Historical Illiteracy in the White House

Earlier this week, when President Bush gave a speech in which he advocated staying the course in Iraq and then offered comparisons to Vietnam and Japan to bolster his case, he demonstrated that his grasp of history is only exceeded by his grasp of the English language. Fortunately, a good many historians took pains to set the record straight.

From the Los Angeles Times:

Vietnam’s real lessons

FINDING IN THE DEBACLE of the Vietnam War a rationale for sustaining the U.S. military presence in Iraq requires considerable imagination. If nothing else, President Bush’s speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars earlier this week revealed a hitherto unsuspected capacity for creativity. Yet as an exercise in historical analysis, his remarks proved to be self-serving and selective.

For years, the Bush administration has rejected all comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam. Now the president cites Vietnam to bolster his insistence on “seeing the Iraqis through as they build their democracy.” To do otherwise, he says, will invite a recurrence of the events that followed the fall of Saigon, when “millions of innocent citizens” were murdered, imprisoned or forced to flee.

The president views the abandonment of our Southeast Asian allies as a disgrace, deploring the fate suffered by the “boat people” and the victims of the Khmer Rouge. According to Bush, withdrawing from Iraq constitutes a comparable act of abandonment. Beyond that, the president finds little connection between Vietnam and Iraq. This is unfortunate. For that earlier war offers lessons of immediate relevance to the predicament we face today. As the balance of the president’s VFW address makes clear, Bush remains oblivious to the history that actually matters. [full text]

From The Politico:

Historian: Bush use of quote ‘perverse’

A historian quoted by President Bush to help argue that critics of the administration’s Iraq policy echo those who questioned the U.S. effort to bring democracy to Japan after World War II angrily distanced himself from the president’s remarks Thursday.

“They [war supporters] keep on doing this,� said MIT professor John Dower. “They keep on hitting it and hitting it and hitting it and it’s always more and more implausible, strange and in a fantasy world. They’re desperately groping for a historical analogy, and their uses of history are really perverse.�

In a speech on Wednesday, Bush quoted “one historian� as suggesting that foreign policy experts – and, by implication, critics of Bush’s approach to Iraq – aren’t always right. “An interesting observation, one historian put it, ‘Had these erstwhile experts’ — he was talking about people criticizing the efforts to help Japan realize the blessings of a free society — he said, ‘Had these erstwhile experts had their way, the very notion of inducing a democratic revolution would have died of ridicule at an early stage.’ �

A search of Google books revealed that the “one historian� is Dower. The quote is from his book, “Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II,� which won the National Book Award and the Bancroft Prize, among other awards, in 1999.

Dower was decidedly unhappy with his 15 minutes of fame. “I have always said as a historian that the use of Japan [in arguing for the likelihood of successfully bringing democracy to Iraq] is a misuse of history,� he said when notified of the Bush quote. [full text]

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3 responses

  1. Inappropriate allusions to history and illogical historic comparisons by politicians are hardly new. I must admit that it is all the more discouraging when politicians provide their versions of history to suit their own purposes or justify their actions or lack of action. In Mr. Bush we have a President who seems to have so assiduously avoided another unpopular war, (although he did serve in the National Guard protecting Texas), and our past President, Mr. Clinton (who seems to have begun his pattern of not adhering to the truth during the Viet Nam era. Yet Mr. Bush chooses to send other people’s children off to die or be maimed, and Mr. Clinton, more interested in Monica and her aftermath, was paralyzed in inaction looking after the interests of this Nation. Mr. Bush’s simplistic world view should not be surprising; much the same has been the case of leaders before him and will certainly be the case in leaders who follow him. One only has to look to the simplistic notions or Mr. Obama, or the to date emptiness of the remarks from Mr. Thompson. Lack of content crosses party lines with ease; remember Mr. Bush had a higher GPA in college than Mr. Kerry–what passes muster is more the packaging than the content.

    Congress can bring this Iraqi excercise in futility to an end. I suggest, however, that to look to Congress for leadership is as foolish and excercise as to expect content from the President.

  2. Mr. Wolberg,

    For what it’s worth, I totally agree with your analysis of the president’s historical acumen. And let’s not forget, while defending Texas he also defended Alabama. Multi-tasking in the ‘70’s.

    However, I wouldn’t lay the total blame with the president for whatever historical errors he committed. To do so would ignore the efforts of the far-flung dedicated staffers who worked on and wrote that speech. That speech, like most, had to have gone through many hands before it ended up with Bush. It’s not so much that Bush couldn’t tell that it was a crock, it’s more that there was a concerted effort to craft a speech, citing false sources and re-inventing facts that is most frightening. This again is an example to make any statement, invent any “fact�, and misrepresent any event to sell an otherwise impossible to sell agenda to the American people.

    Like you, evidently, I’m tired of that. And I couldn’t agree more with your characterization of Messrs. Obama and Thompson. Obama has to realize that pious calls for “change� are no substitute for substantive policy proposals. (Remember when “a government as good as the American people� passed for serious policy? And look what we got.) As for Thompson, he couldn’t articulate any reason he wanted to be president, other than that there are things (unspecified) that only a president could do. Hopefully, in the interim, he hooked up with the writers who provide the words to Arthur Branch in Law & Order.

  3. Of course you are correct Mr. Schoos, and it is almost frightening to imagine the dedicated, and i assume educated, Presidential speech writers producing the nonsensical utterances of the President. It is just as depressing to realize that he likely does not understand that it is empty of content and the speech was shaped to his expectations or demands. One only has to be reminded of the annottated envelope on which Lincoln wrote those 200 or so words on the train ride to Gettysburg, to remind ourselves what leadership and intelligence of that leadership is all about.

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