Why United States Presidents Ignore History at Peril

Iranian students after having stormed the US embassy in Tehran, 1979.

There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.” Harry S. Truman[1]

United States President Donald Trump has announced his plan to withdraw significant US military forces from Germany, at a stroke weakening America’s commitment to NATO, a large part of whose mandate is to protect Europe from Russia.

Germany has long represented a bulwark, protecting Western interests from threats from Russia.  Think back to Ronald Reagan in Berlin appealing to Mikhail Gorbachev, to John F. Kennedy’s (somewhat mangled) assertion of identification of spirit with West Berliners, to the Berlin Airlift. Germany has been the cornerstone of western European security since 1945. Generations of US military personnel have stood post there, gazing eastward.[2]

Trump’s decision undermines all of this. Does he begin to comprehend the historical significance of Germany? Does a US president need to appreciate history? Do any of us?

I’ll answer this question with an anecdote of sorts. One evening in late 2003, I read Stephen Kinzer’s All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. In the introduction, Kinzer recalls asking an Iranian author what she could tell him about the American-led coup against democratically-elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, who was replaced in 1953 by the vicious American puppet, Mohammad Reza Shah. The author’s response is worth quoting:

“‘Why did you Americans do that terrible thing?” she cried out. “We always loved America.  To us, America was the great country, the perfect country, the country that helped us while other countries were exploiting us.  But after that moment, no one in Iran ever trusted the United States again.  I can tell you for sure that if you had not done that thing, you would never have had the problem of hostages being taken in your embassy in Tehran.  All your trouble started in 1953.  Why did you do it?’ ”[3]

I recall an interview with Kinzer, in which he mentioned how few Americans were aware of their government’s role in a coup d’etat against a democratically elected foreign leader. I counted myself among the ignorant on that day, for I did not learn of the coup until I heard the interview with Kinzer. I had followed the 1979 hostage crisis as closely as anyone, but I remember no mention in the US media of how the Shah had been foisted upon the Iranian people.

Perhaps trouble with Iran, in 1979 and now, could have been avoided had the US leadership known a bit of history.  Allow me to extend this notion: perhaps the US might have avoided a number of unsightly political missteps had its recent leaders known a bit of history.

George H.W. Bush lost the 1992 election in large part because his re-election campaign focused on the defeat of Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War instead of on the faltering US economy (“it’s the economy, stupid.”).  He banked on political triumph by basking in the glory of victory in a distant war rather than concentrating on the matter that Americans have historically held most dear: the economy.  Bush lost the presidency to Bill Clinton. Badly.

Had Bill Clinton throughout his presidency appreciated the ferocious anti-American Islamic sentiment of the US-backed mujahideen in Afghanistan, who felt betrayed and abandoned by America once the Soviet army had withdrawn from the country, and had he not become distracted by frivolous sexual excursions, he may have paid greater heed to indications that those very mujahideen were channeling their resentments into plans for the greatest surprise assault in recent memory.

If Bush Senior had misinterpreted traditional American values, at least he could locate Iraq on a world map and was wise enough not to authorize coalition forces to follow the Imperial Guard as it fled back within Iraqi borders in the winter of 1990-91.  George H.W. Bush was misinformed.  His son George W. Bush was outright ignorant, and was poorly advised on top of that. Had he possessed even a modicum of knowledge of the history of the Middle East region, he may have resisted the Neo-Cons who cajoled him into invasions of Afghanistan (mishandled) and Iraq (unwise in its conception and bungled on every level). History might have taught him simple lessons. 

The first lesson Bush Junior may have taken away from opening a book or two along the way is that Afghanistan is known as “The Graveyard of Empires” for a reason.  One needs only a cursory familiarity with the country’s history of rough treatment of invaders to realize that Britain had a hard time of it there in the 19th century, and withdrew.  If George W. Bush was unaware of that stretch of history, he certainly must have known about the bleeding that Afghan mujahideen—in no small irony financed and armed by the United States—had meted out to the invading Red Army in the 1980s, using surprise hit-and-run tactics.

The second lesson George W. Bush should have gleaned from history is that Arabs view military tactics differently than do westerners.  Western military leaders have tended to seek pitched battles in which technological and logistical superiority carry the day. Generals seek accolades. This mindset has traditionally found small purchase among Arab military leaders, who over the centuries have preferred surprise hit-and-run tactics. The Crusaders learned this lesson the hard way in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.  Time and again, Arab forces feigned retreat before crusading hosts, thereby enticing crusaders to break ranks in pursuit and into massacre.  The Crusades, if my reading has served me correctly, failed, though they did leave behind lingering enmity and mistrust toward westerners. Similarly, one need to look no further than to Napoleon Bonaparte’s ill-fated expedition in Egypt to see the effectiveness of localized terrorism on western occupiers.  His forces continually harried by hidden attackers, Napoleon fled ignominiously homeward, abandoning his men to their fate.  Arab commanders seek no accolades. Yet, George W. Bush, seemingly ignorant of any of this, blundered into the region, at considerable cost in human life.

Why do I write all of this as a prelude to my assessment of Donald Trump’s withdrawal of US troops from Germany? Well, ignorance of history is a harsh master. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Russian history will recognize its designs on central Europe and its traditional need for a warm-water port (read: Istanbul). Russia’s military incursions into Ukraine over the past few years represent a preliminary thrust in that direction.

Let us examine the matter further through the lens of history. Russia under the tsars took part in three eighteenth-century partitions of Poland, wiping that country from the map. In the First World War, Tsar Nicholas II cut a deal with Britain and France, whereby command over the Ottoman-controlled Bosporus Straits–and access to the Mediterranean Sea–would have fallen to Russia in exchange for concessions to British and French interests elsewhere in Europe. In 1920, revolutionary Russia invaded a reconstituted Poland, only to be beaten back soundly, this in the midst of Russian-hatched initiatives to overthrow the German Weimar Republic.  Nineteen years later, the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin acquired half of Poland via the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with Nazi Germany. In 1940, the Soviet Union absorbed Estonia and Latvia under the terms of the same deal, and would have taken Finland had the Red Army not met with unexpectedly stiff resistance there. A glance at a map of post-World-War-Two Europe supplies a fair idea of a European political arrangement to Russia’s liking.

President Trump ignores all of this by stripping central Europe of a cornerstone of its security on the pretext that Germany hasn’t met its financial obligations to NATO.  Meanwhile, Russia’s historical imperative directs its interests toward central Europe and Turkey.

If I lived in Turkey, I would be worried right now. If I lived in Poland, I would be worried right now. If I lived in Germany, I would be worried right now. If I lived in the United States, I would be worried right now.

[1]Kinzer, Stephen, All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2008), v.

[2] For an account of the visceral fear that the presence of Russian troops on German soil arouses among Germans, I point you to the following book. Huber, Florian, “Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself”: The Mass Suicide of Ordinary Germans in 1945. Little, Brown, and Spark, 2020. This is a harrowing read.  Germans viewed Russian soldiers with horror, and the Russians did not disappoint.

[3] Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men, xxv.

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