During a speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention last month, President Bush invoked a host of historical analogies to buttress his case for sticktoitiveness in Iraq. But what can we really learn from looking at Vietnam or Cambodia or Korea? Brooke dwells on the past.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: President Bush has not forgotten the agony of Cambodia. PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge began a murderous rule in which hundreds of thousands of Cambodians died by starvation and torture and execution. BROOKE GLADSTONE: In a speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention in Kansas City last month, President Bush invoked Cambodia to justify staying the course in Iraq. But that was hardly the only historical analogy the President lobbed in the VFW hall. He embraced the whole panoply of Asian conflicts. PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The militarists of Japan and the Communists in Korea and Vietnam were driven by a merciless vision for the proper ordering of humanity. They killed Americans because we stood in the way of their attempt to force their ideology on others.
Today the names and places have changed but the fundamental character of the struggle has not changed. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But the President seemed to like the Vietnam analogy best and was quick to note he wasn't the only one. PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: In a letter to al Qaeda's chief of operations in Iraq, Zawahiri pointed, and quote, "to the aftermath of the collapse of American power in Vietnam and how they ran and left their agents." BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oppose the war and America and her friends suffer and die. That's the lesson of Vietnam as taught by George W. Bush and Zawahiri. According to Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, it's also the lesson of Munich. And last year in Essence Magazine, Condoleezza Rice drew an analogy between today's antiwar activists and those who opposed the Civil War. They just didn't hate slavery enough.
It's all in the syllabus for the White House course on historical analogies taught by a parade of politicians and pundits. Apparently it's a prerequisite for patriotism. But real historians will tell you when they get the floor - pretty crowded these days - that historical analogies employed for political ends by any and every administration are invariably steaming piles of - revisionism.
President Johnson invoked Munich prior to escalation in Vietnam, and, like President Bush last week, Johnson also used the example of Korea to justify a prolonged military presence. But there are no real analogies. Every event is specific, subject to timing, personalities, even weather, not to mention the distortions inherent in textbooks and the passage of time.
The late, great American commentator Gerald W. Johnson once said, "Nothing changes more constantly than the past, for the past that influences our lives does not consist of what actually happened but of what men believed happened." Or what men would have liked to have happened.
Historical analogies are all those things and more, but they can never show us a true picture of the present and they can never, ever show us a clear path to the future. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]