Xi Jinping Is Not Stalin
How a Lazy Historical Analogy Derailed Washington’s China Strategy
The word "historian" is a relatively unambiguous word. It means simply a man who tries to write history. But the word "history" is thoroughly ambiguous. It may refer to events which have taken place in the past; or it may refer to the written record of those events. The historian therefore has a double relationship-to the actual experience, and to the subsequent record of the experience. The problem to which I address myself here is the interaction between history, in both senses, and the historian. Let us look first at the unambiguous factor in the equation. In our time, the historian tends to be a professional. He is a man trained in his craft, a product of methodical discipline, a member of a guild. His is a quasi-priestly vocation, supposed to liberate him from the passions of his day, to assure him a serenity of perspective and to consecrate him to the historian's classical ideal of objectivity. His creed has been well stated by Walter Lippmann, who once observed that no crisis in human affairs was unique or ultimate:
The world will go on somehow, and more crises will follow. It will go on best, however, if among us there are men who have stood apart, who refused to be anxious or too much concerned, who were cool and inquiring and had their eyes on a longer past and a longer future. By their example they can remind us that the passing moment is only a moment; by their loyalty they will have cherished those things which only the disinterested mind can use.
The phrase "the disinterested mind" suggests the essence of the professional historian's vow. His commitment is to history-as-record, not to history-as-experience, to writing history rather than making it.
It should be noted that this professionalization of the historical craft—this isolation from actual events—is a recent development. In earlier times, there was by no means so rigorous a bar against the chronicler's being also a participant. "The captain of Hampshire Grenadiers," wrote Gibbon, "was not useless to the historian of the Roman Empire." Indeed, until the last half of the nineteenth century, the great historians were, in one way or another, captains of Hampshire Grenadiers. Macaulay, Bancroft, Guizot, Carlyle, Parkman, Henry Adams-all were men for whom the history they wrote was a derivation from the experiences they enjoyed or endured. Latterly we have come to fear that such experience is incompatible with the ideal of "the disinterested mind." This question seems to be worth reëxamination.
Historians ought always to make their presuppositions as explicit as possible; and I am bound therefore to declare my own interest. I write as one who, after many years of writing history, has recently had the opportunity to watch history in the making. I have often asked myself whether this experience is likely to strengthen or to corrupt one's purpose as an historian-whether exposure to history-as-experience will improve one's ability to produce history-as-record, or whether it will sever one irrevocably from the ideal of "the disinterested mind." I am by no means sure of the answer to this question-and would only submit now some tentative observations.
The dangers of involvement are self-evident. To act is, in many cases, to give hostages-to parties, to policies, to persons. Participation spins a web of commitments which may imprison the chronicler in invisible fetters. Macaulay was forever a Whig, Bancroft a Jacksonian, Adams an Adams; and their histories became the servant of their loyalties. It is only a partial answer to say that the historian is thus imprisoned in any case; that visible commitment serves at least to alert the reader, while the ostensibly uncommitted historian is left free to shoot from ambush. For the process of involvement does tend to systematize what might otherwise be only vague and fitful inclinations.
Yet involvement has its benefits-and many of these also are self-evident. To take part in public affairs, to smell the dust and sweat of battle, is surely to stimulate and amplify the historical imagination. I have often wondered at those who strive to write about great historical crises like the American Civil War on the assumption that the burning emotions of the day were invalid (though, to be fair to the Civil War revisionists, they condemn mainly the emotions of those who regarded slavery as an evil to be abolished, while cheerfully accepting the validity of the emotions of the slaveholder). Participation in the actuality of history leaves the historian no doubt that mass emotions are realities with which he no less than the statesman must deal. Far from being gratuitous and artificial, as the revisionist historians once tried to tell us, the way people feel is an organic part of the stuff of history.
Involvement also increases the historian's knowledge of the operational problems of public policy. The observer who once witnesses the making of decisions under pressure is unlikely ever to write the same disdainful way about the agonizing of Madison in 1812 or Lincoln in 1861 or Wilson in 1917 or Roosevelt in 1941. It is not a particularly difficult trick to say what ought to have been done when you know how the story came out; but, despite E. H. Carr, hindsight is not the safest principle on which to base the writing of history. And involvement not only makes the historian understand a good deal more about the trauma of choice; it also teaches him to distrust a good deal of the evidence on which the historian's reconstruction of that choice is likely to rest.
Nothing in my own recent experience has been more chastening than the attempt to penetrate into the process of decision. I shudder a little when I think how confidently I have analyzed decisions in the ages of Jackson and Roosevelt, traced influences, assigned motives, evaluated roles, allocated responsibilities and, in short, transformed a dishevelled and murky evolution into a tidy and ordered transaction. The sad fact is that, in many cases, the basic evidence for the historian's reconstruction of the really hard cases does not exist-and the evidence that does exist is often incomplete, misleading or erroneous.
Memoranda pro and con cannot necessarily be relied on for an adequate description of the dynamics of decision-or sometimes even for an adequate definition of the genuine issues. Diaries are ex parte evidence, designed, consciously or not, to dignify the diarist, and to dish his opponents. Memory is all too often hopelessly treacherous. As for newspaper or magazine accounts, they are sometimes worse than useless when they purport to give the inside history of decisions; their relation to reality is often considerably less than the shadows in Plato's cave. I have too often seen the most conscientious reporters attribute to government officials views the exact opposite of which the officials are advocating within the government to make it possible for me to take the testimony of journalism in such matters seriously again.
For historians of the twentieth century, the problem is compounded by the technological revolution-in particular, by the invention of the typewriter and the telephone. In the good old days, statesmen, quill pen in hand, could write only a limited number of letters. When they had something of significance to communicate, paper was the only means-save face-to-face conversation-of communication. In our time, the typewriter has vastly increased the flow of paper, while the telephone has vastly reduced its importance. Far more documents are produced-and there is far less in them. If a statesman in the twentieth century has something of significance to communicate, if speed and secrecy are of the essence, he will confide his message, not to a letter, but to the telephone. Electronic waves, alas, leave few traces.
But, though the technological revolution complicates the historian's problem of finding out what actually occurred, it does not create that problem. The certitude with which historians are accustomed to pin down the past often results, I suspect, from the convenient fact that there are no survivors to challenge our reconstruction. The historian of the past is, in a sense, little more than the contemporary historian whose witnesses are dead-and who therefore can write without fear of rebuttal. It is not only, as historians like to think, that the passage of time produces more evidence or greater objectivity. It may be too that the passage of time buries those who might otherwise be able to correct or refute the historian out of personal experience.
Sir Walter Raleigh combined as few men have the roles of chronicler and participant; few historians have had to suffer the ultimate criticism of the executioner's ax. I now understand more poignantly than ever before Raleigh's warning in the preface to "The History of the World." The historian, Raleigh suggested, is dedicated to truth; "there is no mistress or guide that hath led her followers and servants into greater miseries." The historian of antiquity, pursuing truth too far off, "loseth her sight, and loseth himself; and he that walks after [truth] at a middle distance, I know not whether I should call that kind of course temper or baseness. . . . [But] whosoever, in writing a modern history, shall follow truth too near the heels, it may haply strike out his teeth."
Only when truth can no longer rise and strike out the historian's teeth is the historian safe-and only then can he remold the past into the desired shape of crystalline lucidity. The passion for tidiness is the historian's occupational disease. Yet the really hard cases tend to be inherently untidy. A case is hard when it confronts men with difficult choices; and choices are difficult when no preconceived solution applies. At such times, those most responsible must of necessity look at the problem from all sides- and often first from one side, then from another. They engage in a collective exercise of thinking aloud, out of which, with luck and leadership, a consensus may emerge. General Marshall used to say that battlefield decisions are taken in conditions of "chronic obscurity"-that is, under undue pressure and on the basis of inadequate information. This is probably the character of most critical decisions in the field of public policy. The historian who comes along later revolts against "chronic obscurity" and tries to tidy everything up. In this way, he often imputes pattern and design to a process which, in its nature, is organic and not mechanical. Historians presumably reject the conspiratorial interpretation of history; but, in a benign way, they often become its unconscious proponents, ascribing to premeditation what belongs to fortuity and to purpose what belongs to chance.
I do not mean to counsel defeatism in this matter. Tendencies can of course be discerned and identified; and a sequence of decisions may supply the evidence for a clear delineation of conflicting programs and policies. But I do doubt whether specific historical episodes can always be reconstructed with the glib exactitude to which historians are sometimes professionally addicted-and I write as one who has sinned more than most.
This recital does not directly answer the question whether involvement in public affairs will corrupt "the disinterested mind." It does perhaps suggest that too rigorous non-involvement may tempt the historian into imposing an excessively rational order on the contingency and obscurity of historical reality. It suggests too that systematic non-involvement may deny the historian clues and insights which could enrich his understanding of the historical process. Involvement may prompt him to ask new questions which open up fertile new possibilities for the profession to explore. I think of Leonard D. White's notable series on the administrative history of the American government as an example-a series produced in answer to a question which had not occurred to several generations of American historians but which did occur to a former member of the Civil Service Commission: How did the thing actually work? And obviously the early economic history of the United States needs to be rewritten in terms of questions arising from our contemporary knowledge of the processes of economic and social development. Historians, in any case, deal more appropriately in questions than in answers. One remembers the dying Gertrude Stein asking her friend, "What is the answer?" and, when she received no reply, saying, "In that case, what is the question?" This should be the historian's creed.
In short, if involvement has its hazards, it also offers its compensations. It may well be more likely than non-involvement to convince the historian of the precariousness of his calling and to bring him to a proper humility before the welter of the past. "The disinterested mind," in any case, is an ideal, not an actuality-and, as the case of Thucydides suggests, it may be more a consequence of temperament than of a preference for the ivory tower over the barricades.
The brush with history-as-experience has therefore given this particular historian a greater skepticism about the feasibility of history-as-record. At the same time, I must add that it has also given me a greater confidence in the utility of the writing of history for the making of history. For there is a two-way relationship between the two forms of history. One must consider not only the impact of history-as-experience on the chronicler but the impact of history-as-record on the participant.
Here my recent experience has given me a strong and unclouded view. I have always been among those who believe that history should be studied for its own sake, not as a guide to the present or a blueprint for the future. I have always questioned the instrumentalist view of history-the notion that knowledge of the past guarantees superior wisdom in making present and future choices. I still am quite sure that the historian is not inherently better qualified than anyone else to offer counsel in the field of public policy. But I have no doubt at all that the significant statesman must have a knowledge of history, an instinct for the grand tendencies, a feeling for the direction in which the world is moving-he must have his own conception of the nature of the historical process.
His sense of history may be voluntarist or determinist, optimistic or pessimistic, plausible or absurd; but it must exist. He must be possessed by some vision which connects the past and the future and gives his decisions a setting and a point. Surely the great leaders of our own time have had a sense of history. For some, that sense of history has been malign-as in Hitler's nightmare vision of an implacable evolution toward the world of the Master Race; or in Lenin's iron prophecy of a world moving through predestined stages to the predestined conclusion of a universal, monolithic Communist society. For others, the sense of history has been classic-as in de Gaulle's magnificent faith against all temptations of ideology or international organization in the ultimate reality of the nation-state; or in Churchill's chivalrous view of a world where gallant captains battle to keep alive the values of decency and honor.
For our great American leaders, I think, the sense of history has been characteristically flexible and generous, tolerant of diversity and discord, contemptuous of dogma and ideology, skeptical of determinism, delighted by the idea of a changing world in an unfinished universe, yet committed to the abiding purposes of freedom and justice enunciated in the basic charters of our republic. This was the vision which animated Theodore Roosevelt, with his conviction that America must rise to the challenges of industrial and international power-Woodrow Wilson, with his hope for a world community-Franklin Roosevelt, with his conception of a mixed society, combining individual freedom and social responsibility, in an interdependent world. Our President today is fully in this tradition-a practicing historian, like Theodore Roosevelt and Wilson, endowed, like Franklin Roosevelt, with a strong and spacious instinct for the future. I have no doubt that his sense of the character and direction of history-his conviction that the world is moving, not toward some preordained and unitary future, but, if we will it so, toward a diversity of national systems bound together by social progress, respect for the rights of others and loyalty to the international community-strengthens his purpose and fortifies his resolve in his moments of hard decision.
The conclusion is twofold. If exposure to history-as-experience may lead the historian to doubt a little the precision of history-as-record, it also persuades him that history-as-record forms a basic part of the intellectual climate which shapes the actual unfolding of history in the future-that a sense of history is the indispensable underpinning of statesmanship.
It further persuades this historian that monistic and deterministic visions of history are, except in some broad and trivial sense, wrong-that the sense of history possessed by the great American leadership of our century, based on the belief in the reality of choice and the plurality of existence, is much more in the grain of the turning world; and that William James was right in saying:
The great point is that the possibilities are really here. Whether it be we who solve them, or He working through us, at those soul-trying moments when fate's scales seem to quiver and good snatches the victory from evil or shrinks nerveless from the fight, is of small account, so long as we admit that the issue is decided nowhere else than here and now. That is what gives the palpitating reality to our moral life and makes it tingle . . . with so strange and elaborate an excitement. This reality, this excitement, are what the determinisms, hard and soft alike, suppress by their denial that anything is decided here and now, and their dogma that all things were foredoomed and settled long ago.
If it be so, may you and I then have been foredoomed to the error of continuing to believe in liberty.