All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
The great French historian and resistance martyr, Marc Bloch, is supposed to have said that history was like a knife: You can cut bread with it, but you could also kill. This is even more true of historical derivatives like analogies; they can provide either illumination or poisonous polemic. The first requirement for an acceptable historical analogy is plausibility; the two situations compared must have striking similarities, and the image of the historic antecedent must be as clearly understood as possible. This becomes an unlikely presupposition when the analogy is proposed by partisans working in an age of stunning historical ignorance. Nowadays, politicians and partisans use analogies instead of arguments, convenient shorthand for their defenses of dubious policies.
It was beneficial that President Kennedy was conscious of historical analogies. During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, he remembered how easily nations had slipped into World War I in 1914, and how important it was to give an adversary a chance to back down while saving face. When the invasion of Cuba was being considered, he noted to Robert McNamara, “It seems to me we could end up bogged down. I think we should keep constantly in mind the British in the Boer War, the Russians in the last war with the Finnish, and our own experience with the North Koreans.” But it was dangerously misleading in 2003 to brandish comparison of the Allied occupations of Germany and Japan in 1945 with the American occupation of Iraq solely in order to suggest the ease of establishing democracy by force of arms.
The Devil and the good man may cite Scripture—for opposite purposes. This is true for analogies as well. Some historic moments or persons may be unique—try to find another Abraham Lincoln, for example. Even Iagos are hard to come by. It may be proper to recall Jacob Burckhardt’s warning-cum-aspiration: Our study of history will not make us clever for the next time but should make us wise forever.
The United States, with its frequent claim of exceptionalism, should be free of historical analogies, and at the time of the American Revolution, the struggle to establish a constitutional republic was without modern parallel. But as the nation became a world power and, finally, the world power, its boast of exceptionalism began to sound hollow, and comparisons with the fate of earlier empires became common.
With the defeat of the Axis powers in 1945, the United States emerged as the leading power of the West, and was thereafter confronted by imperial responsibilities and temptations. At home, the “Red Scare” became a powerful political-psychological force. Abroad, the successive burdens of Korea and Vietnam, which demanded the sacrifice of American lives and fortunes, were followed by the rise of an altogether new challenge, international terrorism, with the United States as its principal target.
A nation puzzled and divided by American ascendancy following World War II was attuned to the many analogues that politicians and partisan scholars offered. It is no wonder many of these analogies focused on the most dramatic and recent world-historical disaster—the rise and fall of Hitler and his empire. In the early 1950s, left-wing alarmists saw in Senator McCarthy a Hitler and in Eisenhower, a Hindenburg. At the time, I thought this an invidious and dangerous comparison in that American political culture was fundamentally different from that of Germany. But German has been the language of politics in extremis, Weimar the symbol of democratic self-destruction, Hitler the reminder of the all-powerful, enthralling tyrant—and appeasement of him as the road to war.
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