Roundup: Talking About History
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.
"Ronald Reagan 'tortured' blacks."
One Sunday morning, as I drove to my local tennis court to play a match, I heard a black radio commentator give that assessment of the now late, great 40th president. Imagine my conflict. After all, here I am, about to selfishly work on my backhand, while having allowed Reagan to busy himself by "torturing" members of my race.
The Reagan-hated-blacks routine resurfaced during the week of his memorial services and tributes. This indictment includes the following charges: he cut social spending; he showed his latent racism by supporting Bob Jones University; he gave a states' rights speech in Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers were killed; he "insulted" the lone black member of his Cabinet; he opposed race-based...
... While [Lynne V.] Cheney’s professional record has covered a broad range of social and cultural issues, it is her work in the area of history education that has earned her a reputation for speaking her mind. That work has won her some measure of admiration, even among those who do not subscribe to her views. But it has also drawn the most criticism.
"Her emphasis on history/social studies education has clearly left its mark," said Jesus Garcia, the president-elect of the National Council for the Social Studies, an organization that has clashed with Mrs. Cheney over the group’s advocacy of an integrated, thematic approach to teaching the subject."Unfortunately, she has a more conservative agenda … that doesn’t allow other perspectives. She’s been extremely divisive."
She began to make that mark with a monograph in 1987, written while she was at the helm...
NELSON ROCKEFELLER is alleged to have described the artwork of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, famously difficult classics painted shortly after the Second World War, as"free-enterprise painting." And there, in microcosm, we find the conundrum that has bedeviled certain conservative intellectuals for several generations: What should one think about modernism--particularly high modernism, the works of people like Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and James Joyce, from the first half of the twentieth century? There remains about them an air of the bizarre they seemed to have when they first appeared, and besides, American conservatives tend to be philistine in their judgment of literature and art.
The curious thing is that a great many modernist artists and writers were never political leftists at all. D.H. Lawrence, for example,...
Patrick Buchanan, in his column (June 16, 2004):
With the passing of President Reagan, historians, scholars and journalists have again taken to rating our presidents.
Invariably, greatness is ascribed to only three: Washington, Lincoln and FDR. Which reveals as much about American historians, scholars and journalists as it does about American presidents.
Certainly, Washington is our greatest president, the father of our country and the captain who set our course. But Lincoln is great only if one believes that preventing South Carolina, Georgia and the Gulf states from peacefully seceding justified the suspension of the Constitution, a dictatorship, 600,000 dead and a resort to a total war that ravaged the South for generations.
As for FDR, he was the greatest politician of the 20th century. But why call a president great whose government was...
Mark Perry, a vice president of Jefferson Waterman International, a Washington lobbying firm, and author of Grant and Twain: The Story of a Friendship That Changed America; in the Alameda Times-Star (June 15, 2004):
James Buchanan, the first president to write his memoirs, could have used a ghostwriter. Published in 1866, the book is as forgettable as his presidency. It sold poorly, although the case could be made that in the months after the Civil War ended, Americans were intent on forgetting the crises of the past. But"Mr. Buchanan's Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion" didn't help itself -- it is ponderous, defensive and, worst of all, apologetic. Buchanan's poor reputation -- as an indecisive leader at a time when the country was headed for a split -- has been recently rehabilitated by historians, who argue that he was simply trying to steer the nation clear of conflict. But...
Richard Norton Smith, in the Chicago Trib (June 11, 2004):
Of course he was controversial, even polarizing, a chief executive whose policies will be debated for decades to come. But that only proves how much he mattered.
Ronald Reagan was a man of paradoxes: a New Deal liberal turned Goldwater conservative. In a final paradox, this man who has been largely invisible for a decade, and who left the stage of national politics 15 years ago, seems to loom larger with each passing year--and not just in the party he remade in his own image, but across the political spectrum. Just as Tony Blair's New Labor party is a backhanded compliment to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's enterprising revolution in England, so the New Democrats personified by President Bill Clinton testify to the enduring consensus that Reagan bequeathed successors of both parties....
Jude Wanniski, Reagan economics advisor, on his website (June 13, 2004):
All weekend I've been watching journalists debating whether Ronald Reagan was"one of the greatest" Presidents or just a"great" President, with a few votes for him being just average. I've already voted in this space for Reagan being the best president of the century, for reasons I stated last week. What disturbs me is seeing the reports that historians believe Warren G. Harding was a failed president, one of the handful of truly"bad" Presidents. This only goes to show that it really does take a long distance between a presidency and an accurate assessment of a president's worth, in one direction or another. If it were not for Harding, we would never have had a Reagan presidency. He was far, far more instrumental in leading to Reagan's election in 1980 than was Barry Goldwater, whose chief contribution to America's greatness...
Lewis Gould, in the Wash Post (June 13, 2004):
... For Reagan partisans, the motives [for celebrating his life and administration this past week] are obvious. This will be their last chance to make the case for their hero's greatness before a national audience. The same team that stage-managed Reagan's most famous moments in office choreographed last week's"legacy-building event," as one former official was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as calling it, from handing out 50,000 American flags to bystanders to timing the seaside sunset backdrop for the late president's interment. For the media, sensitive always to the charge that they are too liberal, the Reagan obsequies provided a superb opportunity to demonstrate fairness, or perhaps latent conservative sympathies, by showing that cable channel and network anchors could also envision a fifth face on Mount Rushmore or a new...
From the CBS Morning News (June 7, 2004):
HANNAH STORM: As Ronald Reagan's biographer, Edmund Morris spent more than 14 years researching and writing about the president's life. Morris had access to personal letters and diaries and conducted multiple interviews with family and friends, as well as the president himself as he wrote the book,"Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan."
Edmund Morris, good morning.
Mr. EDMUND MORRIS (Author,"Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan"): Good morning.
STORM: You said so many other people that you talked to eventually admitted to you, 'I could never figure him out.' Why was President Reagan in many respects an enigma?
Mr. MORRIS: Well, it's a paradox between his enchanting public persona, that loveable quality which you can feel just looking at photographs, and his aloof, quiet, private personality. Behind you, this picture of him at...
Robert G. Kaiser, recounting an interview with Mikhail Gorbachev following Reagan's funeral; in the Wash Post (June 11, 2004):
... Gorbachev brusquely dismissed the suggestion that Reagan had intimidated either him or the Soviet Union, or forced them to make concessions. Was it accurate to say that Reagan won the Cold War? "That's not serious," Gorbachev said, using the same words several times. "I think we all lost the Cold War, particularly the Soviet Union. We each lost $10 trillion," he said, referring to the money Russians and Americans spent on an arms race that lasted more than four decades. "We only won when the Cold War ended."
By Gorbachev's account, it was his early successes on the world stage that convinced the Americans that they had to deal with him and to match his fervor for arms control and other...
John Lewis Gaddis, in a lecture at George Washington University (April 2004):
The principal point of which I wish to persuade you may come as something of a surprise: it is that Ronald Reagan – not his advisers, but Reagan himself – deserves to be ranked alongside Kennan, Nitze, Eisenhower, Dulles, Rostow, Nixon and Kissinger as a serious strategist of containment. Indeed, I will go beyond that to argue that Reagan succeeded, where they all failed, to achieve a workable synthesis of symmetrical and asymmetrical containment – drawing upon the strengths of each approach while avoiding their weaknesses – and that it was that accomplishment, together with the accession to power of Mikhail Gorbachev, that brought the Cold War to an end.
For years intellectuals, journalists, political opponents, and especially academics derided...
... It is a quirk of American culture that each generation of nonconservatives sees the right-wingers of its own generation as the scary ones, then chooses to remember the right-wingers of the last generation as sort of cuddly. In 1964, observers horrified by Barry Goldwater pined for the sensible Robert Taft, the conservative leader of the 1950s. When Reagan was president, liberals spoke fondly of sweet old Goldwater.
Nowadays, as we grapple with the malevolence of President Bush, it's Reagan we remember as the sensible one. At the risk of speaking ill of the dead, let memory at least acknowledge that there was much about Reagan that was not so sensible.
Again and again as president, Reagan let it slip that he concurred with fundamentalists' belief that the world would end in a fiery Armageddon. This did not hurt him politically. The kind...
Paul Krugman, in the NYT (June 11, 2004):
In the movie"The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," a reporter defends prettifying history:"This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." That principle has informed many of this week's Reagan retrospectives. But let's not be bullied into accepting the right-wing legend about Reaganomics.
Here's a sample version of the legend: according to a recent article in The Washington Times, Ronald Reagan" crushed inflation along with left-wing Keynesian economics and launched the longest economic expansion in U.S. history." Actually, the 1982-90 economic expansion ranks third, after 1991-2001 and 1961-69 — but even that comparison overstates the degree of real economic success.
The secret of the long climb after 1982 was the economic plunge that preceded it. By the end of 1982 the U.S. economy was deeply depressed, with the...
John Patrick Diggins, in the NYT (June 11, 2004):
Almost everywhere in the press one reads that
In 1985, Mr. Reagan sent a long handwritten letter to Mikhail Gorbachev assuring him that he was prepared"to cooperate in any reasonable way to facilitate such a withdrawal" of the Soviets from Afghanistan."Neither of us," he added,"wants to see offensive weapons, particularly weapons of mass destruction, deployed in space." Mr. Reagan eagerly sought to work with Mr. Gorbachev to rid the world of such weapons and to help the Soviet...
Fred Kaplan, in Slate (June 9, 2004):
So, did Ronald Reagan bring on the end of the Cold War? Well, yes. Recently declassified documents leave no doubt about the matter. But how did he accomplish it? Through hostile rhetoric and a massive arms buildup, which the Soviets knew they couldn't match, as Reagan's conservative champions contend? Or through a second-term conversion to detente and disarmament, as some liberal historians, including Slate's David Greenberg, argue?
This is an uncomfortable position for an opinion columnist (and occasional Cold War historian) to take, but it turns out that both views have their merits; neither position by itself gets at the truth. Reagan the well-known superhawk and Reagan the lesser-known nuclear abolitionist are both responsible for the end of that era—along with his vital collaborator Mikhail Gorbachev....
On June 5, 2004 the NYT reported: "The chief Latin American expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, the nation's pre-eminent foreign policy club, has quit as a protest, accusing the council of stifling debate on American intervention in Chile during the 1970's as a result of pressure from former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger." The expert, Kenneth Maxwell, says he resigned after the Council refused to publish his response to a letter criticizing his review of Peter Kornbluh's The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability. Kornbluh says he was also prevented from responding in print. Below is the letter Kornbluh asked the Council to publish.
Maxwell's main claim was that the the United States government could have prevented the carbombing of Chilean dissident Orlando Letelier in Washington, D.C. in 1976. The assassination was ordered by Pinochet's repressive government as part of a vigorous campaign to...
Marshall Goldman, in the Boston Globe (June 8, 2004):
IF THERE WAS EVER AN ODD COUPLE IN WORLD AFFAIRS, IT WAS RONALD REAGAN AND MIKHAIL GORBACHEV. WHEN THEY FIRST MET IN GENEVA IN NOVEMBER 1985, THE WORLD HELD ITS BREATH. COULD THEY EVEN BE CIVIL TO EACH OTHER?
There was President Reagan, one of the most unabashed proponents of capitalism and democracy and critic of the evil empire of the Soviet Union. As for General Secretary Gorbachev, he was one of the most dedicated believers in Communist Party ideology and an outspoken opponent of NATO and the capitalist world. Yet within five years, together they brought an end to the Cold War and became friends and welcome heroes in each other's capitals.
At the time, particularly during the first few years of Reagan's presidency, it was hard to believe that there could be any such result. Reagan made clear his contempt for the Soviet Union and all that it stood for.
To him, the...
Scott Shane, in the Baltimore Sun (June 8, 2004):
The presidency of Ronald Reagan is widely credited with a muscular, assertive foreign policy that contributed to the downfall of the Soviet Union.
But his response to a wave of terrorism in the early and mid-1980s - when there were far more terrorist attacks worldwide than in recent years - was far less consistent, historians and terrorism experts say.
Reagan's reaction to the bloodiest anti-American attacks of the era - bombings in Lebanon in 1983 - was to withdraw American forces, an act that Osama bin Laden later pointed to as an example of American cowardice.
But Reagan acted with decisive military force against Libya in 1986 when that country was linked to the bombing of a German discotheque frequented by American soldiers.
On the whole, Reagan's legacy in taking on terrorism "is a mixed bag," said Steven R. David, professor of political science at the...
Dalya Alberge, in the London Times (June 9, 2004):
RESEARCH has overturned centuries-old theories that the Dark Ages came soon after the turbulent decline of the Roman Empire in the 4th century AD.
Sean Kingsley, a British archaeologist, has drawn up a new map of 222 shipwrecks dating from the 4th to 10th centuries AD, which shows the emergence of a consumer revolution with an epicentre in the Holy Land.
The conclusions are dramatic, he said: "Rather than dying a quick death following the supposed decline of the Roman Empire, the Mediterranean Sea became a springboard for remarkably vibrant commercial trade."
Dr Kingsley, Visiting Fellow at the Research Centre for Late Antique and Byzantine Studies at the University of Reading, said that the division of the Late Roman Empire between Rome and Constantinople created a multitude of bustling new markets as the backwaters of the eastern Mediterranean became vibrant sea...