In the USSR, when they wanted to change history for political purposes, they had to employ entire art departments full of airbrush wizards. In today’s America, all you have to do is have a “counterintuitive” idea. The deployment of the conservative meme that FDR caused the Great Depression has become so widespread that Paul Krugman now finds himself shooting it down when George Will tosses it up on “This Week”. (Via Brad DeLong.)
Back in mid-2005, with things gone miserably sour in Iraq and the analogy to Vietnam becoming all but undeniable, conservatives began to aggressively deploy a new meme. It wasn’t that Iraq was entirely unlike Vietnam, they said; the Iraq War was similar to the Vietnam War in many ways, but the US won the Vietnam War. The strategy had two parts. First, right-leaning academics like Lewis Sorley and Mark Moyar wrote books making tendentious cases that the US had, in various ways, done far better than most historians believe we did, and that the war could have been won if only those pessimistic, unpatriotic liberals hadn’t stopped us from continuing the brilliant counterinsurgency strategies of Creighton Abrams, or from supporting the South Vietnamese government with airstrikes in 1975, or (in Moyar’s case, amazingly) from continuing to back the brilliant Southern dictator Ngo Dinh Diem (whom every other historian considers an incompetent with an untenably narrow power base). Then, conservatives in the media boil these books down into soundbites and create a new “consensus” view that the US actually won the Vietnam War, only to have liberals hand the Communists the keys to Saigon. Hence, we will win in Iraq if only we can keep those damn liberals from giving away the store. Or, as President Bush so amazingly put it during a state visit to Vietnam in November 2006, “The lesson of the Vietnam War is that if we stay, we win.”
The same game plan is being pursued for the new anti-FDR offensive. First, Amity Shlaes wrote a book “arguing” that FDR’s policies exacerbated the Depression, rather than ameliorating it. Some of Shlaes’s evidence for this point apparently cuts in a radical Keynesian direction rather than a conservative direction — she seems to embrace the Friedmanite argument that FDR’s monetary policy was far too stingy, which is hardly a conservative talking point in the current political moment — but that point seems to be lost on conservatives who trumpet her book. Anyway, in the next phase, conservatives in the media take up her book and a few of its points to argue that FDR caused the Great Depression. If the goal of arguing that the US won the Vietnam War was to fight off Democratic attacks over Iraq, the goal of arguing that FDR caused the Depression is to fight off Democratic government-led interventions to cope with the global financial crisis.
The brilliance of these strategies is a Rovian brilliance. Americans have a deep-seated cultural affinity for counterintuitive arguments, for the upending of the conventional wisdom. Americans had to retrospectively invent the myth that Columbus had proved to a skeptical Europe that the world was round; in fact everyone knew that already, but for Americans, America itself must be the counterintuitive answer that disproves an old and deeply inaccurate convention. What makes these Rovian offensives work is that for Americans, the truth must be revolutionary. It is not enough, in this vein, to argue that Creighton Abrams’s counterinsurgency strategy after the Tet Offensive was a great improvement over Westmoreland’s attrition strategy (true), or that FDR’s regulation of markets and public-works programs were flawed and insufficient (true). You have to argue that the US won the war, that FDR caused the Depression.
In early 2006, I started to worry that the new “the US won the Vietnam War” meme might be taking hold amongst impressionable youngsters who had not, like me, grown up watching M*A*S*H. So I started asking American college students, whenever I ran into them, whether they believed these arguments that perhaps the US actually won, or could have won, or was right to fight, the Vietnam War. They all looked at me like they had no idea what I was talking about. “I think everybody pretty much thinks that war was a bad idea,” one Harvard senior said.
What about the new “FDR caused the Great Depression” meme? I’m afraid this one may gain more traction, in part because it seems to have more centrally placed advocates in academia to lend it respectability. But it seems to me to be extremely important to fight back aggressively on this front. When you argue about history, you’re also arguing about the future.
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