Thursday, August 31, 2006

When Does It Become History?

Perhaps nobody has changed the course of history as much as the historians. ~Franklin P. Jones

The September/October issue of Archaeology, has an article about digging up the graves of the victims of Francisco Franco's tyrannical rule in Spain. Franco was the winner in Spain's Civil War. He was an ally of Hitler, who allowed Franco's Nationalists to use German equipment and personnel so he (Hitler) could test out methods of warfare he would begin to put use in 1939. Franco stayed in power until his death in 1975, and like so many dictators before and since, he killed off many of his fellow citizens, those who opposed him, those Franco or some local official thought opposed him, or just those he or said local official didn't like.

Franco's era ended just 31 years ago. I wonder if there are Franco apologists, as there are Communist apologists in Russia? How do they feel as the truth verifying Franco's barbarity is unearthed?

One of the greatest difficulties in studying history is trying to determine how objective the history is. For example, for years, Americans were taught about the valiant fight against the Indians. There would be some considerations about the treaties the government broke, but there would be much more emphasis on massacres. Everyone knew, by the age of 12, about Custer's Last Stand, but almost none of those children knew about Wounded Knee and the Trail of Tears. Some time during the 1970's, the Native Americans began to get their point across that they had a voice in this history, too.

Or, to take an extreme example, consider the Soviet Union. When Stalin came to power, he made sure that Communist Party histories gave him a magnified role in the events that led to the 1919 revolution. He also practically removed Leon Trotsky, founder of the Red Army, from those histories. After World War II, the Party historians portrayed Stalin as a heroic leader, omitting the purges that weakened the Army, reinterpreting the treaty with Hitler as a delaying tactic, and completing hiding the pogroms that wiped out millions of ethnic Russians. A few years after Stalin died, the historians got their erasers out; now Stalin was an evil persecutor of the masses, who had been an agent for the Czar's secret police, and who had nearly allowed Hitler to conquer the country.

Under Leonid Brezhnev, Stalin was rehabilitated somewhat, which was worrisome to the West. How Stalin is presented today to Russian history students, I don't know, but I'm sure the current curriculum on the history of the Soviet Union must be a fascinatingly schizophrenic study.

History, as Alex Haley said (although I don't think the thought is original to him), is written by winners. Sometimes, though, the vanquished can break through, if there are any of them left, as in the case of the Native Americans. Other times, we're so close to the events, we're not always sure who the winners were.

How far removed from an event do we have to be to look at it dispassionately? How long before we can find out what happened on all sides of a conflict or political dispute? The Cold War ended twenty-plus years ago; even before it ended, we were beginning to learn that a major cause of the arms race between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R was faulty U.S. intelligence that vastly overstated the number of missiles and nuclear weapons that the Soviets had. Based on that bad information, U.S. presidents ordered huge buildups in our own arsenals. The Soviets saw that, heard terms like “massive retaliation”, and came to the logical conclusion that they had better build up their weapons program because, to them, obviously the U.S. was going to take any excuse it could come up with to obliterate them. The U.S. saw the buildups, took that as confirmation of the earlier faulty intelligence, and increased weapons production accordingly. And the feedback loop continued.

So who was right and who was wrong? Or are there pieces of the story still missing?

This is not to portray the Soviets as a wonderful bunch of guys who were just defending themselves against a perceived threat. The Communist totalitarian regime was not a noble enterprise, as the Gulag system and the domination of Eastern Europe show. But, they were also pragmatists who had no more desire to obliterate the planet than we did. Probably.

But that's the problem. We're still too close to that time to adequately asses what the motivations of all sides were. Even an issue like the attack on Pearl Harbor still has historians arguing.

Over the decades since WW II ended, many people have wondered if Pearl Harbor could have been prevented and whether the government knew it was coming but allowed it to happen so the U.S. would have an excuse to enter the war against Germany. My own less-than-expert opinion?
  • The attack could have been avoided had the U.S. military taken proper defensive actions, particularly avoiding having so many ships in port at one time. The situation was known to be precarious, yet prevailing military thought seemed to be that there was no way the Japanese could launch a meaningful attack. The U.S. was in failing negotiations with Japan; not having the base on alert was a serious mistake.

  • Of course, there are those who say that the apparent unpreparedness of the Navy at Pearl Harbor was intentional. President Roosevelt knew the attack was coming and allowed it so that he could gain U.S. entry into the war. This seems ridiculous to me. I think the problem was more of the same problem that led to the 9/11 attacks. There was plenty of information, but no one was putting it together. It is highly improbable that any American leader would think that having the bulk of the U.S. fleet blown to bits was a good strategy to gain entry to the war.
But, I could be wrong, and we may never know entirely. After all, it's only 65 years since Pearl Harbor was attacked. It's only in the last few years that we've learned some of the truth about the Little Big Horn battle, and that was over a hundred years ago. Custer made mistakes in judgment; his commanders made even worse mistakes; worst of all, not only were Custer's troops outmanned, they were outgunned. Custer's foes had better weaponry and better leadership; the Native American tactics were as excellent as those of Custer and his commanders were bad.

I think we're fortunate to live in a time where histories are being rethought to reflect a more balanced view of all the participants in the events that have shaped the present. It's easy to blame some of our views on the biases of bygone historians, but in many cases they didn't have enough information to overcome their own preconceptions about events. In some cases, because of their preconceptions, they didn't look for any more information.

When we look back far enough in time, we can be more discerning about the reliability of the data. When we look at recent times, we seems to be less so because we still carry our biases about recent times with us. We believe what we believe and look no deeper.

Perhaps that's the great lesson of history: Keep digging.

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