Here are some reactions to two books that I've started but not finished this week, both of which I liked very much.
The first is John Lewis Gaddis's The Cold War: A New History. This is Gaddis's latest crack at a subject he has specialized in for years; he says he wrote it in response to the response of many of his Yale students to his much longer books: "Can't you cover more years with fewer words?"
It's intended, he writes, "for a new generation of readers for whom the Cold War was never 'current events.' " If you suppose that young people pay no attention to current events until they are 12, that means that the target audience is everyone who turns 29 this year; they turned 12 the year the Berlin Wall fell.
The Cold War is a first-rate book and organizes the material in a way that is new to me. In the fourth chapter, "The Emergence of Autonomy," Gaddis discusses how client states of the two Cold War superpowers took initiatives unwelcome to their patronsNorth Korea as well as South Korea, Mao Zedong and Charles deGaulle, Marshal Tito and Fidel Castro, and East Germany's Walter Ulbricht. In the fourth chapter, "The Recovery of Equity," he argues that by the late 1960s there was less tolerance of deception and arguably unscrupulous tactics, at least on the part of American elites and American voters. The rules had changed, and Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon failed to recognize thatand paid a high price for failing to do so.
I think he's on to something here, but I don't think he's got it quite nailed down. Johnson's and Nixon's deceptions on Vietnam were of a different character: Johnson was trying to conceal, or play down, the fact that he was increasing American military involvement; Nixon was trying to conceal, or play down, the fact that he was temporarily increasing American military involvement (in the attacks on Cambodia, for example) in the service of a policy of steadily decreasing American military involvement. Of course, many of Nixon's critics (including me at the time) doubted that he was really de-escalating, but the facts available now and, less clearly, the facts available thenjust the number of U.S. troops deployedmake it clear he was. About some of Nixon's other sins, including his administration's secret surveillance of war and administration opponents, he is scathing, and I think suitably so. But he has little to say about Nixon's Democratic opponents, who were scathingly critical when he was de-escalating even though they had made no objection when Johnson was escalating. Nixon was paranoid, but he did have real enemies. I made more of this in my book Our Country.
But neither Gaddis nor I, I think, has fully explained why Americans some time in the middle 1960s became more rulebound and less tolerant of deception and arguably illegitimate tactics in foreign affairs. One reason, I think now, was the impact of the civil rights movement. For many years most Americans were willing to tolerate the existence in the South of a system of racial segregation enforced by law and, on many occasions, by violence. We just looked away, confident that America was generally a fair and decent country and not much interested in evidence that in at least one important respect, that was not true. The civil rights movement, by thrusting the issue into the national spotlight, changed that. After Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested in Birmingham, Ala., and Police Commissioner Bull Connor (then also serving as Democratic national committeeman from Alabama) sicced police dogs on and aimed fire hoses at peaceful demonstrators in 1963, the unfairness of racial segregation could no longer be ignored, and most Americans joined President Kennedy in supporting the Civil Rights Act that became law in 1964.
I think that change of mind affected Americans' attitudes on other issues. We became less willing to overlook possible injustices and more insistent on fair procedures. You can see this in attitudes toward crime (and note that then as now, blacks were seen, accurately, as far more likely to commit crimes than nonblacks). In the middle 1960s, even as the crime rate was going up, the prison population was going down. Support for capital punishment fell below 50 percent for the first and only time in the Gallup Poll in 1966. The prison population is a statistic that is driven not by centralized elites but by widely dispersed and numerous decision makers: prosecutors, judges, juries, police and parole officers, state legislators, and voters. Perhaps we can explain the insistence on openness and legal process in foreign policy by a similar impulse. We were no longer willing to tolerate things that we were entirely willing to tolerate in the 1940s and 1950s.
Attitudes on crime changed fairly quickly. Prison populations started rising again by the late 1960s, though arguably not as rapidly as crimes, and support for capital punishment increased. Elite opinion did not move as far back as that. Liberals in 1960 had been willing to see a liberal politician like California Gov. Pat Brown as a hero even though he allowed the controversial execution of Caryl Chessman, who was not a murderer and was convicted under a California statute that was interpreted to define kidnapping as forcing someone to move under gunpoint. (One liberal who did not see Brown as a hero was his son, then seminarian Jerry Brown). But by 1970, elite opinion was much more solidly against capital punishment, and for two years in the middle 1970s the death penalty was held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The case against Nixon was made primarily by news media and other elites, who (as Nixon pointed out) were unwilling to tolerate actions by him that they had been largely complacent about when taken by Franklin Roosevelt and his successors up through Lyndon Johnson. Nixon had a point. But Gaddis also has a point when he suggests that it is the responsibility of a political leader to understand what his various constituents will tolerate and that Nixon failed to fulfill this responsibility.
The other book that I have been reading, less systematically, is Adam Hochschild's Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves. I gather that Hochschild is a man of the left; he was a cofounder of Mother Jones and now teaches at Berkeley and lives in San Francisco. His book before this was King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Central Africa. That book was about the horrifying Congo Free State that was the personal possession of King Leopold of Belgium, the model for Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Bury the Chains is about the effort by certain Englishmen, starting in 1787, to outlaw the slave trade and, ultimately, slavery itself.
I have only dipped into a few chapters. But from what I have read, this seems to be a splendid book, luminously written, with careful and vivid pictures of the places where events took place and sensitive portrayals of the leading actors. Hochschild seems to have immersed himself in the history of the time and, while he occasionally glances ahead to our times, he gives a sense of what the world was like then. He carefully notes the religious motivation of the leading opponents of the slave trade, the Quaker organizer Thomas Clarkson and the Evangelical Anglican M.P. William Wilberforce.
I have only a minor nit to pick. In comparing the antislave trade movement's popular tactics to those of today's political activistsan apt comparison, I thinkhe mentions only the left-wing causes of today. He could have made the same point by including right-wing causes, as unfamiliar as they may be to his friends in Berkeley and San Francisco. I felt insulted as I read this passage, although maybe, living as I do in a community where the large majority votes against my candidates, I am too prone to be irritated.
In any case, this book tells a story that is a refutation of some of the beliefs of the multicultural left (to which I would guess Hochschild does not belong). The beliefs that all cultures are morally equalexcept ours, which is morally inferior; the belief that the West is the cause of almost all human suffering and that other societies are benign; the belief that Anglo-American slavery was more prevalent and more vicious than any other slavery in the history of the world.
As Hochschild points out, when 12 humble Englishmen met in a printing shop in London in 1787, slavery or some form of servitude was the common condition of mankind around the world. All societies had some kind of slavery. But in only one place, in England in 1787, did the move to end the slave trade and slavery begin. It was started by determined and courageous men, at least some of them motivated by Quaker or Christian religious belief. The antislavery and antislave trade movement then spread to the United States (the framers of the Constitution included a provision allowing Congress to end the slave trade to the United States in 1808, which it did) and thence to other countries as well. The English Parliament eventually voted to end the slave trade, and the chief instrument of ending slave trading by other countries was the Royal Navy, assisted sometimes by the United States Navy. And all this was done, Hochschild again points out, even though powerful men in England had a huge vested economic interest in the continuation of the slave trade. As Thomas Sowell has pointed out, all nations had slavery, but it was the West that abolished it, starting with the Englishmen whose story Hochschild now tells. As Gertrude Himmelfarb has pointed out, the British Enlightenment helped to create a society peculiarly open to appeals to virtue. Hochschild tells how those appeals prevailed. I don't suppose he shares Sowell's or Himmelfarb's politics, and I doubt that he set about to refute the multiculturalist left. But the story he is telling does so.
This is a subject that has long needed an accessible and sensitively written history, and Hochschild seems to have provided it. I look forward to reading the whole book and congratulate the author in advance, even if a few lines irritated me.