Facts: Handle with Care

The Uses and Abuses of History by Margaret Macmillan

The Canadian historian Margaret Macmillan – author of the best book on the 1919 Versailles Conference, Peacemakers, as well as several other very fine works – has a warning for her fellow historians and for society in general about the traps that await us when we try to apply the lessons of history to present-day situations. Ironically enough, however, after 165 pages of wise and intelligent analysis she then falls into one of the very same traps that she has herself identified.

The book begins by pointing out that history can offer simplicity and support to just about anybody who is willing to twist and distort its lessons. If you believe that Man is acting out God’s purpose, or progressing towards liberal democracy, or moving towards the inevitable dictatorship of the proletariat, you will always be able to find examples from the experience of the past to confirm such a prejudice. Equally, if you think that history has largely been responsible for most of the world’s recent woes – and anyone living in Ireland, Bosnia, Kashmir or the Holy Land could be forgiven for suspecting as much – you might yearn for Man to unlearn the past. This has in fact been tried on occasion: the Emperor Qin of China destroyed all history books and the scholars who wrote them, vowing to start history over again – the same nirvana that was later offered by Robespierre’s new calendar, Pol Pot’s Year Zero and Chairman Mao’s cultural revolution. Yet none of these attempts worked, and Clio wreaked her own revenge on the reputation of all four dictators. Trotsky has now been digitally restored to the photographs from which Stalin had him airbrushed in the 1920s. Whether we like the idea of history and its capacity for inflaming conflict or not, we are nonetheless stuck with it.

So how can we make history work in favour of peace and decency? Ms Macmillan is understandably suspicious of the way that modern-day politicians have attempted to use public apologies for historic wrongs in a cheap and easy way to make politically correct points. Sometimes, as with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission between 1996 and 1998, these exercises can do genuine good, but they work only if the people apologising are the same people who are responsible for the crimes. When Tony Blair apologised for the Irish potato famine, Bill Clinton apologised for Slavery and Pope John Paul II for the Crusades, such gestures were meaningless. There was, for example, (rightly) no question of paying the $10 trillion in damages that Georgetown University economists reckoned to be the correct compensation level for enslaving black Africans. The new Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd, instituted a “National Sorry Day” for the historic maltreatment of Aboriginals in February 2008, prompting an Aboriginal leader to comment: “Blackfellas will get the words: whitefellas will keep the money.”

Margaret Macmillan is enlightening on the pitfalls of oral history, emphasising that memories are highly malleable and that there is no such thing as repressed memory syndrome. She tells us that the notorious sign supposedly erected outside Shanghai Park in the 1920s, which read “Dogs and Chinese Not Admitted”, never in fact existed. Similarly, when Dean Acheson recorded in his autobiography exactly where he had been sitting in relation to President Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull when they took the decision to freeze Japan’s assets in 1941-a vital decision preceding Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour – it took the historian Arthur Schlesinger to discover that Acheson hadn’t even been in Washington that day. Old men forget, but old politicians forget selectively.

The author is also agreeably politically incorrect in her warning that initiatives such as the Black History Month can sometimes go too far: Mary Seacole is now virtually the only person whom schoolchildren associate with the Crimean War. Because statues of Socrates depicted a man with a flat nose it does not mean – as an entire black historical genre now claims – that Athenian civilisation was based on ideas originating in sub-Saharan Africa. The pre-emptive guilt that many Western historians tend to adopt when faced with criticisms of cultural imperialism – “the story of Dead White European Males” – needs to be shrugged off, with common sense returning. Perhaps the election of President Obama might help in that respect.

This book rightly points out that we have seen a “history craze” in recent years, with movies, entire TV channels, websites, new museums and so on devoted to the study and enjoyment of the past. Macmillan believes that we ought to celebrate the fact that there is now a Chimneypot Preservation and Protection Society and that Perth, Ontario held a week of celebrations in 1993 to celebrate the centenary of the year that it sent a giant cheese to the Chicago World’s Fair. It is nonetheless somewhat hyperbolic to state that “In the UK, David Starkey’s series on British monarchs have made him as rich and famous as the Kings and Queens themselves”, however much Dr Starkey might like you to think that.

Where Macmillan’s otherwise sane arguments completely break down, is in her attempts to straitjacket history into her continuous denunciations of the foreign policy of the recent Bush Administration. “Always handle history with care,” she states, yet the conclusion to her book is little more than an unhistorical rant against George W. Bush. Abu Ghraib was not a case of ignoring the rule of law, for example, but the precise opposite: as soon as the gross abuses came to light, the shocked and disgusted administration used the full scope of the law to punish and imprison those responsible.

Today’s Iraq is not “looking like a catastrophe for the US”. Since the surge of 2007 it has been looking increasingly better, and certainly nothing like the Vietnam War with which Ms Macmillan blithely equates it, but which cost nearly 20 times the number of American dead. Her statement that the Bush administration should have “gone to Tehran for help in getting the US out of Iraq” is also ludicrous. Similarly, to contrast Bush’s “contemptuous” treatment of the United Nations with President Truman’s working through the UN over Korea utterly fails to highlight the central fact that the Russians were boycotting the UN at the time of the vote on the Korean War in 1950, whereas they were actively working to foil the second resolution on Iraq in 2003. “We should look at the past with care,” Ms Macmillan rightly tells us, but that must include the immediate past, too.

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