George Santayana wasn’t thinking of history but of the progress of human consciousness when he wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (From volume 1 of The Life of Reason, 1905) Nevertheless, his striking phrase was taken up by generations of enthusiasts as a justification for the study of history, its implicit promise (under this new interpretation) being that historical awareness would help modern societies avoid making the “mistakes” committed by earlier societies. And in our own times, when a world war between the major powers might easily kill one or two hundred million people, such a promise has been especially appealing.
Yet wars have continued to start and sputter out following their own merry agendas, and it seems that no amount of liberal arts graduates has been able to protect us from our own worst foreign policy instincts. Worse, it turns out that historical memory has not enlightened but rather befuddled us. Every foreign policy challenge is now presented to us by savvy governments and narrative-addicted media as one in which the approved policy is fully justified by a powerful historical analogy. Negotiating with Iran is like appeasing Hitler at Munich. Fighting Sunni insurgents is like fighting the Viet Cong (if you’re opposed to the war), or like fighting Malayan guerrillas (if you support the war). September 11, 2001 is like December 7, 1941. Conservative historian Victor Davis Hanson is a master of this technique: in his recent and deceptively-titled book A War Like No Other, he manages to compare the Peloponnesian War to no less than four modern conflicts (see my review here).
In this context, a recent article by political scientist Dominic Tierney is worth reading. Published in this past summer’s edition of the Journal of Cold War Studies, Tierney’s piece examines the role that moral analogies (as opposed to merely strategic analogies) played in President Kennedy’s decision-making during the Cuban missile crisis, particularly the Pearl Harbor analogy. When the crisis began, the president’s military advisors pushed hard for a surprise air attack on the missile installations, with Robert Kennedy advocating an invasion to take care of the Cuban problem once and for all: “just get into it, and get it over with.” After the second meeting, Deputy CIA Director General Marshall Carter raised Pearl Harbor for the first time, not as a moral argument but as a warning against the logic of escalation. “this comin’ in there on Pearl Harbor [with a surprise attack] just frightens the hell out of me as to what goes beyond… You go in there with a surprise attack; you put out all the missiles. This isn’t the end; this is the beginning, I think.”
By the next day, however, Pearl Harbor had turned into a moral analogy. CIA Director John McCone opposed a surprise air strike by arguing that “the United States should not act without warning and thus be forced to live with a ‘Pearl Harbor indictment’ for the indefinite future.” This use of the analogy recurred again and again during the next few days of discussion, not in any sophisticated or analytical way, writes Tierney, but as a moral reference point of deceit and evil – it was, after all, the date that would live in infamy. Under Secretary of State George Ball finally defined the problem as one of national identity: “I think that a course of action where we strike without warning is like Pearl Harbor. . . . It’s . . . it’s the kind of conduct that’s such that one might expect of the Soviet Union. It is not conduct that one expects of the United States.”
Like other Americans of their generation, both John and Robert Kennedy had been profoundly affected by Pearl Harbor, and the analogy, Tierney argues, not only influenced the president’s ultimate decision to rule out a surprise attack, but even caused Robert Kennedy to change “from being a hawk to a dove”. Having forsworn the element of surprise, the committee soon realized that a naval blockade was the only realistic remaining option. (Fiercely opposing this idea, Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay unsuccessfully lobbed an analogy of his own – Munich – into the debate.)
As we know, the blockade policy led to a happy ending. But Tierney points out that there was only a weak logical relationship between the nature of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the proposed surprise attack on Cuba, and the analogy that linked the two. Dean Acheson, who criticized the analogy at the time, summarized his own arguments in 1969:
[A]t Pearl Harbor the Japanese without provocation or warning attacked our fleet thousands of miles from their shores. In the present situation, the Soviet Union had installed ninety miles from our coast – while denying they were doing so – offensive weapons that were capable of lethal injury to the United States. This they were doing a hundred and forty years after the warning given in [the Monroe Doctrine]. . . . How much warning was necessary to avoid the stigma of “Pearl Harbor in reverse”?
Analogies are tremendously powerful tools. Used carefully, they can aid in comprehension, stimulate fruitful comparative analysis, and generate innovative ideas. But they are seldom used carefully – almost never, by politicians – and so cry out for a particularly high degree of skepticism from listeners. If we can’t get out of the habit of taking analogies at face value, those who can remember the past and wilfully misapply it to the present shall inherit the earth. What’s left of it, anyway.