Required Reading: Meditations on Historical Legacy and Acting Like a Jerk

Please!   Some historical perspective for our current and future politicians.

It can be a fascinating source of entertainment to watch the current crop of presidential candidates expound on the growing list of world crises. In support of their own narrow egocentric political agendas and pursuit of the presidential nomination, they open their mouths and out comes preposterous ideas. Their strategy, it seems, is to tell a gigantic whopper which will hood-wink the electorate into believing they are the only one with the answers to the problems. If they are going to say something ludicrous, they may as well also make it really stupid. The performances would be amusing, if the stakes were not so high, potentially placing the survival of our way of life at risk. Their total lack of historical perspective will lead us into the same shameful and disastrous situations we have previously experienced. Surely we can do better than listen to their egotistical and frankly cockamamie political concerns.

Let us first look at the current ‘immigration crisis,” like immigration is suddenly a new issue. After the recent series of terrorist attacks – Paris, Malawi, the Russian Airliner – and the monumental movement of refugees into countries of the European Union,   all consequences of this tragedy are attributed to President Obama’s foreign policies. Charles Krauthammer, a well-known mouthpiece for the far right of the GOP states: “The widows and orphans he now so ostentatiously champions are the product of his coldhearted refusal to do anything that might sully his peacemaking image.” Or, how about this summation by Walter Meade at the right wing American Interest: “To think that conspicuous moral posturing and holy posing over a symbolic refugee quota could turn President Obama from the goat to the hero of the Syrian crisis is absurd…This crisis is in large part the direct consequence of President Obama’s decision to stand aside and watch Syria burn.”   This inflammatory rhetoric, is of course, fuel to the preposterous statements of Trump, Cruz, Carson, et al.

It seems our current presidential candidates would not lay responsibility for the humanitarian disaster in Syria on Bashar al-Assad, the president-familial dictator of Syria and the person clearly responsible for the deaths by massacre of hundreds of thousands of his own people, some by chemical weapons. Any way you parse the numbers, a major motivation for the refugees is to get away from this monster and similar devastating regimes throughout the Muslim world. In the minds of the GOP presidential candidates, it is not politically expedient to recognize the long history of political instability throughout the Middle East. It is more convenient to lay the blame for chaos in the Middle East and the rise of world terrorism on President Obama. In fact, on Wednesday, December 2, Ted Cruz, as reported by the Associated Press reporter Andrew Harnik, announced we should just leave Bashar al-Assad in power. [Read entire article online.] Mr. Cruz feels it would improve US national security interests and Assad remaining will be a deterrent to radical Islamic terrorism. And, since Mr. Cruz would only take refugees clearly identified as Christian, those seeking refuge in the US could stay in Syria and be slaughtered by Assad.

Before making such statements, Cruz and his compatriots should have some insight into the history of radical Islam. They should know it has been around in various expressions since least 1741 when the extreme/radical Sunni sect of Wahhabism came into existence. At that time the foundation of Islamic jihadism was established and Wahhabism is still a predominant form of Islam in Saudi Arabia. But that may be too distant for our candidates to grasp and it is easier to blame everything on the current Obama administration. Perhaps the Muslim Brotherhood, established in 1928 in Egypt, establishing the   concept of jihad, would be more pertinent. But our candidates will surely figure a way to plant these roots of Islamic terrorism on President Obama.   Trump has said more idiotic things: all Muslims in the United States will need to be registered. [Read entire article online.] He will have to find a different symbol for them to wear on their clothes, since the Star of David was taken by Hitler to identify all Jews under the Third Reich. And Cruz would only take immigrants who are Christians. And how do we identify Christians; he would want their thumb print on a baptismal certificate, or be sure they were uncircumcised. [Read entire article online.] We may cast such ideas as silly, but on 2 December, Jeb Bush stated Trump sounds like a fascist. The first reasonable perception Jeb has presented so far.

In brief, there is a long history of jihadist atrocities. And since all of the candidates were alive in 1979, they might recall when the US Embassy in Tehran, Iran was taken over by Islamic extremists. Our candidates would of course blame that entirely on President Carter; after all he was a Democrat. This same group of Islamic terrorists then expanded into Lebanon and were responsible for the bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut in 1983 followed by the bombing of the US Marine Barracks with 241 dead. Ronald Reagan was President at that time. But we can’t blame him; after all he was a Republican deity.   It seems the Islamic terrorist group Hezbollah, out of Iran, took responsibility for killing all those Marines. Or maybe even Trump would remember the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993; also by Islamic terrorists. By 1995 the Taliban had taken control of Afghanistan, where Al-Qaeda and Osama bin laden planned 9/11. Since we really can’t blame Obama for the original dominance of the Taliban in Afghanistan, surely they can blame him for the persistence and recent resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Still, it may be too much to ask for our candidates to remember any of this information. They would be correct in not blaming George W. Bush for 9/11, but it is politically expedient for them to blame Obama for Syria, Paris and the refugee crisis and you name it.

Fanning the flames of fear, the candidates fail to remember the consequences of fear that occurred after 9/11. A NY Times Editorial on November 23, 2015 entitled “The Price of Fear” summed up the cost of political panic after 9/11: “In our time, disastrous things have been done in the name of safety: the invasion of Iraq, spawned by delusion and lies; the creation of an offshore fortress, sequestered from the Constitution, to lock up those perceived as threats, no matter the cost and injustice; and an ever expanding surveillance apparatus; to spy on the people, no matter the futility….Al Qaeda and the Islamic State did not compel us to shackle ourselves to a security state, or to disgrace our values by vilifying and fearing refugees and immigrants.” [Read entire article online.]

It seems, apparently for our safety, and to assuage the fear of these politicians, we may well be on the verge of making the same mistakes again; the same ones we made in the 1960s, fearful of Asian Communists, as well as the nonsensical plan to be in Iraq in the first place. So, we go back and do the same thing again. Let’s keep in mind one of the greatest mistakes in our history.

For those bullies on the right who aspire to the presidential nomination by screaming for precipitous military action to halt the forces of ISIS, I would strongly recommend some required reading, going back to a time they either do not remember or deny altogether; to the disaster of Vietnam and 58,000 dead American military, who fought to satisfy the gluttonous ambition of American politicians from the Presidency on down, from Kennedy to Nixon, who lied and conspired to hide the truth from the people they vowed to serve. If our candidates have not read “The Best and Brightest” by David Halberstam and “A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam” by Neil Sheehan, then they should not ever be allowed to make any decision about United States military intervention anywhere in the world.

While it does not reach the level of shame that the genocide of Native Americans and the long years of slavery, Vietnam represents one the greatest embarrassments and shameful events in the history of our nation. Surely we will not repeat such a debacle. We came close to this with the Iraq disaster. In addition the candidates might spend some time contemplating the Powell Doctrine, by Colin Powell which maximizes the potential for success and minimizes casualties. As I recall, Colin Powell somewhat reluctantly identified himself as a Republican and thus his ideas might be more palatable to the current political aspirants. Our candidates do not seem to be able to come up with any rational plan or strategy other than to assign blame. If the candidates are unwilling to open their minds to a more careful and considered plan of action they should never become the nominee for President of the United States.

Finally, let us return to the immigration crisis which has been a conundrum for the United States since the beginning of our nation. Despite the Statue of Liberty, there is a very strong and persistent ambivalence about immigrants and a pattern of profound resistance in accepting refugees. It is of interest to note that there was a strong anti-immigrant movement in the United States in mid-1850s. According to Jonathan Hughes and Louis P. Cain, Writing in American Economic History (8th Edition) (Peartson Series in Economics, “a strong downturn in the immigration cycle in the mid-1850s is attributable to the rise of the nativist movement.”

“Based upon what we know of the colonial white Population, which was mostly English- and German speaking peoples, these immigrants should have been received congenially in America. But Nativism resulted, as the anti-slave, anti-Catholic, anti- immigrant Know-Nothings – members of a secret  Society whose main goal was to prevent foreigners from gaining political power – demanded a 21 year  Residency requirement for naturalization in the  1850s.”

Of interest, the main concern of the anti-immigrant movement was religion. It was felt the country would be swamped by Roman Catholics. While Irish and German immigrants were the targets in the 1850s, in later decades the anti-immigrant movement “became straight racism.” Hughes and Cain note that by the last decades of the 1800s the countries of origin were Italy, Greece and Eastern Europe: “By then, the children of the Irish and German immigrants had joined the native white Americans in demanding an end to the flow of people from southern and eastern Europe.” We should not leave out the years of resistance and violence that marked the immigration of Asians into the United States, primarily to work on the building of the railroad. However, the candidates must be reminded of the most shameful episodes of the anti-immigration movement in the United States occurred within the time frame of World War II.

Laurence Zukerman writing in The Nation, August 5-12, 2013, discussed “How did a president beloved by Jews come to be regarded as an anti-Semite who refused to save them from the Nazis?”   The thoughts and actions of a President confronting “demands that he rescue Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany while preparing America for war in the face of fierce isolationism, nativism and anti-Semitism at home” may never be known. It is clear the fate of Jewish refugees and the existence of the Holocaust was not high on the priority list for Franklin Roosevelt and the State Department which suppressed news of the Holocaust and frustrated rescue efforts.

Things are never quite what they seem and even noted scholars on this topic are ambivalent. Richard Brietman and Allan Lichtman published in March 2013 a book titled FDR and the Jews and the assessment of Laurence Zukerman is “their study shows that when it comes to assessing Roosevelt’s role during the Holocaust it is easy to find evidence to support the case he made the best of a bad hand and just as easy to cite examples of his apathy….Brietman and Lichtman write that Roosevelt ‘had to make difficult and painful trade-offs, and he adapted over time to shifting circumstances.” They conclude that he can reasonably be credited with saving hundreds of thousands of Jews.”   But does that mean we not have any responsibility for the millions who died? Can we not stand up and face the fact we should have done more?

There is one incident during the buildup to our entering the War indicating where our hearts and priorities were in late May of 1939. The German transatlantic liner the St. Louis sailed from Hamburg with 937 passengers; almost all were fleeing the Third Reich. The goal was to initially stay in Cuba until authorization was obtained to enter the United States. However there was a strong anti-Semitic movement in Cuba, along with political corruption. 908 Jewish passengers were refused entry into Cuba, and then denied sanctuary in the United States. This voyage was widely covered by newspapers in the United States and there was sympathy for the refugees, but also strong anti-immigration feelings.

“President Roosevelt could have issued an  Executive Order to admit the St. Louis refugees,  but this general hostility to immigrants, the  gains of isolationist Republicans in the  Congressional elections of 1938, and Roosevelt’s  consideration of running for an unprecedented third term as president were among the  political considerations that militated against  taking this extraordinary step in an unpopular cause.”

The above account of the Voyage of the St. Louis was taken from the “Holocaust Encyclopedia” of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The St. Louis returned to Germany, as no country was willing to take the 908 remaining passengers. Subsequently more than 250 of the passengers died at the hands of the Nazis.

There is no doubt “political considerations” determined the fate of thousands of Jewish refugees during the war. Now we are faced with similar considerations and again politicians are using other refugees and their immigration as an appeal to what they perceive as a frightened, oft panicked and even paranoid electorate. Or perhaps it is the candidate corps that is in a panic?

There is, of course, a second disgraceful episode after Pearl Harbor that was overtly racist and was done under the guise of security and safety. The wholesale roundup and confinement of Americans of Japanese descent. The panic that lead to this shameful decision can not be forgotten or excused. Entire families were taken away; which conjures visions of Jews being collected for trips to concentration camps. My roommate when I started college in the fall of 1958 was a toddler when his family was gathered up. He was young enough to not have suffered emotional scars of the experience. Unfortunately there were many others who did not remain unscathed. Hopefully cooler and more informed heads will lead us through the current period of world unrest.

Perhaps there is a candidate with historical insight and a broader perspective who is not so self-absorbed and defined by very limited and selfish political ambitions. Such a leader has not been revealed to us. History will reveal, in my estimation, that President Obama kept his cool and perspective and did not embarrass us with shameful decisions that we will regret in the future.

There is a different level of self-awareness and connectedness. The following alternative perspective is taken from a book, Being Mortal – Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande. Let me share some of Dr. Gawande’s thoughts.

The battle of being mortal is the battle to maintain the Integrity of one’s life—to avoid becoming so diminished or dissipated or subjugated that who you are becomes disconnected from who you were or who you want to be….the job is not to confine people’s choices, in the name of safety, but to expand them, in the name of living a worthwhile life. They ask only to be permitted, in so far as possible, to keep shaping the story of their life in the world— to make choices and sustain connections to others according to their own priorities.