A trip down memory lane
To quell any speculation, yes I was too young to remember the Eisenhower years (1952 - 1960). But I know enough about them to realize how different they were to our era now in 2012. How to capture the difference? I think it best comes out in how we view the value of being “understated”. Back in Ike’s day, this was a rather strong cultural norm. And it was a core conservative value. One was expected to be understated in order to fit in. These days, it is perceived to be a recipe for obscurity. One wonders, for example, what Ike would think about the flock of bombastic candidates frantically vying for the nomination of the republican party this year. They may be many things, but understated, they are not.
Ross Douthat makes the case that Ike’s understated leadership embodied a lost sort of greatness. Why? Ok, he was a war hero and no one can take that greatness away from him. But for Douthat, it is more important that Ike kept the pot from boiling over during his tenure in the White House. In other words, we should celebrate his understated methods and stable results. As a fan of the Disraeli political style, I am not without sympathy. But was Ike truly great in this way?
It is difficult to argue that keeping water in the pot was a bad thing. Though perhaps Anthony Eden might give it a try if he were still around. After all, Ike did destroy Eden’s initiative to prevent the Suez Canal from Nassar nationalization, thus ending Eden’s political career, not to mention British power in the Middle East. Ike was no fool. Those were desirable objectives from his point of view, that he achieved in elegant fashion by not lifting a finger to support his allies in a moment of crisis.
But was this greatness? Looking back, I think Ike was clever in his use of understatement. But I also believe that he failed in the so called “vision thing”. Pragmatism rather than connection to a great purpose? In fairness, Ike would argue that the great purpose had been handed to him — containing communism. But here I think he overstated the ideological problem which led to tragic consequences. Using hindsight, we can see that American prolonged obsession with communism led to much greater follies than Ike would ever thought possible. While Ike did not send combat units to Vietnam, he set the strategic stage for it. American arrogance did the rest.
Back to 1955, Graham Greene wrote with passion about how this odd sort of arrogance played out in Vietnam, in his novel, “The Quiet American“. At the time, some Americans were annoyed with Greene for writing such a critical book. Good Lord! It was an assault on the core American value of understated self-confidence! But this episode was largely forgotten in the harsh light of the nasty war that followed. And anyway, by the 1970’s “understatement” no longer seemed so important. American cultural norms had veered in very different directions.
FOLLOW - Here, Greene responds to the criticism of his book.
2d FOLLOW - More American cultural baggage - Well before the 1950’s, Hemingway got all tied up in knots about the value of understatement. His heroes are all obsessed with the problem that expression gets in the way of feeling. So they stay quiet because they aspire to be authentic to their rather volcanic feelings. And heaven help the faker — like Robert Cohm in The Sun Also Rises! Well before the second great war, Bogart played this type of hero in his films very well. So in a sense, we might think of the 1950’s as the last decade where understatement reigned supreme in the US. Stars like Rock Hudson were at the peak of their careers.
3rd FOLLOW - One should not conclude that America is the only great power that has had issues with arrogance. Simon Schama offers a sobering view of how the drive for empire compromised British values in the 19th century. The episode is called “The Wrong Empire”.
4th FOLLOW - Writing from Tartu, I am sure that I will be criticized for my argument that America was overly obsessed with communism. After all, Estonians argue that the west should have tried to roll back Stalin’s domination of northern and eastern Europe after the war. I agree that this should have been a high strategic priority. And it is a tragedy that the Soviets imposed their troglodyte system on the region. But the real issues were liberty and self.-determination, with foolish ideology the symptom of rotten values. Not the other way around.