Roundup: Media's Take
This is where we excerpt articles from the media that take a historical approach to events in the news.
Jon Meacham, in Newsweek (May 31, 2004):
In the first days of the Bush Restoration in 2001, Karl Rove, the new president's senior adviser and in-house history buff, was dining at the British Embassy in Washington with the then ambassador, Christopher Meyer. In the grand building up on Massachusetts Avenue, Rove mentioned George W. Bush's fascination with Churchill. "He was a man who saved the world," Rove said of Churchill, "a wartime leader who charted his own course, and did it with wit and personal morality and courage." Meyer called Rove a few days later. "The P.M. has a spare bust or two of Churchill," Meyer said. Would the president like one? Absolutely, came the reply. Bush, who tells Oval Office visitors that he works at a desk once used by Franklin D. Roosevelt, loved the idea of adding the Churchill.
And so there the Last Lion sits, in bronze, next to the fireplace beneath a
West Texas painting. Bush likes the juxtaposition. Churchill, the president
said in accepting the bust, "knew what he believed, and he really kind
of went after it in a way that seemed like a Texan to me... He charged ahead,
and the world is better for it." Churchill's visage sometimes appears to
take in the whole room. "He watches everything I do," Bush has joked.
What would Churchill make of what he's seeing? What would FDR think of the man sitting at his desk? By drawing on the drama of World War II in talking about his own war, Bush himself has invited the questionsand the comparisons. Charging ahead, we are learning, does not automatically make the world better. Given the faulty intelligence on weapons of mass destruction that justified the Iraq war, the peculiarities of the pre-emptive strike against Saddam's regime, the casualties in the aftermath and the poor planning for a post-Saddam order, invoking the Great Men of World War II is fraught, for their legacies are so large Bush risks seeming small in their long shadow.
Yet at a gathering to open a Library of Congress exhibit on Churchill this winter, Bush explicitly linked World War II to Iraq and the war on terror. "In their worship of power, their deep hatreds, their blindness to innocence, the terrorists are successors to the murderous ideologies of the 20th century," Bush said. "And we are the heirs of the tradition of liberty, defenders of the freedom, the conscience and the dignity of every person. Others before us have shown bravery and moral clarity in this cause. The same is now asked of us, and we accept the responsibilities of history." The "we" includes Tony Blair. "A majority of decent and well-meaning people said there was no need to confront Hitler and that those who did were warmongers," Blair told the Guardian in March 2003.
Now, amid dark days for the American effort in Iraq, a wave of World War II commemoration is about to break over us. On Memorial Day comes the dedication of the World War II Memorial on the Washington Mall, where Bush will speak. Then, a week later, the president travels to Normandy to give an addreess marking the 60th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied landings that began the liberation of Europe. Bush's appearances at the ceremonies will, for many, raise a fundamental question about that most elusive and essential of gifts: war leadership. How does Bush measure up against the giants of old? What can heand welearn from the road to D-Day?On substantive grounds, the analogy is an enormous stretch. Bush's war against Al Qaeda and the battle for Iraqthe president thinks of them as parts of a wholeare not comparable to World War II in scope or scale. Roughly 60 million people, soldiers and civilians, died in that conflict. Churchill and Roosevelt were leading a global hot war in which states, driven by ideology and avarice, were embarked on conquest; great armies and navies massed against one another in ways that would have been recognizable to the ancients. Fighting terrorists and their sympathizers is, we know, a different kind of war, one more like President Kennedy's "long twilight struggle" against communism, a battle fought in an atmosphere of anxiety with flashes of combat.
Trying to find the right historical frame for our current conflict has become a consuming intellectual exercise. Someincluding NEWSWEEK, in a cover story in Aprilhave sought clarity in comparing and contrasting Iraq to Vietnam. Others think of the French fight for Algiers; still others point to the aftermath of the Great War and Versailles, which created Iraq in the first place. No parallel is exact, but turning to history is the only way we can make sense of the present. "The farther backward you can look," Churchill once said, "the farther forward you can see."
Governing always looks easier from the visitor's side of the desk in the Oval Office, from the press room or from the historian's perspective in the archives. But there is no doubt that the early returns on Bush's war leadership are troubling. Despite the administration's claims, there is still no convincing evidence of Iraqi ties to terrorism; no weapons of mass destruction have been found; we have not been greeted as liberators, and more Americans have died in Iraq since Bush prematurely declared victory aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln a year ago than had died there before. So the president has a learning curve to master, and he should start with the Great Men of the Greatest Generationor else he may face Churchill's political fate, defeat at the polls in the wake of a war. Bush has read the right books, from Martin Gilbert and William Manchester on Churchill to Michael Beschloss, James MacGregor Burns and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. on Roosevelt. Whether he has absorbed the lessons of such works is another question.
Bush eschews complexity; FDR and Churchill embraced it. Bush prefers to decide, not go into details or revisit issues; FDR and Churchill were constantly examining their own assumptions and immersing themselves in postwar planning. Bush is largely incurious about the world; FDR and Churchill wanted to know everything. It is not too late, however, for the president to reach back into their lives for guidancethey are not inaccessible figures. Steely and subtle, hawkish and gentle, fierce and forgiving, they were men before they were monuments. And in the debate over D-Day (or Overlord, as the cross-channel invasion was called), all of their gifts and quirks, genius and weaknesses, came into sharpest focus....[Click on the link at the top to read comparisons with DeGaulle.]
Adam Bruce, in the Scotsman (May 23, 2004):
ITS undeniable - the coverage of American foreign policy makes for grim reading. The lack of an exit strategy, the ongoing violence and the failure to build a credible administration are common themes. "Americans are losing the victory", "How we botched the occupation" and "Bin Laden has exceeded even his wildest dreams" are three headlines that stand out.
Youre probably unsurprised, but two of these are not what they seem. "Americans are losing the victory in Europe" was the message of Life magazine in January 7, 1945, and "How we botched the German occupation" was the leader in the Saturday Evening Post of 26 January, 1946. The Bin Laden article, by Simon Jenkins, appeared in the Times on 19 May 2004.
"Never has American prestige in Europe been lower", continued John Dos Passos Life article, which highlighted the unrest and disorder that followed the allied victory in Western Europe.
The Saturday Evening Post article concentrated on the apparent lack of a strategy to extricate American troops from Europe. "We have got into this German job without understanding what we were tackling or why", wrote the journalist, Demaree Bess.
Jenkins sentiments in the Times are similar. "The victors are enduring the most appalling hangover. They can smash nations but not rebuild them... [They] cannot walk and chew gum at the same time."
That article, and those from the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, give great emphasis to the here and now, and are less interested in taking the long view. In 1946 the Americans were facing twin tasks of rebuilding Japan and Germany without any track record in nation-building, save their own. In 2004 American policy makers can look back to the lessons learned in Europe and Asia over the past half-century. Iraq is not Germany, but neither is it Vietnam. There may be resistance to the coalition occupation, but it isnt the Vietcong.
As Robert Kagan wrote in 2002, the invasion of Iraq "is a historical pivot. Whether a post-Hussein Iraq succeeds or fails will shape the course of Middle Eastern politics, and therefore world politics, both now and for the remainder of this century." Looking back to American involvement in other post-war settlements Kagan reminded his readers about the need for a long-term commitment to the Middle East. "American policy in Japan, as in Germany, was nation-building on a grand scale, and with no exit strategy. Almost six decades later there are still American troops on Japanese soil."
Bob Thompson, in the Washington Post (May 18, 2004):
To invade or not to invade, that was the question. Once again, you had a bunch of Washington pundits and insider types shooting off their mouths about a decision that would get thousands of people maimed or killed and poison international relations for the foreseeable future.
Fortunately, the eight panelists holding forth at the Shakespeare Theatre yesterday were talking about the 15th century, not the 21st. And the topic they were debating was King Henry V's decision to lead an English army into France in 1415, not President Bush's decision to send an American army to Iraq in 2003.
Or was it?
"Let's see what we have here. We have a king whose father had been a king. We have a king who spent a carousing youth," said industrialist and Shakespeare Theatre trustee Sidney Harman as he introduced the program. Harman went on to mention the "invasion of another sovereign nation" and to paraphrase the hoary advice of George Santayana that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
Before long, Vanity Fair contributing editor Christopher Hitchens was quoting Henry IV's deathbed advice to the newly reformed future Henry V that in order to suppress domestic discontent, he should, in Shakespeare's words, "busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels." MSNBC hardballer Chris Matthews was referring to the English longbows -- used to great effect by young Henry's archers in his immortal victory at Agincourt -- as "weapons of mass destruction." And moderator Walter Isaacson, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute (which helped put on yesterday's panel), was citing a bon mot by panelist and New York Times columnist David Brooks in which he'd compared the neoconservative advocates of George W. Bush's war to the English churchmen who gave their blessing to Henry's.
"Theocons," Brooks had called them.
The audience roared.
Such contemporary resonance was exactly what Isaacson had been hoping for when he came up with the idea for yesterday's debate.
From the NYT (May 21, 2004):
With his reports in 1969 of a massacre by young American soldiers at My Lai, Seymour Hersh began his run as one of journalism's best-known investigative reporters. But in spite of his longevity, none of his subsequent reportorial efforts has had the impact of his first.
In less than a month, Hersh, 67, has written three articles in The New Yorker that have helped set the political agenda by reporting that once again American soldiers had committed atrocious acts in the midst of a war where the enemy is elusive and the cause is complicated.
The two sets of articles, on My Lai and on the mistreatment of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison, serve as bookends on a career built on dogged pursuit. And longtime associates of Hersh say it is no coincidence that the news that has brought him back to the center of American journalism is one in which right and wrong are separated by clear lines.
Throughout his career Hersh has served as a sort of a global cop reporter, working disaffected bureaucrats, intelligence op-eratives and soldiers to uncover intelligence pratfalls, foreign intrigues and administration wrongdoing.
"There is a sense of outrage at this story for him," said Tom Goldstein, a professor of business and journalism at Arizona State University who was a colleague of Hersh at The New York Times in the 1970s. "He has a sense of outrage unlike anyone I have ever known, and it remains undiminished over a career."
The subjects of his reporting often find themselves outraged as well. On Monday the Defense Department accused him of writing a "hysterical piece of journalistic malpractice" for the New Yorker article reporting that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld approved the use of a clandestine unit to find terrorists within the walls of Abu Ghraib prison. In Bob Woodward's Bush at War, the president called Hersh a liar.
And Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who was accused by Hersh in a lengthy New Yorker article in 2000 of authorizing the massacre of fleeing Iraqi troops at the end of the Persian Gulf War, said the charges were outrageous. "The guy just fundamentally lacks integrity," he said in an interview.
Hersh and the editor at The New Yorker, David Remnick, stand by his reporting, and many former colleagues and press crit-ics praise Hersh's body of work.
Unlike his colleagues at newspapers and on television, Hersh can be quite subjective in his judgments; anyone who is reading his current magazine articles is well aware he opposes the war.
To Hersh, what took place at Abu Ghraib -- and the responsibility that higher-ups bear for the abuses -- represent a grievous perversion of the American mission.
"My Lai and Vietnam was a technical problem. America was not jeopardized," he said. "This story represents a very important strategic loss, not something that can be fixed by setting up an embassy and giving people some breaks on trade."
John McManus, in Grade the News (May 19, 2004):
New Yorker Editor David Remnick had the stage all to himself Monday evening. But Tuesday during the John S. Knight Journalism Symposium, he faced off against three prominent journalists, a history professor -- and the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson.
Mr. Remnick's critique of the American press for turning from expensive foreign news to "non-fiction show business" featuring celebrity trials elicited agreement. But when he blamed the public for failing to pay adequate attention to serious journalism, Stanford Professor David M. Kennedy demurred with a little help from the author of the Declaration of Independence.
Prof. Kennedy, who like Mr. Remnick has won a Pulitzer Prize, likened the editor's indictment of the public the night before to Jimmy Carter's infamous "malaise" address. He paraphrased the former president: "I'm a good leader, but you're not cooperating by being good, attentive citizens."
"It's absolutely fatal to democratic theory to believe the public is incompetent," said Mr. Kennedy. "To whom else can we turn?"
Mr. Kennedy, the Donald J. McLachlan professor of history, quoted an 1820 letter of Thomas Jefferson: "I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion by education." News media, Mr. Kennedy said, must be more "clever" at making what's important compelling.
Editor Remnick responded: "I don't think at all people are incompetent. They are faced with a more difficult world than Thomas Jefferson faced." In Jefferson's time, he said, there was no "entertainment blizzard ... the narcotic effect of television at the end of a day.
"I feel sorry in a way for the news consumer," Mr. Remnick continued.
"They are faced with a blizzard of choices and they are their own navigators."
Michael Kranish and Bryan Bender, in the Boston Globe (May 13, 2004):
... Even as President Bush apologized for the abuses by the military under his command, questions have resurfaced about allegations that Kerry, his Democratic challenger for the presidency, made about the behavior of US troops in Vietnam three decades ago....
Three weeks ago, Kerry said his allegations were a "little over the top," even as he pointed out that many atrocities have been documented.
But the question remains: How widespread was the abuse by American troops in Vietnam?
"There were atrocities, without any question," Robert McNamara, the Vietnam-era defense secretary, said in an interview. "We had photographs of officers shooting innocent Vietnamese. I would say it was not intentional, at least through the hierarchy of command. But I don't think enough attention was paid to it by the chain of command."
The official US record on wartime atrocities in Vietnam is that 278 members of the armed forces were convicted of war crimes in an eight-year period. But some historians say that atrocities were much more widespread than that, although perhaps not as common as Kerry asserted.
The most notorious Vietnam atrocity was the My Lai massacre on March 16, 1968, in which at least 175 civilian men, women, and children and possibly as many as 400 were killed by US troops.
In 1971, Kerry shocked many Americans and caused great consternation in the Nixon White House when he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about alleged atrocities that went far beyond My Lai.
A decorated combat veteran, Kerry based his remarks partly on the Winter Soldier hearings in Detroit, which featured 150 veterans telling their stories in a forum financed partly by actress Jane Fonda. Kerry told the Senate that soldiers "personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Kahn."
One of Kerry's most publicized allegations, that soldiers cut off heads, became the subject of scrutiny by US officials as Kerry was preparing to testify in 1971, according to a report published last year by The Toledo Blade. The newspaper said that in February 1971 the US Army was examining an allegation that a soldier had cut off an infant's head. The 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning series also said that Army investigators found that more than 100 civilians may have been killed and that 18 soldiers committed war crimes; none was charged.
Stanley Karnow, author of "Vietnam: A History," said there is no question that atrocities occurred on both sides in the Vietnam War. Indeed, Karnow said Kerry made a mistake on "Meet The Press" last month when he backed off some of his allegations about atrocities and war crimes.
"He could have dealt with it forthrightly by saying atrocities were committed by everybody," Karnow said.
In 1971, Kerry blamed the atrocities on a culture that began at the top, and he accused leaders in Washington of setting a tone that condoned the outrages. In the Iraqi abuse scandal, Kerry once again raised questions about the involvement of people high in the chain of command.
But even some former Kerry commanders who acknowledge that atrocities occurred in Vietnam said they have believed for 33 years that Kerry wrongly tarred them. While Kerry has not specifically said that his own commanders acted improperly, his 1971 statement was sweeping and targeted even himself. "I would have to say that, yes, yes, I committed the same kind of atrocities as thousands of other soldiers have committed, in that I took part in shootings in free-fire zones," he said.
Kerry went on to say that the people who designed the strategy of firing on anyone who violated that curfew zone "are war criminals."
Retired Rear Admiral Roy Hoffmann, who was ultimately responsible for ordering Kerry into the free-fire zones, took such offense at Kerry's allegations that he organized last week's gathering of veterans to criticize the Democratic presidential candidate, which drew several of Kerry's former commanding officers, along with some other officers who served with Kerry. While many of those critics were Republicans, they insisted they were motivated by Kerry's allegations, not his standing as a Democrat.
Kerry's close friend, David Thorne, who was at his side during the 1971 protests, said that Kerry was not trying to blame his own commanders. Rather, Thorne said, Kerry's aim was to "break through the public apathy."
"Fourty-four thousand people had died, and no one was listening," Thorne said, referring to the number of US war dead at that time.
But the retired officers who criticized Kerry said he misled the public by lumping together documented atrocities like My Lai with his complaints about the in humanity of the US military's policy on free-fire zones.
They also questioned whether the 1971 testimony of veterans at the Winter Soldier hearings in Detroit was accurate. They pointed out that one of Kerry's fellow antiwar leaders was found to have misstated his service record, and they cited reports that some of the Winter Soldier testimony has been discredited.
Asked about those assertions last month on Meet The Press, Kerry said: "A lot of those stories have been documented. Have some been discredited? Sure, they have."
One of Kerry's former commanders, Coast Guard Captain Adrian Lonsdale of Massachusetts, said he has no recollection of Kerry ever expressing concern about atrocities during their conversations while in Vietnam. Lonsdale was among those who said he opposed Kerry on grounds that he falsely made allegations about atrocities.
"Atrocities by US Navy men and Coast Guardsmen under my command were never reported to me," Lonsdale said via e-mail. "Once in a while, a trigger-happy gunner may have shot up a pig or empty hutch in a free-fire zone. I would consider those acts of poor judgment to be vandalism and not to be condoned. I would not have considered them atrocities.
"I do not know what happened during the interrogation of captured Viet Cong," he added. "My experience is that about 90 percent of our personnel were moral, compassionate, patriotic Americans, trying hard to follow the rules and do their duty for their country. Perhaps 10 percent were misfits, half of whom already had problems before they arrived in Viet Nam. Atrocities probably were committed, but they would have been isolated incidents."