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History--Be Careful How You Use It : Historians muse over the prospect of creating a rapid-response 'historical-analogy police'

April 25, 1993

Britain embarked on its disastrous Suez campaign in 1956 in no small part because Prime Minister Anthony Eden, recalling the 1930s, feared Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser was another Hitler or Mussolini in the making and had to be stopped.

The Washington policy-makers who oversaw U.S. intervention in Vietnam in the 1960s also looked back to earlier decades, and worried that a failure to act decisively to stop externally directed communist subversion would invite comparison with the appeasement of the Munich Pact of 1938 and with the West's impotence in the face of aggression by Japan, Germany and Italy in the 1930s.

In both of these instances national leaders tried to take guidance--or at least contended that they were doing so--from the remembered past. There was nothing novel in this. The effort to seek out historical analogies to shape or justify actions probably started not long after human history began. Usually it's a sincere effort, a search for usable experiences--for "lessons"--that are relevant to new challenges. But that the lessons can sometimes be inapt is clear.

Saddam Hussein, President George Bush said more than once, is "worse than Hitler." Saddam Hussein is a despicable tyrant without apparent redeeming virtue. But he is not worse than Hitler or even, in the magnitude of the evil he has been able to practice, comparable to Hitler. Overkill is the routine language of politics. But even in conditions of extreme provocation a decent respect for the facts of history must be observed.

Some historians, fed up with the sloppiness of much historical analogizing in public life, are musing over the prospect of creating a rapid-response "historical-analogy police" to set the record straight when, in their view, it is put askew by public figures out of ignorance or design. The historians' frustration is understandable. It is their assumption that's faulty. Uncontested interpretations of historical events are the exception rather than the rule. Mostly, there is no single "truth," no indisputable "lesson" to be drawn from the past and used to interpret the present. The historical-analogy police would have one point of view. It would not necessarily be a view that would be universally accepted.

The need is to use history with care, so that we don't mislead ourselves along with others, and so that we don't come to distrust the valuable pointers that history can provide. Mark Twain, one of the wisest of Americans, put it well:

"We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it--and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove lid again--and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one any more."

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