Learning from history

Print More

(HOST) Both policy makers and pundits like to draw historical analogies to support their positions on current affairs. Commentator Vic Henningsen has been thinking about the validity of using the past as our guide to the present.

(HENNINGSEN) Our president compares America’s presence in Iraq to the re-building of Germany and Japan after World War II. His opponents compare it to Vietnam. Some historians liken the current situation to our colonial experiment in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War in 1898.

There, American troops were welcomed as liberators but faced a lengthy and bloody insurgency when they remained, in the words of President McKinley, to “uplift and civilize” the Filipinos.

And then there’s our own re-building experience, Reconstruction, which offers some striking parallels. After 1865 a victorious federal government dominated by the Republican party removed former Southern leaders from politics. It extended power to African-Americans, to white southerners with northern sympathies, and to northern Republicans who moved South to get in on the action, famously remembered as “carpetbaggers.” Angry former Confederates wanted to regain their lost power and return blacks to a subordinate position. They fought back, most notably through terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. In the face of continued resistance, the federal government gradually lost energy for Reconstruction, despite its desire to rebuild the South and its guarantees of civil rights to African-Americans. In 1877, a dozen years after Appomattox, the federal government essentially threw in the towel, removing the last troops from the South and opening the door to what would become the Jim Crow era.

In Iraq today, despite insurgent resistance, we’re committed to the most expensive American development project since the Marshall Plan. Our leaders urge us to see in the past a reassuring message about this effort. Their opponents point to a disturbing one. Will our involvement in Iraq be a great success, like our postwar aid to former enemies in the 1940s? Has it already become a quagmire like Vietnam? Will it be a slow process of colonization and haphazard extension of democracy like the Philippines or will sustained resistance cause a well-meaning effort to run out of gas, like Reconstruction?

What are we to make of these contrasting analogies? I would submit that we aren’t re-living past experience and we should be skeptical of those who suggest we are. Historical parallels are not a sure guide to present experience. They’re an opportunity to develop a different perspective that makes us think in new ways. As we do that we should be wary of swallowing whole Santayana’s old saw that those who do not understand the lessons of the past are condemned to repeat past mistakes. We might just as easily observe, with historian A.J.P. Taylor, that we learn from our past mistakes how to make new ones.

Perhaps Mark Twain got it right. “History doesn’t repeat itself,” he said, “but it does rhyme.” After all, analogies are not exact comparisons. They’re alike in some ways, dissimilar in others. The challenge is to distinguish between the two; to investigate the rhyme.

This is Vic Henningsen in Thetford Center.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.

Comments are closed.