Lessons Lost: The Futility of Experience

Over the course of last year’s long-drawn-out presidential primaries, and throughout the general election campaign, the American public heard again and again that the major difference between the candidates was the distinction between “experience” and “change.” Obviously, the claim of experience benefits whomever has served in office longer than his or her opponent, whereas the demand for change registers dissatisfaction with the state of the country. But, in 2008, many Americans who called for change at home seemed reluctant to do so abroad, having been warned that a reversal of course would be regarded as weakness by our enemies and thereby encourage a military challenge.

Such aggressions, however, never happened after the Korean or Vietnam wars, nor during the Cold War at all, even with all the predictions of falling dominoes. Historically, America has suffered its worst wipeouts—the British burning down Washington in 1814, the Alamo, Fort Sumter, Little Big Horn, the Maine and Lusitania, Pearl Harbor, China crossing the Yalu, the Marine barracks in Beirut, 9/11—before or during war, not afterwards. Experience, the history of past events, is clearly not what is meant by the term in electoral politics, where citizens are asked to vote for experience, not validate it. In fact, the historical record makes one wonder whether experience actually delivers to the people what it promises. The mere accumulation of past experience, after all, is something quite different from a usable past.

This historical record also raises the question of whether American Exceptionalism, not as a conceit of moral superiority but the special circumstance of America’s development, may be incapable of repeating itself in modern times. In a recent issue of World Affairs, Robert Kagan insists that neoconservatism is not to be blamed for Iraq since America’s democratically aggressive foreign policy goes all the way back to the Declaration of Independence, and in The American Interest, John Lewis Gaddis cites Abraham Lincoln to claim that the “objective of ending tyranny” in the world “is as deeply rooted in American history as it is possible to imagine.” With history on their side, both scholars assume that we can face the future without fear and that truth may be revealed in advance. But if the pro-war scholars are right, one wonders why so many interventions went wrong. In Iraq, the search for weapons morphed into the rediscovery of the Whig Interpretation of History, and we were led to believe that a country could be rescued and transformed in our image. Nothing in the language of domestic politics, and certainly not in past experience, prepared us for the greatest debacle in American diplomatic history.

John Patrick Diggins 1935-2009

John Patrick Diggins was a professor of history at the City University of New York Graduate Center and author of more than a dozen books, including Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History and Eugene O’Neill’s America.

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