16 Feb '17     home | more politics

Chief Strategist Bannon and History Lessons

Today I read of Trump's Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon, urging people to read David Halberstam's The Best and the Brighest (critical of the war in Vietnam) and to think about lessons of history, including unintended consequences.

Good, except that drawing lessons from past events can depend a lot on other stuff in one's head. For example, a lesson from Vietnam that General Westmoreland drew was that "Without censorship things can get confused in the public mind" and rather than free-roaming journalism in places of military action there should be restricted access for journalists and military-led television briefings. Not everybody would agree with this kind of censorship. Some lessons are better than others. Some drew from the Vietnam war that no US troops should be committed to battle without a clear goal, a feasible plan and public support.

Staying with the tricky issue of lessons and Vietnam, Bannon praises experience and criticizes academics. In Halberstam's book, the academic McGeorge Bundy was foremost among the so-called Best and Brightest. Some of us active against the war in Vietnam in Berkeley (working with the Vietnam Day Committee) were aware of the good works by French academic historians on Vietnam – works the CIA had ignored. Bad mouthing academics in general regarding Vietnam is, I think, a bit off, at least for academics at UC Berkeley. It was not the business of every professor to have a position on the war, but being on campus every working day I saw many of them in the forefront of criticism of President Johnson's Vietnam policy. Some Berkeley professors were hawks. One was an advisor to the Johnson administration, and we had one or two wringing their hands about ambiguities. Bannon's right about the value of experience, but it's experience that academic historians study. Many government intellectuals supporting US military action in Vietnam, and President Kennedy before them, ignored the experience of the French. Kennedy ignored DeGualle's warning about Vietnam.

The experience that Bannon extols in the abstract can contribute to wisdom. But often it doesn't. We might want to look for wisdom more in the person who has studied a subject than just lived it. I lived in the mud north of the 38th Parallel in North Korea in 1952 and hardly knew what it was about. (I see myself as lucky in that President Truman knew what he was doing.)

Is it Bannon's position that one of the big lessons of Vietnam is to question our government? Including the Trump administration?

Lessons drawn from history, as we know, are analogy. Analogy escapes details. Analogy has generals fighting a previous war, not the war they are in. It's clarity and details rather than the fog of abstractions and fuzzy or scattered intellectuality that are important. Details regarding here-and-now dynamics are at the heart of wise decision-making. What are the big issues that Bannon sees looming before us in the US today, and what are his goals regarding these issues? What specific mistakes regarding this struggle does he want to avoid? I'll try to answer these questions next time, in a couple of days or so, perhaps without much success.

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