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Re: Halberstam And History

By       (Page 1 of 4 pages)   1 comment
Message Lawrence Velvel

January 4, 2008


Re:  Halberstam And History.


            It is often remarked that Korea is a war about which most of us know little or nothing.  It is called a black hole by the late David Halberstam in his recent book about it, The Coldest Winter.  I personally knew very little about it before reading Halberstam’s book:  I was not yet eleven when it started, so, unlike Viet Nam, which was a focus because it took place in my 20s, Korea did not stick in my mind.  Halberstam himself knew little about Korea, he says, before he set out to research and write his book about a war which began when he was 16, but which came to interest him because of talks he had about it in Viet Nam in the early 1960s with a colonel who had fought in Korea. 


            Halberstam has provided us a remedy for our ignorance.  His book, which some reviewers have called the best general history of the war, extensively informs about the background to Korea, the main players, the style of war fought there, and, perhaps above all, the long list of mistakes by both sides.  Near the end of the work, on pages 631-632, he summarizes major mistakes on each side.  It is quite appalling, especially because the previous 600 plus pages have given one an appreciation for what this summary really means.


            No attempt will be made here to review the content of a book that is well north of 600 pages in length.  Rather, the focus will be on certain points that repeated themselves from Korea onward, that are of particular human interest to me, or both.  Points that repeated themselves -- a fact that Halberstam mentions only glancingly -- did so with regard to Viet Nam, with regard to Gulf II, and, potentially, with regard to Iran or other present or future problems.  They illustrate something that historians generally do not care to discuss, but that seem to me to be of the essence, seem to me to be the most important and one of the most interesting reasons to study history.  Patterns of thought and conduct repeat themselves, often again and again.  If we were willing to learn from the past -- which in matters such as war and peace Americans generally are not, except for people who (now usually wrongly) always react in the same slavering way to the word “Munich” -- we could avoid making the same mistakes over and over again.  (It is a disastrously curious thing that in everyday life we make a practice of operating on the basis of the lessons of experience, but in our public matters we ignore patterns that constantly repeat themselves.)


            Not only do patterns repeat themselves in history in “big” ways, a number of which will be discussed below in connection with Halberstam’s book, but “smaller” items of human conduct (and sometimes resulting consequences) also repeat themselves within given fields.  Even more importantly, and as is often true as well of “big” matters too - - like the question of secrecy discussed below in connection with Hallerstam’s book - - they repeat themselves not just within given fields, but across fields, sometimes across all fields it seems.  And they too have consequences.  Yet we pay little attention to this existence across fields, partly because of lack of ready intellectual access to this phenomenon and partly because of failure to recognize its importance. 


I shall give some examples that have stuck in my mind of phenomena that are true across fields or that have existed previously within a field.  Examples that I noted when I read of them, and promptly forgot about, are probably legion. 


Here are examples of “large” phenomena that exist across or within fields and that have stuck in my mind because I wrote about or wanted to do a conference on them.  One subject that cuts across fields is secrecy.  As discussed below in connection with Halberstam’s book, secrecy is everywhere in America, so it exists across fields as well as within them.  But so little is written about it except with regard to national security matters that our law school was unable to put together a conference dealing with its vast but unacknowledged breadth and consequences.  Another example is ghostwriting, about which I’ve written, with its many bad consequences.  This too is a subject which exists broadly - - in academia, in medicine, in politics, in business, in the publishing industry.  Yet one cannot get anything like a full handle on it, or on its bevy of consequences, because it is not usually written of except when it causes major problems in a particular field, like medicine.


            Here are some “smaller” examples.  Once, perhaps about twelve or fifteen years ago -- it could be more, it could be less, I really can’t remember -- I was writing about the fact that many law professors have an easy job.  It occurred to me that decades before I had read a statement by a guy who said a reason he had quit being a law professor was that it was the only job he knew of that could be done in ten minutes a day.  The only things I could remember about the fellow was that he had been a lawyer and a law professor, but now was a businessman.  I asked our library to see if it could find out who he was.  The internet having come into existence in some form at the time, the library did learn who he is:  David Bonderman, a founder of Texas Pacific, now one of the nation’s largest private investment firms, a firm that is a major rival to Kohl, Kravis, the Carlyle Group, Blackstone, etc.


            Why is this of consequence?  Because it is one thing for some unknown law dean of a small school in Massachusetts -- a dean and school even more unknown then than now -- to say that law professors do not do much work.  But it is quite another thing for the same point to have been made by the likes of David Bonderman.  The views of an unknown dean of an unknown school can readily be dismissed by the big shots.  Not so readily the views of a David Bonderman.


            Here is a second example to the same effect.  Fifteen or twenty years ago I was in some connection making the point that law professors are very stubborn, argumentative people.  I recollected reading decades before, in his autobiography, that James Bryant Conant, the former President of Harvard and a major player in the Manhattan project, who when President of Harvard had made a point of visiting a meeting of each Harvard faculty, had gone to a Harvard law faculty meeting but had never returned because he found the Harvard law faculty to be the most argumentative, stubborn group of men he had ever seen.  Again, I asked some of MSL’s people to look this up.  They had to get Conant’s book and go through it, all of which took a few days, but they found what I had recollected.  Once again, it was one thing for an unknown dean in Massachusetts to make the point -- he could be easily sloughed off by the profession’s big shots.  James Bryant Conant cannot be so easily sloughed off.


            Bonderman and Conant were speaking about a field I was writing on, but illustrate a much larger point, especially because, as said, one finds the same kinds of conduct or actions in field after field (even if -- like Eisenhower being unable to remember at a press conference any contribution Nixon had made to the Eisenhower administration’s ideas, and so said that if the reporters would give him a week he would come up with something - - I cannot now remember specific examples although I’ve seen many).  The larger point is that persons who are dissenters in their fields are often dismissed as dealing in mirage or mistake or as just wrong.  Yet, if they could point to the oft repeated prior occurrence elsewhere of the phenomena or actions they decry, it would be much harder to dismiss them as lunkheads, mere radicals, or criers of wolf.  Harry Truman once said that the only thing new under the sun is the history you don’t know.  Yet Americans know little history; and commonly laugh at or scorn the views of people who say things that are different and who themselves do not know there is history on their side although it may be history in other fields.  The chances of our accepting truth might be significantly better if dissenters had access to and knew the history in other fields that supports them, or even the history in their own fields that does.


            In the past there was little or no access to such history, especially across fields.  Economists read economists, not microbiologists.  Psychologists read psychologists, not chemists.  And so on.  But the internet may make it possible to overcome the walled off character of reading, the more so as Google’s book project proceeds and as other companies undertake the same or similar projects.  (This prognosticating, mind you, from a guy who does not even know how to turn on a computer.)  If one can put in the right words in a search engine, one might come up with huge lists of examples of a particular phenomenon, and of the good or bad that it has caused, in a host of fields and over time.  To give but one illustration of a characteristic that was present to a fare thee well in Douglas MacArthur -- and that is rather more broadly known than many -- take the question of arrogance.  What if one were to “Google” arrogance, or arrogance plus mistakes, or some similar words, when all the world’s written works or even a large share of the world’s written products are on line?  One would doubtlessly come up with a list of disasters linked to arrogance that might cause even the most arrogant person to be very careful.  One would be swamped, I imagine.  Or what if one were to Google “obstinacy and argumentativeness” (or some similar phrases) (ala Conant’s experience), or “lack of work” or “lack of effort” or some similar words (ala Bonderman’s)?  If my non-computer-user’s view is correct despite my technological backwardness, the internet might provide the Great Leap Forward that the Chinese Communists used to talk about, but in a different way.  Characteristics, or particular types of actions, and often the very same ones, and the consequences of the characteristics or actions, seem to me to be the great driver of events in field after field, yet usually they are not in themselves the focus of historians.  If we were to be able to focus, and were to begin to focus, on them in and of themselves, and to assess what they led to in case after case, we might -- one thinks we would -- benefit immensely in deciding what to do in the present and future. 


            But I digress, lengthily.  Albeit not really because, while these ruminations have been in my head a long time, they were called forth by matters written of by Halberstam, even if such matters are generally more of the world shaking kind than of the less noticed type that I personally see or read of from time to time.  Let me, then, start a discussion of some of Halberstam’s points with some of his views of Douglas MacArthur. 


            Halberstam is fair to people.  He tells you both their good and bad points.  But he also tells you where he comes down on them in the end.  And where he comes down on MacArthur is that the general’s reputation cannot survive Halberstam’s scathing smashing up, at least not his reputation from the start of the Korean War onwards, nor various aspects of it from before that war (the Bonus Army, making his planes a sitting duck for Japanese attack, leaving Bataan).  MacArthur was arrogant, racist, delusional (the word “madness” is often used with regard to him and his top commanders in Halberstam’s book), not infrequently a liar (like Bill Clinton, he believed the truth was whatever served his purpose at the moment), a demander of yes men and sycophants, and concerned obsessively with his own public relations and image, which were polished by a never ceasing P.R. machine.  He had around him some men -- his personal favorites -- whose reputations, as one can well imagine of persons who suck up to a MacArthur, can likewise not survive Halberstam’s onslaught, Generals Almond and Willoughby (nee Weidenbach, apparently -- he originally was a Prussian) exemplify.


            MacArthur believed and told everyone the Chinese wouldn’t enter the war, and that if they did, they would be resoundingly defeated.  His view, supported by his sycophants, including his intelligence chief, Willoughby, was delusional - - it ignored or played down or doctored a tremendous amount of intelligence data.  It was racist.  It was arrogant.  It was wrong.  It led to hundreds of thousands, maybe almost 1.5 million unnecessary deaths, including a huge number of the 33,000 American dead.  The guy was simply a wacked out right winger by the time of Korea. 

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Lawrence R. Velvel is a cofounder and the Dean of the Massachusetts School of Law, and is the founder of the American College of History and Legal Studies.
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