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Henningsen: History And Ukraine

When events seem to echo the past, pundits resume the old parlor game of drawing analogies to apply the so-called lessons of history. Was the Great Recession a return of the Great Depression? No. How much did the disputed election of 2000 resemble Hayes-Tilden in 1876? A bit. Did Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial predict how Bill Clinton’s would go? Yes. Those are my answers but history is an endless debate and I’d get an argument on every one. The past is, at best, an imperfect guide to the present and future. We must view its so-called lessons skeptically.

The Ukraine crisis offers a bumper crop of analogies, which pundits busily reap for all kinds of predictions.

Vladimir Putin claims that Crimea and eastern Ukraine contain ethnic Russians languishing under an oppressive regime and should be returned to Russia. This resembles Hitler’s demands about ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland of western Czechoslovakia in 1938. European democracies appeased Hitler, sold out Czechoslovakia, and hastened the war they sought to avoid. Ergo, say the pundits, we must stand up to aggression lest things get worse.

But, reply others, Russia has always been intensely nationalistic and inherently expansionist. It won’t tolerate real or perceived threats from the West for genuine security reasons - recall the invasions of 1812, 1914, 1941. And it’s always been comfortable with authoritative leadership, be it Peter the Great, Stalin, or Putin – the actual political philosophy matters less than exercising control and fulfilling national aspirations. Hence, recent events reflect historical continuity.

And because of that, some argue, it’s time to renew the West’s Cold War commitment to “Containment” – an often frustrating policy that succeeded in the end, despite costs like the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam.

Then there’s politics. Today’s denunciations of what Senator McCain called “a feckless foreign policy” echo the “Who lost China?” cries of the early 1950’s – demagoguery that accelerated McCarthyism and the Red Scare. Get ready for this era’s version of accusations that America’s leaders are “soft on Communism.”

Still others suggest that this is merely the latest example of America’s decline as a great power, just as much a victim of what historian Paul Kennedy called “imperial overstretch” as Great Britain before it.

Well, each of these analogies has some validity, but watch out! History is a kind of Delphic Oracle: sought for guidance and offering wisdom that seemed useful but was in fact misleading. The ancient historian Herodotus tells of King Croesus of Lydia, who considered going to war with Persia. He consulted the Oracle, who told him a war would destroy a mighty empire. It didn’t occur to Croesus that the empire referred to was his own.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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