Category Archives: Past as Prologue to Future

The Russian Bear and the American Eagle

In the early 1990’s in Saudi Arabia, during my assignment at the U.S. consulate in Jeddah, the Saudis and the Russians opened diplomatic relations. The U.S. and its allies, officially including Russia, had just won the first Gulf war to liberate Kuwait from the Iraqi occupation. The days were full of optimism and enthusiasm. Russia had emerged on the world stage shorn of the Soviets, and we believed democracy had won the Cold War.

For a while, it looked as if a glorious new age was born, when the countries of the former Soviet Union would be overtaken by democracy and capitalism. A Russian official visited our U.S. consulate in Jeddah, and we all basked in cooperative civility.

Alas, it was not to be. Today, Russia and western nations, including the United States, back client conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, like the old days of the Cold War.

U.S. intelligence about Russian hacks interfering with the American election have opened a frontier of grave concern.

Raymond Smith, a U.S. diplomat in Moscow during that early time, writes in a recent issue of The Foreign Service Journal (December 2016), “The Russian people, giddy from the collapse of the corrupt, oppressive regime under which they had labored for generations, hungered for a normal relationship with the rest of the world and believed that the result would be quick and dramatic improvement in their lives. . . . I wrote that these expectations could not be met, and that a period of disillusionment would inevitably follow.”

It did, indeed. For one thing, the golden age desired by the Russians did not materialize. Instead, “Russians saw criminality, disorder, poverty and the emergence of a new, corrupt and astronomically wealthy class of oligarchs.”

Former European nations of the Soviet Union desired the expansion of NATO as a guard against the reestablishment of any future Russian dominance over them. Russia saw the expansion of NATO as a humiliating attempt to force on them an international system managed by the United States, with Russia no longer allowed a role on the world stage.

How to avoid these adversarial roles? Smith suggests coming together on common causes, such the defeat of ISIS. If we have reasons for defeating the terrorist group, Russia has even more: they wish to defeat the groups before they begin attacking the Russian homeland.

The trick is to find those areas of common interest while we stand firm on issues important to us. Foreign interference in our elections is not open for negotiation. We will fight it. Other issues. like the brutal bloodletting of the Assad regime, must be recognized as evil.

Nevertheless, Smith ends on a positive note: “Unlike during the Soviet era, the two countries are not ideological opponents. There will be areas where our interests conflict. Resolving those conflicts constructively will require both countries to understand the limits of their interests.”

On the Way to War, Peace Broke Out

I grew up in the shadow of nuclear war. During my lifetime, the Soviet Union and the United States fought each other in proxy wars all over the globe from South America to Vietnam.

If the past history of nations and weapons were any guide, the two powers would, at some time, have used their ultimate weapons, and the world would have known nuclear catastrophe.

But it didn’t happen.

Somewhere along the way, a few diplomats and politicians decided to take the first steps away from the chasm and begin tentatively to trust each other.

Some of those people are widely known and some known only by those who closely followed the process. U.S. president Ronald Reagan, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and diplomats George Schultz and Eduard Shevardnadze were among them.

In an interview published in The Foreign Service Journal (December 2016), George Schultz cited a small, early breakthrough involving successful negotiations between the U.S. and the Soviets for a Christian religious group in Russia. The group had fled to the U.S. embassy in search of freedom to worship as they pleased. The negotiations were successful, and though they did not involve a lot of publicity, they led to the beginning of trust between the Soviets and Americans.

The trust grew until bigger negotiations involving nuclear weapons resulted in a rollback of those weapons.

In the decades since, we have seen a return to suspicion. Armed conflicts have broken out in Ukraine, not to mention the awful slaughter in the Middle East. Hope has too often changed to despair.

Nevertheless, that earlier time remains an example of what can happen when a few leaders are courageous enough to risk small steps toward trusting each other.

War and Peace, Rome and Jerusalem, Hope in Bethlehem

“Jews as much as Romans viewed war as a natural condition but, unlike Romans, they sometimes expressed a hope that this might change. . . . the biblical prophets Isaiah, Micah and Joel all looked forward with longing to a time when there would be no more war at all.”
–Martin Goodman, as quoted in “King David,” Meir Y. Soloveichik, First Things, (January 2017)

“He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.” (Micah 4:3-4, NRSV)

“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:78-79, NRSV)

On this Christmas, when multitudes are refugees, when innocent men, women, and children are murdered and maimed, may we, more than ever, be renewed to work and pray for peace.

Ten Reasons Why the United States Has Traditionally Shunned Torture

David P. Gushee, a professor at Mercer University, listed ten reasons in a Sojourners magazine article why the United States has not legitimized the torture of enemies. Gushee is professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University, founded by Georgia Baptists in the nineteenth century.

His list of reasons:

1) Our Constitution, in the 8th Amendment, bans cruel and unusual punishment.

2) Military traditions banned torture from our very beginning.

3) Our nation began with a founding narrative of having come out of British despotism and not wanting to develop such despotism in our own nation.

4) The U.S. was deeply involved in the development of international law and the Geneva Conventions, as in the United Nations, which meets on our soil. [The Geneva Conventions established standards of humane treatment in times of war, beginning in 1864 and continuing after World War II.]

5) We are a nation that began with “a due regard to the opinions of [hu]mankind.”

6) Checks and balances were built into the Constitution and all structures of government.

7) We began with realism about human nature and its tendencies toward domination, tyranny, and abuse.

8) We have for two centuries enjoyed a free press.

9) We are blessed with longstanding medical traditions in the Judeo-Christian-Hippocratic line.

10) Our nation from its beginning has been shaped by religious traditions.

Gushee believes the United States acted against these traditions after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. His opinions were stated in the April 2014 issue of Sojourners.

Was the Fourth of July Necessary?

The founding of the United States gave substance to the ideal of representative government. It remains a work in progress. The U.S. Constitution wasn’t written until several years after George Washington and his colleagues won the American war for independence. It did not even abolish slavery until almost a century after delegates met to write the Declaration of Independence that hot summer of 1776.

Yet the country born in 1776 (or in 1790, if you believe the U.S. Constitution was really the beginning) put flesh and blood on the skeleton sketched out by eighteenth century thinkers.
During those times, Thomas Paine wrote:

“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered . . . “

It struck me that Paine’s words are very eighteenth century. Few kings are left today, and those who remain in Europe, including the ones Paine railed against, are constitutional monarchs. Britain’s parliament (its legislative body) passes the laws. The monarchy is more a symbol of the ties that bind the British together than the possessor of power.

The Declaration of Independence and Thomas Paine’s writings are woven through with the unjust actions of Britain’s soldiers and government of the time. Canada stayed on in the British sphere of influence and today is one of the most respected free nations of the world.

The crown erred, and the colonists, who had some good ideas, reacted with anger. Too bad the two sides weren’t able to reconcile.

Why Did We Fight a War in Vietnam?

Watching reports of President Obama’s recent visit to Vietnam, I wondered why we fought a war there, beginning in the 1960’s. Many Americans and Vietnamese lost their lives. Others suffered injuries and emotional trauma.

Why? We are now forging economic and cultural ties with Vietnam, though it remains a country ruled by one party. It is not a democracy.

Other countries are not democratic. Yet we do not go to war with them. We have relations with most of them.

In the Cold War era, Soviet Russia was an undemocratic, communist nation. The danger from the Soviets was not imagined, especially in Europe. Yet, we found other ways to protect ourselves that did not include fighting a war with them.

We went to war in Vietnam because we chose to believe that losing Vietnam to communism was a danger to us. Other nations in the region, so we believed, would become communist, and, by popular definitions of the time, become our enemies also.

After losing Vietnam, we discovered how tragically wrong we were in our assessment.

Our involvement in Vietnam sprang, not from a threat to us, but from a blanket fear of communism. We failed to see the Vietnamese insurgency as a desire to be free of colonialism, as practiced by the French, whose place we took in entering the conflict. In the eyes of many Vietnamese, we also were imperialists.

We failed to differentiate between true threats and other movements, repugnant to us but not directly threatening us.

Francis Marion, South Carolina’s Swamp Fox: Lessons for Today

Francis Marion was a South Carolina guerrilla leader who fought Britain during the American Revolution. The British forces were one of the most powerful armies in the world at the time, but they were never able to capture Marion. He knew the South Carolina swamps and back paths, because the region was his home. The British saw the colonies as their possession, not their home.

Francis Marion and other American leaders didn’t destroy the British empire. They freed their country from foreign rule and gave it the opportunity to create a better society. Marion himself was a slave owner. Almost a century passed before slavery was abolished.

Interestingly enough, after defeat in the war against the American colonials, Britain went on to become an even greater power. The British were successful militarily, but they also began social reforms to lift the working classes and the desperately poor of Britain out of poverty. More Britons had a stake in a prosperous country.

New military tactics constantly evolve against a militarily superior foe, as the Vietcong knew when they wore down American forces, as they had the French before them. They saw Americans as merely followers of the French imperialists.

In contrast, Americans succeeded in World War II. Their foe was obvious. European allies cherished similar ideals. True values were at stake.

Americans did more than militarily defeat the enemy. After World II they raised education levels and increased job opportunities. The country prospered, becoming a world leader, as much because of its vibrant opportunities as for its military prowess.

Defeating an enemy militarily only buys time. Then begins the hard job of building a society for all citizens.

Tell a Lie Long Enough

Dr. Rufus Fears, classics professor at the University of Oklahoma, gave a lecture on the German Nazi leader, Adolph Hitler. He explained why Hitler was so successful in peddling his racist policies against the Jews.

Hitler perfected the lie. He didn’t, Fears said, tell a partial truth—an allegation with a grain of truth. Instead, he told blatant lies, and he repeated them over and over. Eventually, enough people believed Hitler’s lies to either follow him or ignore those who did follow him as they began persecution of the Jews.

Democracy had come to Germany after World War I. Democracy did not save Germans from a demagogue if they chose to believe lies. They were angry at their humiliation in losing World War I. Hitler’s lies spoke to their anger. Too few people were willing to set aside their anger and examine what Hitler said.

Why Do We Save Reminders of Past Events?

In cleaning out some shelves the other day, I found a copy of Newsweek, December 2, 1963. The issue was dedicated to articles about John F. Kennedy’s assassination the previous November.

Next I found a relative’s high school annual, published in 1918, the last year of World War I. The annual was dedicated to the first of the high school’s alumni to die in that war, on September 15, 1917, in France. His picture stares hopefully from the dedication page.

In my own files, I’ve saved clippings about the terrorism attacks of September 11, 2001. What might they mean to later generations? How close will they come to knowing the horror I felt as I watched the buildings fall?

How do we pass down our meaningful experiences? How do we help those who come after us to know, if only for an instant, what we feel now? For what reason? To learn from them? To ponder the results of our choices, wise and unwise?

We engage with our current communities. We also are a part of past communities. We make decisions that impact future communities. If we live only in the present, we may be swayed by current emotions to forget the lessons of the past. Studying the past, we may decide more wisely for the future.

“They who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”

Iranian Escape: Because Canadians Chose to Help

American diplomats were seized and subjected to brutal treatment following the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979. When the hostages were finally released in January, 1981, American citizens erupted in euphoria.

I had no idea when I joined the State Department more than a decade later that I would one day work with one of the hostages. Nor did I know that I would serve in a Middle Eastern embassy with two of six diplomats who escaped capture.

The day of the takeover, the two were working in the consular section of the U.S. embassy in Tehran rather than the main building They walked out with four others and eventually found their way to the home of Canadian diplomats.

The fascinating story was touched on by the movie Argo, which won the Academy Award for best picture of 2012. Mark Lijek, one of the six who escaped, has written a more truthful telling of the story. Hollywood may be forgiven for merely “basing” the movie on events. Lijek’s The Houseguests: A Memoir of Canadian Courage and CIA Sorcery gripped me with his detailed account of their rescue.

For the first few days, the refugees from the captured embassy wandered between various locations, sure that a militant or someone anxious for a reward would eventually spot them. One of them finally phoned the Canadians.

“Why didn’t you call sooner?” the Canadian diplomat, John Sheardown, asked them.

That, Lijek says, sums up the courage which eventually allowed the six to escape. Perhaps Canada’s willingness to accept Syrian refugees is not surprising.

The Nightingale and All the Light We Cannot See: Different Perspectives But a Common Message

Two recent bestsellers, The Nightingale and All the Light We Cannot See, personify World War II from the viewpoint of a few European characters caught up in its horror.

The Nightingale’s main characters are women, two French sisters. One joins the resistance movement against the Nazis, and the other endures the German occupation with her daughter in her family home.

All the Light We Cannot See is set in the same time period but includes the German as well as the French viewpoint. One character is a blind French girl, upended by the occupation that takes her from Paris to a French village by the ocean and her subtle part in the resistance. A second viewpoint comes from a teenaged German soldier, traumatized by the violence he witnesses and struggling to find a way to overcome the sins he is called to commit.

Both novels highlight the awful suffering of ordinary people: starvation, rape, killing of civilians, and other brutalities. Even more tragic than the conflict itself is the understanding that it need not have happened.

The war was the culmination of centuries of conflict between European nations for mastery over the other. Each conflict produced a loser. National leaders preyed on the desire to overcome humiliation, increasingly demonizing other nations, until Hitler rose on a wave of Nazism fed by anger and economic hardship.

Unfortunately, such dynamics never die. They lurk in the background, like the evil that finally bursts out in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. How do we guard against the hatred and excessive anger that produces such horrors?

Poisoned Partisan Politics: We’ve Survived It Before

It may encourage us to know that the United States has survived other periods of bitter partisan divides. I recently read an article chronicling the battles between the president and Congress during the late 1940’s and early 50’s. (“When Congress Gets Mad,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2016.)

I had thought of the bloodletting between the two major parties in this current era as the worst since the Civil War. In contrast, I pictured the years of the Cold War and our conflicts with the Soviet Union as one of cooperation between all Americans, all united against Communism. It was actually a bitter period.

The race between Democrats and Republicans in 1948 was extremely close. The sitting president, Harry S. Truman won, but Republicans bitterly criticized his foreign policy, saying he wasn’t tough enough on Communists.

He had lost China and given a green light to North Korea to invade South Korea, they said. One senator claimed that the blood of “our boys in Korea” should be directly placed on the shoulders of Truman’s secretary of state. “Contemptible,” Truman responded.

It was the era when Senator Joseph McCarthy used the public’s fear of Communism to begin witch hunts that ruined careers of innocent citizens.

Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower won the next election against Adlai Stevenson in 1952. He continued many of Truman’s policies and began an era of constructive relationships with Democrats.

McCarthy was censured by the Senate in 1954. McCarthyism became a synonym for a campaign of unfounded accusations.