantic (10-11-12)
Benjamin Schwarz is The Atlantic’s literary editor and national editor.
Within five days of each other, the English speaking world's two greatest historians to have emerged from the Marxist tradition have died: Eugene Genovese, on September 26, and Eric Hobsbawm, the man whom Genovese described as "the strongest influence on my work," on October 1.
Genovese's subject was the masters and slaves of the antebellum South. The subjects of Hobsbawm books ranged from Latin American bandits to jazz (we shared a great affection for the now-closed jazz club Bradley's, on University Place in New York; I introduced him to Smalls, a tiny club in a basement on Tenth Street that kept extremely late hours), but his most lasting masterpiece is his magisterial multi-volume history of the "long nineteenth century" (1789-1914) -- The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, and The Age of Empire - -that the London Observer famously described as "part of the mental furniture of educated Englishmen."
Both men were guided by a cold-eyed astringency, along with a tragic sense of life; both were intellectually -- and physically -- fearless; both rigorously separated their politics from their scholarship. I knew them -- Hobsbawm casually, though we talked about jazz with some intensity and responded to each other's work on international political economy at some length; Genovese somewhat more than casually -- and admired them deeply, though not without reservations. I always found Genovese deeply charming and warmly wise, but I knew him to be someone not to cross....
SOURCE: The Atlantic (10-9-12)
Armin Rosen writes for and produces The Atlantic's International Channel.
On October 2nd, the South African website Politics Web published an extraordinary historical document, a 26-page memorandum from then-British Foreign Secretary Selwyn Loyd detailing the issues that he thought would affect British policy in Africa over the next decade. The memo gives a sense of just how much was at stake for a British empire in its twilight, an Africa on the verge of independence, and a wider world riven by Cold War-era rivalries. It's a long and engrossing time warp (would the Southern British Cameroons fall into Ghana's sphere of influence?), a return to a world where colonialism in its actual, classical sense -- as well as Nasserism and Marxism in their actual, classical senses -- were still a factor in international politics. More importantly, it was an attempt to think through "what kind of world would follow empire," according to Frederick Cooper, a New York University professor and reigning expert on the imperial history of Africa.
According to Loyd, in the Africa of the 60s, the British and French would have to counter the ideological and political encroachment of Nasser's United Arab Republic and the Soviet Union -- although "ultimately the two Governments may well clash," as a "twentieth century version of The Scramble for Africa" unfolded. Loyd writes at length about the new political order that France and Britain would dictate to an Africa that both countries realized would eventually be independent of imperial rule.
For Loyd, "The guiding principle should be that retaining empire in the long run is no longer an option," Cooper explained. "The questions are: how is one going to devolve it , at what pace, to whom, and how are British interest going to be protected in doing so?" Even then, Loyd's assumptions would be thoroughly debunked in the years after the memo was written. "What you see in the actual text is that he was pretty clueless about timing, and had illusions of Britain being much more in control than they in fact were."..
SOURCE: Foreign Policy (10-10-12)
Svetlana Savranskaya is director of Russia programs at the National Security Archive, George Washington University. Her new book, with the late Sergo Mikoyan, is The Soviet Cuban Missile Crisis: Castro, Mikoyan, Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Missiles of November (Stanford CA/Washington DC: Stanford University Press/Wilson Center Press, 2012).
Cuba would have become the first nuclear power in Latin America 50 years ago, if not for the dynamics captured in this remarkable verbatim transcript -- published here for the first time -- of Fidel Castro's excruciating meeting with Soviet deputy prime minister Anastas Mikoyan, on November 22, 1962. The document comes from the personal archive of his son, the late Sergo Mikoyan, which was donated to the National Security Archive and which appears for the first time in English this month in the new book, The Soviet Cuban Missile Crisis.
Long after the world thought the Cuban Missile Crisis had ended, with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's withdrawal of his medium-range nuclear missiles announced on October 28 -- and two days after President John F. Kennedy announced the lifting of the quarantine around Cuba -- the secret crisis still simmered. Unknown to the Americans, the Soviets had brought some 100 tactical nuclear weapons to Cuba -- 80 nuclear-armed front cruise missiles (FKRs), 12 nuclear warheads for dual-use Luna short-range rockets, and 6 nuclear bombs for IL-28 bombers. Even with the pullout of the strategic missiles, the tacticals would stay, and Soviet documentation reveals the intention of training the Cubans to use them.
But Fidel Castro was livid. Khrushchev had not consulted or even informed Castro about any deals with the Americans -- Fidel heard about the missile withdrawal from the radio. The Cuban leader refused to go along with any onsite inspections in Cuba, and raised further demands. The Soviets had their own Cuban crisis: They had to take back what the Americans called the "offensive weapons," get the U.S. to confirm its non-invasion pledge, and most importantly, keep Cuba as an ally. At the Soviet Presidium, everyone agreed only one man could achieve such a resolution: Anastas Mikoyan...
SOURCE: Slate (10-10-12)
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the forthcoming book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War.
The Cuban missile crisis broke out 50 years ago this month, and its lessons on weakness, strength, and compromise have been recited ever since by politicians, pundits, and historians. The problem—which has plagued U.S. foreign policy time and again—is that these lessons are myths, based on sheer lies about how the crisis began and how it ended.
One of these myths has been thoroughly exploded (though many eminences seem not to know it). This is the notion that President John F. Kennedy got Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to back down and remove his nuclear missiles from Cuba entirely through the threat of force. In fact, as revealed by JFK’s secret tape recordings of his meetings with senior advisers (evidence that’s been available at the Kennedy Library for 25 years now), the two leaders brokered a deal: Khrushchev would take his missiles out of Cuba; Kennedy would take his very similar missiles out of Turkey.
But the other myth, no less pernicious in its impact (and no less false), still endures. This is the legend that Kennedy cowered before Khrushchev at a summit in Vienna in the spring of 1961 and that, as a result, the crafty Communist aggressively deployed missiles in Cuba thinking the young president was too weak to respond.
In fact, however, the evidence—much of it declassified a decade ago from the Kremlin archives, and recounted in Khrushchev’s Cold War, a superb book by Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali—reveals that it was Khrushchev who shipped the missiles out of weakness and insecurity...
SOURCE: Guardian (UK) (10-8-12)
George Monbiot is the author of the bestselling books The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order and Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain.
Over the gates of Auschwitz were the words "Work Makes You Free". Over the gates of the Solovetsky camp in Lenin's gulag: "Through Labour – Freedom!". Over the gates of the Ngenya detention camp, run by the British in Kenya: "Labour and Freedom". Dehumanisation appears to follow an almost inexorable course.
Last week three elderly Kenyans established the right to sue the British government for the torture that they suffered – castration, beating and rape – in the Kikuyu detention camps it ran in the 1950s.
Many tens of thousands were detained and tortured in the camps. I won't spare you the details: we have been sparing ourselves the details for far too long. Large numbers of men were castrated with pliers. Others were raped, sometimes with the use of knives, broken bottles, rifle barrels and scorpions. Women had similar instruments forced into their vaginas. The guards and officials sliced off ears and fingers, gouged out eyes, mutilated women's breasts with pliers, poured paraffin over people and set them alight. Untold thousands died.
The government's secret archive, revealed this April, shows that the attorney general, the colonial governor and the colonial secretary knew what was happening. The governor ensured that the perpetrators had legal immunity: including the British officers reported to him for roasting prisoners to death. In public the colonial secretary lied and kept lying.
Little distinguishes the British imperial project from any other...
SOURCE: Foreign Policy (10-8-12)
Leslie H. Gelb is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.
SOURCE: Telegraph (UK) (10-3-12)
SOURCE: Defining Ideas (A Hoover Institution Journal) (10-3-12)
Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is a classicist and an expert on the history of war.
SOURCE: The New Republic (10-2-12)
Steven Hahn teaches history at the University of Pennsylvania and is the author most recently of The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom (Harvard University Press).
Eugene D. Genovese, who died on September 26 at the age of 82, arrived at the University of Rochester in 1969 amid a swirl of controversy. Several years earlier, while on the faculty of Rutgers University, he had ignited a political firestorm when he publicly welcomed a Vietcong victory in the Vietnam War. Some New Jersey officials, including a Republican candidate for governor, called for his dismissal and even Richard Nixon denounced him. Ironically, after a brief stint at Sir George Williams University in Montreal, Genovese was hired by Rochester’s Republican president to chair a history department with an assortment of left-wing faculty and graduate students. As a political activist myself and an undergraduate at Rochester, I was attentive to the buzz and, a few years later, as a junior, enrolled in Genovese’s course on “The Rise of Modern Capitalism,” despite hearing that he was extremely tough.
Tough Genovese was, especially on left-wing students who figured they might have the favor of a fellow radical. He routinely handed out Ds and Fs to nearly half the class, and leftists who didn’t cut it would not be spared. But I wasn’t quite prepared for the sheer power and inspiration of his teaching. With a few note cards in hand, Genovese delivered brilliant, wide-ranging lectures on early modern Europe (not his specialty), the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and the crisis of the 17th century while pacing back and forth in front of the room. He exuded confidence, erudition, and intense political commitment, and he sent a powerful message to those, like myself, who were desperately searching for socially and politically meaningful things to do: that intellectual work was immensely valuable to any movement for change; that the only politically useful scholarship was scholarship of the highest order; and that if we studied hard enough, read broadly enough, and thought deeply enough we would write the sort of history that made a difference. For me, nothing would be the same again....
SOURCE: Forbes (10-1-12)
Asaf Romirowsky PhD is a Philadelphia-based Middle East analyst, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Forum and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
SOURCE: Telegraph (UK) (10-1-12)
Michael Burleigh is a historian and author of Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II, and winner of the Nonino International Master of His Time Prize.
SOURCE: Bloomberg News (9-14-12)
Lesley Jacobs Solmonson is the author of “Gin: A Global History” and the co-founder of 12bottlebar.com, a website devoted to classic cocktails. The opinions expressed are her own.
Gin has always been big business in England. In the 18th century, as London’s infamous “Gin Craze” unfolded, the spirit was at the center of a debate that helped define the country’s politics and economics -- and created a commercial demand that persists to this day.
The privileged of the 1700s sipped genever, the “original gin” imported from Holland. Desperate to keep up with their betters, the lower classes demanded a gin of their own. As a result, from 1720 to 1751, a storm of unrest swirled around the production, distribution and sale of rotgut booze.
The story of the Gin Craze properly begins with the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which brought William III of Orange to the British throne. He brought with him a hatred of all things French -- he immediately banned the import of Gallic spirits, such as brandy -- and a warring political agenda that required funding. Meanwhile, William’s wealthy landowner friends in Parliament had surplus grain, not to mention an eye for the profit it could make them....
SOURCE: The Wilson Quarterly (9-20-12)
Wilfred McClay, a Wilson Center senior scholar, is SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, and author of The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America (1994).
SOURCE: Frog in a Well (9-23-12)
Jonathan Dresner is a professor of history at Pittsburg State University and assistant editor at the History News Network.
“Marco Polo’s reports of China, now judged mostly hearsay….” Perry Anderson, LRB
I got an email from a student who found my blog post in which I make a highly critical case regarding the historicity of Marco Polo’s adventures. They wanted to confirm (since some data was lost in the latest HNN transition) that it was mine for citation purposes. I’ve been considering revisiting it for a while now, (1) and this seems like a good time, because my views on the subject have evolved a bit since: I’m still highly skeptical of Polo, but more importantly, I think the very structure of the argument and nature of the sources makes it highly unlikely that the believers and skeptics will come to a consensus.
When I expressed my doubts, lo those many years ago, I was informed that there was still some life left in Polo’s tale. It turns out that there is so much scholarship on aspects of Polo’s text that there’s even a term for it -- “Polan scholarship” and if there’s one thing Polan scholars can’t stand, it’s to have Polo’s work seriously questioned. All the errors are “honest”; all the omissions are “explicable”; all the unconfirmed and untranslated stuff are just waiting to be decoded if only we had better Chinese sources; and incomprehensible bits are the result of Polo listening to the wrong people. That’s the attitude going in, and it’s the same attitude coming out. (2) There seem to be lots of Euro-centric scholars with strong attachments to Polo, but a lot of Sino-centric scholars were very dubious. (3)
Foreigners were involved in Qin construction, and travel in China was common and widespread: the idea that China was closed or that people never migrated are both vestiges of simplistic thinking rather than historical verities. Even the harshest critics of Polo’s historicity admit that he got some thing right, and must have had some valid sources. The question is whether he was an eyewitness and participant in the history and culture he described, and, most importantly, whether he can be considered a credible independent source for the study of Chinese history and culture. I think the answer is still “no.” The story is great, but even if you take it seriously, it’s fantastical. (4)
Still, having entered this fray, I feel an intellectual obligation to stay informed. So when I ran across a catalog blurb for Stephen Haw’s Marco Polo’s China: A Venetian in the Realm of Khubilai Khan (Routledge, 2006), it piqued my interest; thanks to inter-library loan, I finally got hold of it. Only for a week, unfortunately, but it was an interesting ride.
Haw’s work is mostly about details: linguistic, biological and cultural details which jibe with Yuan China and particularly those which seem to be based most firmly on observation instead of second-hand transmission. At times the argument feels stretched, linguistically and zoologically, and the disjunction between the evidence and the conclusions is consistent throughout. Unfortunately, Haw relies heavily on de Rachewiltz’s pro-Polo arguments on authenticity, and then goes well beyond it. Essentially, everything that Polo gets right, especially if he gets it just a little bit wrong, proves his story; Polo is never an unreliable narrator, except where he’s been given bad information.
It has very commonly been said that Marco exaggerates in his descriptions of the Yuan empire and other places. This is only partly true. Frequently, his account is entirely accurate….His description of Hangzhou is very largely confirmed by Chinese sources. Where obvious exaggerations do occur, it is usually very likely that they reflect information that had been given to Marco by others, rather than his own tendency to overstatement.
The hedging and dodging here is then followed up by a remarkable strawman argument, an attack on a reductio version of Polo criticism that I’ve never heard anyone offer. The fact that Polo got a fair bit right proves that he wasn’t lying about anything, because he could have just made the whole story up. But there aren’t any critics who think Polo made it all up; most Polo critics argue that he plagiarized large portions of his descriptions, and inserted himself into the story in the most dramatic and self-gratifying way he thought plausible. This is a long quotation, yes, but I want Haw’s whole argument visible; I don’t want people to think I’m creating a straw man from his claims:
If Marco had wished to exaggerate wildly, whether in relation to his own position in the empire of the Great Khan, or in his description of the East, he could very easily have done so. How many people in Europe at the time could have contradicted him, whatever he had put in his book? Apart from his father and uncle, there were very few indeed who had travelled so extensively, or spent so long, in the eastern half of Asia. His relatives might have been persuaded not to expose any false claims, so as not to shame the family. If Marco had wanted to lie, to invent for himself a false position as an important servant of Khubilai Khan, a life of glory in the Far East, then he could have said virtually anything he wanted. There was no reason at all for him to try to be more than minimally accurate, to include just enough truth in his story to make it more or less credible. The fact that most of his account is, on the contrary, demonstrably truthful and correct is a very strong argument in favour of Marco’s general veracity. He was far more truthful than he needed to be.
Again, if Marco had invented the whole story of his journey to the East and his sojourn in the empire of Khubilai Khan, it is extremely unlikely that he could have avoided making numerous obvious mistakes. In particular, if he had obtained his information at second hand, without ever visiting China, then it would surely have been almost impossible for him to have avoided glaring anachronisms. It would have taken time to amass such a volume of information, much of which might well have been out of date by the time it reached Marco. If his information had come from more than one source, then it would probably have related to somewhat different periods of time which, without any personal knowledge of the true situation, he could not have reconciled successfully. It is very striking, however, that Marco’s accounts of his journeys and of the Yuan empire are exactly right for the period. It has already been pointed out several times in this book that Marco shows accurate knowledge of events and situations that came to pass at exactly the time that he was in the Far East, sometimes only a few years before his return to Venice. It is extremely unlikely that he could have obtained such correct and up-to-date information except by personal observation. Some one and a half centuries after Marco’s time, Nicolo de’ Conti travelled at least as far to the east as Myanmar. Yet the information that he was able to collect about China was minimal and highly inaccurate. Although the Mongols had been driven from China more than half a century earlier, he stated that the ruler of Cathay was ‘the Great Khan’. He seems to have had some vague information about the change of capital city to Nanjing during the early Ming dynasty, but still called the chief city ‘Cambalec’ (Poggio and Ludovico 1963: 17-18). If this is typical of what could be discovered about China from as near as South-east Asia, then it would surely have been impossible for Marco to have obtained so much correct information except through actually being there. (175-176, emphasis added)
In fact, most of the problems which Haw claims Polo avoids are precisely the problems that critics like myself see in Polo: overblown self-important claims, exaggerations, errors which suggest 2nd and 3rd hand information, and accurate information which is mostly undatable and often very similar to the kind of reference works and histories produced in China. That some people made errors that Polo avoided doesn’t change the fact that Polo made errors which he should have avoided. And the fact that Polo knew things that might have been hard to know unless you travelled doesn’t change the fact that lots of people travelled and communicated along the routes that Polo had access to; In fact, it’s probably more plausible that information travelled those routes and came to Polo than it is that Polo himself travelled the routes he claimed.
There’s an immense amount of special pleading. Take, for example, Haw’s discussion of transcription and translation issues, which is used entirely to explain away the problems in Polo’s accounts:
In judging the accuracy of Marco’s account, it must always be borne in mind that none of the surviving manuscripts of his book seem in any sense to be ‘original’. All have passed through the hands of copyists and, very often, also of translators (Larner 1999: 109). All are quite clearly, to at least some extent, corrupt. Errors in the text may have originated in a variety of ways. Marco himself may have made mistakes. Rustichello may have compounded these, adding further errors of his own. It is possible that he may sometimes have misunderstood what Marco told him. If Marco found it difficult to read the Franco-Italian text written down by Rustichello, he may not have been able to recognize all such early flaws. When the text came to be copied and translated by others, however, the possibility of the introduction of many further inaccuracies and errors grew tremendously. It was quite normal for scribes of the period to ‘improve’ upon the texts that they copied by making deletions and additions. John of Piano Carpini included a plea near the end of his History of the Mongols, begging ‘all those who read the foregoing account not to cut out or add anything’ (Dawson (ed.) 1955: 71). Translators were even more liable than copyists to make major changes. The Latin version of Marco’s book prepared by Francesco Pipino is an instructive example. He did not hesitate to delete passages that he disliked and to make additions whenever he felt like doing so. Usually, this involved inserting abuse of Muslims or adherents of other non-Christian religions, which is generally conspicuously absent from versions closer to Marco’s original intentions (Larner 1999: 76, 104, 113-14). It can be assumed that, where there are errors and inaccuracies in the book, the great majority originated with copyists and translators, not with Marco. (Haw, 176-177)
I particularly like how he starts the chain of reasoning with “Marco himself may have made mistakes.” then winds up assuming that only a tiny portion of the failings of the book are Marco’s himself. It is true that Polo’s book suffers from a shocking degree of textual variation, but the bulk of Haw’s argument, and de Rachewiltz’s before him, rests on the presumption that the text is still somehow useable, that the confirmable elements create a presumption of reliability for the unconfirmable remainder of the text; my argument, and that of Frances Wood and others, rests on the presumption that the known falsifiable elements of all versions of the text, and the omission of a lot of material that could plausibly be there in a first-hand account of someone who saw as much as Polo claimed, creates a presumption of unreliability for the unconfirmed parts of the book.
Haw’s conclusion rehashes the argument reasonably well:
various inaccuracies and mistakes … few serious geographical errors. … Parts of Marco’s book are confused and confusing, parts are inaccurate, parts are exaggerated. No definite reference can be found to any of the Polos in Chinese or Mongol sources. Marco seems not to have noticed some things that we might perhaps expect him to have seen.
Ok, that’s not fair. I left out critical components of his conclusions to demonstrate something: Polan critics and supporters actually agree on a great deal. What’s different is the presumption of innocence that Polan scholars seem willing to allow, a presumption that I think is at odds with the appropriate skepticism of historians, particularly for more extraordinary claims that should be verifiable. Haw’s conclusion is actually:
Overall, despite various inaccuracies and mistakes, Marco Polo’s account is remarkable for being absolutely consistent with his claims. There seem to be no detectable anachronisms in his book and very few serious geographical errors. His account of his return journey with his father and uncle, accompanying a Mongol Princess from China to Persia, has quite recently been proved to show knowledge of events that he could scarcely have known about except through personal involvement. Many scholars believe that this is more or less conclusive proof of his story. On balance, it is very much more likely that Marco Polo did indeed go to China than that he did not. It is also likely that he spoke at least a little Chinese (which has almost invariably been thought not to have been the case by previous editors and annotators), though he may well not have been able to read or write Chinese characters. Parts of Marco’s book are confused and confusing, parts are inaccurate, parts are exaggerated. No definite reference can be found to any of the Polos in Chinese or Mongol sources. Marco seems not to have noticed some things that we might perhaps expect him to have seen. It would, however, be a serious mistake to judge the book from an exclusively modern point of view and unreasonable to demand of a merchant’s son of modest education an erudite and exacting approach to what he saw.
The irony of Haw’s book is that his attempt to prove Polo’s veracity ended up failing for me precisely because Haw was trying to be a responsible historian. I tell my students that there is no such thing as a “smoking gun” document, that one document by itself is meaningless. What historians really work with is rich context: looking at the totality of evidence available, and reasonable inferences and generalizations, to judge reliability and importance of individual documents. (5) Haw did a lot of work trying to make sense of Polo’s claims, sometimes successfully. But given the manifest flaws of his source, which Haw himself admits, he accomplishes very little. Polan loyalists are already convinced that Polo’s claims are valid and useful, except where directly contradicted by evidence. But they are not going to convince Polan skeptics of the truth of Polo’s claims except by verification. And the amount of work necessary to make a good case of Polo is the best evidence that Marco Polo’s Travels is a bad historical source that should not be relied upon for anything which cannot be independently verified.
SOURCE: American Spectator (9-25-12)
Joseph A. Harriss is The American Spectator's Paris correspondent. His latest book, An American Spectator in Paris, will be released this fall.
WHEN I DISEMBARKED from an Air Algerie flight at Algiers’ Dar el Beida airport long ago as a young newsmagazine correspondent, Algeria was newly independent after 130 years as a French colony. I expected that the recently formed Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria—“neither democratic, nor a republic, and certainly not popular,” the foreign press snickered—would be an Arab country full of fierce-eyed turbaned men, mysterious veiled ladies, soaring minarets with chanting muezzins calling the faithful to prayer, and, hopefully, exotic belly dancers undulating to throbbing drums in the Casbah. I did find some of that, though the revolutionary puritans trying to impose “Arab Socialism” frowned on belly dancing.
But I soon learned that this part of the Maghreb had little resemblance to Arabia. Major cities, with architecture that resembled Dijon or Le Mans, had names like Philippeville, Oran, and Constantine. Most urban men wore business suits, the young women miniskirts. Cathedrals and churches outnumbered mosques, and officious civil servants loved to niggle importantly over details—a close parody of their French predecessors.
Besides the halting development of the new nation, the big story was whether the Soviet Union would succeed in a communist takeover, or at least convince the anti-Western Algerian government to let them set up air and naval bases there. From the terrace of my apartment overlooking the Bay of Algiers, I could see cargo ships with hammers and Sickles on their smokestacks and names like Yuri Gagarin arrive with cargos covered by tarpaulins on their decks. Soviet Air Force MiG-15 jet fighters, intel sources told me, wondering whether they would be piloted by Algerians or Russians. Similar ships were putting into the big port at Mers-el- Kébir, where the Sovs hoped to establish a strategic submarine base in the Mediterranean....
SOURCE: Daily Beast (9-24-12)
Douglas E. Schoen is a political strategist and coauthor of the book Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System. Schoen has worked on numerous campaigns, including those of Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Michael Bloomberg, Evan Bayh, Tony Blair, and Ed Koch.
Who was or is the best president of the United States since 1900? Newsweek recently polled 10 eminent historians and 600 randomly selected Americans about our country’s presidents. And the differences in their responses were striking.
The top two finishers among the public were Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, while the top two finishers among the historians were Franklin Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt. Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush both made the top 10—9th and 10th, respectively—in the public’s list, but not the historians’ rankings. And Lyndon Johnson and Woodrow Wilson—3rd and 5th, respectively, in the historians’ poll—didn’t make the public’s top 10.
How to account for these divergences? The most obvious explanation is that historians, true to their profession, seemed to place a greater emphasis on the distant past, while the public’s selections skewed toward recent decades...
SOURCE: The Diplomat (9-24-12)
Dr. William C. Martel is an Associate Professor of International Security Studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is the recent author of Victory in War: Foundations of Modern Strategy.
When we consider the array of problems in our world, no one can say that we don’t live in interesting times.
Asia worries about China’s ascent, Russia is dismantling its democracy, and Iran everyday gets closer to possessing a nuclear weapons capability.
Recently, the Middle East was wracked by violent protests against American embassies in Egypt and Libya – with as many as twenty countries experiencing turmoil.
Facing mounting evidence of an increasingly chaotic and unstable world, it is immensely dangerous for societies to hang on to old and familiar policies.
What is missing, as I wrote on these pages in the summer, is a coherent grand strategy for the United States. But you ask: doesn't America have a grand strategy? It's a good question. The answer may be equally surprising.
Some would argue that the United States still follows a strategy of containment. When some policy analysts conclude America is trying to contain China with its "pivot" or "rebalance" to the Asia-Pacific, or when economic sanctions crafted to "contain" Iran's nuclear aspirations, one could see why containment is still on people's minds.
Not to be the bearer of bad news, but containment died more than twenty years ago. While once an immensely successful policy, sticking with containment promises certain foreign policy failure.
Why, then, do states adhere to containment?
The answer is simple: policymakers and societies find comfort in following familiar policies that once produced results. Even when they no longer make sense, familiar, well-established ideas are reassuring to the public, particularly in unsettling times.
Containment was a highly effective strategy for decades, but its irrelevance was foreordained when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Today, containment is intellectually bankrupt, but it endures as the jargon, the 'gold standard', for American grand strategy. Strangely, many continue to embrace a strategy totally unsuited to dealing with the modern world.
This essay asks what containment was and why it emerged, why it eroded and cannot work, and briefly outlines several principles to guide foreign policy in the modern world...
SOURCE: Council on Foreign Relations (9-21-12)
James M. Lindsay is Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair at the Council on Foreign Relations.
As a teaser for next month’s presidential debates, CNN.com’s Global Public Square asked a group of “historians and commentators” to offer their judgments on which presidents enjoyed the most success on foreign policy and which enjoyed the least. I was lucky enough to be invited to weigh in. GPS posted the picks for most successful foreign policy president yesterday, and it posted the picks for least successful foreign policy presidents today.
I opted for a bipartisan theme with my picks in both categories, selecting Franklin Roosevelt and George H.W. Bush as the most successful foreign policy presidents and Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush as the least successful. The other picks for most and least successful foreign policy president also leaned heavily toward presidents from World War II on. (Bruce Jentleson of Duke swam against the tide, applauding Thomas Jefferson for engineering the Louisiana Purchase and booing James Polk for initiating the Mexican-American War.) The tilt toward more recent presidents no doubt reflects the natural tendency to emphasize what we are most familiar with. But it also reflects the fact that foreign policy constitutes a much more significant part of the president’s job after Pearl Harbor than it did before it. Things change when you become a global superpower....