Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A Sad Lack of Statesmen in our World (and other thoughts)

Well, I have finished this book (quite awhile ago, actually) and would like to get it off my nightstand! Thus, here are my thoughts on H.W. Brands' "The Devil We Knew: Americans and the Cold War"

My general opinion of the book was agreement with Brands. There were non-essential ideas and statements that I disagree with. But as they don’t detract from the overall message of the book, I won’t go into them here.

“The Devil We Knew” was a fine example of the well-known statement by poet and philosopher George Santayana that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Brands’ excursion through 50 years of American history illustrates that concept quite well. I think an argument could be made that we are repeating many historical mistakes right now in Iraq. I think Kami mentioned that, and it was a thought I had as well as I read through this book. Frustrating!!!!

“The fact is that communism – not capitalism or democracy – has been the communists’ worst enemy. But nations have had to discover this for themselves. External force has usually succeeded only in delaying the discovery” (Brands 227). Brands cites the U.S. involvement and support of Chiang Kai-shek in China to support this statement. It seems intuitive to me that if communism is really as evil as we believe, and seeing as how our country is based upon the idea of moral people being able to make good choices regarding government, then it follows that given enough time, the citizens in communist countries will eventually create enough momentum for a successful revolution.

A second point that Brands made that I quite agreed with was in regard to foreign policy in dealing with third world dictators. I thought he was correct in stating that their threat is minimal and that giving them the attention of our high level officials only lends credibility to their words. What they want is attention – and we routinely give them exactly what they want.

I found the economic impact of the Cold War to be extremely fascinating. It is obvious to me that many of our politicians make economic decisions based, not on a true understanding of economics, but on popularity polls. Always keeping re-election in mind inhibits politicians from becoming statesmen. The economic “expansion” that took place during the Cold War was mostly a mirage. The evidence lies in the inflation rate as well as our soaring national debt. As World War II ended the government tried to stem off the inevitable recession (caused by a sudden decrease in demand for goods) by creating need (which was funded by tax dollars in the form of American aid to foreign countries).

“The American economy, in 1945 the envy of the earth and the engine of global growth unprecedented in history, by the 1990s sputtered and faltered under the weight of four decades of military spending inconceivable before the Cold War” Brands 227).

The economy runs in cycles. Trying to stop a cycle from completing is like trying to dam a river with newspaper. It can work, but not forever. Of course, with their eyes on re-election and popularity polls, our elected officials aren’t willing to let things run. They must be doing something to justify their existence! The media attributes current economic cycles to the current president – which is extremely short-sighted and ignorant of them. And all too often American citizens feed right into that and demand action from their elected officials. I had to think of the movie “Men In Black” (forgive me for quoting a movie), when the Tommy Lee Jones character says, “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it. Everything they've ever "known" has been proven to be wrong.” So true!

My final favorite quote from the book is this: “However bright, determined, and forceful the individuals who make up a president’s team are when they arrive in Washington, they soon discover that all their gifts are no match for the fact that only one person in the administration wields real power. Few presidents are secure enough in this power to genuinely appreciate counsel contrary to their inclinations. Even fewer advisers are willing to accept the designated-devil’s-advocate status that accompanies consistent objection. With everyone else, presidents like to hear that they are doing the right thing, and advisers quickly learn that influence rubs off on those who tell presidents what they like to hear” (Brands 82-3). It’s a long quote, but telling. The sign of a good leader – a statesman – is one who admires a person with the guts to tell it like it is.

So there we have a few of the thoughts I had while reading "The Devil We Knew". I am glad we had an opportunity to read this! It was a little dry at times but I thought the ideas were good and gave me some food for thought. I have finished "Milkweed" and hope to get some thoughts down on paper this week, if time permits. I have company coming next week and I thought it would be nice to have "no homework" for a little while! :-)


Kami said...

I like the quotes you chose a lot, even the Men in Black one! :) I agree about the economics too. I don't really know much about economics (maybe we should be adding a book about that to our list) but it makes sense what you said about the national debt, and I have heard before that the economy goes in a cycle. I think it's so frustrating too about statesmen vs. politicians trying to get re-elected. Errr.

Andrea said...

Okay, I thought what you had to say was excellent. I now feel like a loser that I made you all read this book and I am still only halfway through it. And, to be honest, I won't be finished with it until Tuesday due to the romantic few days I am spending alone with my husband, followed by the frantic catching up grading, followed by two solid days devoted to my novel to meet Kayli's deadline. So. But, I do have things to say.