Friday, January 20, 2012

World War Newt

Years ago Newt Gingrich stumbled on a pretty good idea: garnish any policy proposal with multiple historical analogies or references to significant events and hope that one resonates with the audience.

History moves us; it bestows on us the sense that the mundane moments we endure are part of an as-yet unperceived grand narrative. Newt's schtick is that he alone perceives this narrative, and it works for two reasons.

One, as I said in a piece at Vice:
We Americans don't read as much as we ought, and our self-consciousness about this tends to make us reflexively credit anyone who claims he does. Gingrich tendentiously delivers policy banalities while citing books he's read or written, and it's easy to think, "Ah, a learned observation." It's the political equivalent of going to someone's house, seeing his 2,000-book library, and feeling uncomfortable about correcting him, even if everything he says makes him sound like Cliff Clavin.
Two, critics and historians are busy people. They don't have time to correct Gingrich on every point, because corrections require examining his statement, then having to explain where he and history parted ways.

Gingrich himself games this process by invoking history constantly, as if in a kind of endless filibuster against an authentic record of America that he dearly hopes to eliminate through repetition. Not only does he throw facts at the American people to see which ones stick, he also throws so many at intellectuals that eventually their exhaustion, disgust or crowded schedules will permit him to get away with one. He did this again last night, at CNN's South Carolina Republican Debate.

To make another bog-standard "GOVERNMENT=INEFFICIENT!" argument, Newt referred to the dredging of the Port of Charleston, saying, "The Corps of Engineers takes eight years to study fixing the port. We won WWII in three and a half years. That’s ridiculous."

His statement is almost innocuous, and probably nobody else today will even bother with it. All the same, it's absurd to anybody who paid attention in an American history survey. It neither works economically nor militarily.

Consider: the Army Corps of Engineers would probably have more personnel to devote to impact studies if it weren't stretched thin by two wars over nearly a full decade, a decaying American infrastructure that's been essentially ignored for half a century and other ports soliciting dredging studies to bring their depth in line with the demands of the deeper-draught tankers coming through the expanded Panama Canal. More tellingly, they might also have a lot more personnel and funds to conduct faster studies if there were, as in WWII, over 10 million American men in uniform, drawing on funding from a marginal tax rate of 94% for people earning over $200,000 per year.

If Newt's analogy is, domestically, an example of anything, it's how a bunch of intransigent McCarthyite loons in Congress have used hysterical invocations of Stalinism to demonize a top marginal tax rate of 35%, large-scale public works and government-directed infrastructural improvements. Those things precede (or represent) big-government takeover, so when Newt complains that the Corps of Engineers takes forever to do something, he has only his friends to blame for limited personnel, budgetary resources or national public-opinion outcry.

Second, no part of the WWII analogy works. "We" didn't win WWII in 3.5 years. One really obvious, basic-math indicator is that the war lasted for over six years. Another is the fact that nations on the winning side had been fighting for those years without us; any claim that we won the war from 1942-1945 thus relies on a reading of history in which the contributions of Britain, France, the Soviet Union and others were absolutely null. The very existence of the British Empire — something difficult to overlook — renders Newt's example absolutely wrong.

Further, even granting Newt the extremely generous misinterpretation that the United States was the deciding factor in the war, he got his years wrong. American involvement in the war effectively started in 1940, in which the Destroyer-Bases deal began our one-sided arms support in the European conflict by giving Britain badly needed warships, and the Export Control Act set in motion the process of constricting Japanese access to needed materiel that resulted in outright embargo and then the attack on Pearl Harbor. Counting back to mid-1940, Newt's total of American committment has already risen to five full years.

Newt forgot two other things. First, many mainstream historians consider the Mukden Incident the start of WWII, which brings the opening of hostilities in the Pacific back to 1931. Second, if you've ever once listened to a neoconservative explain national security policy — especially jackals like Charles Krauthammer or Frank J. Gaffney — you've heard them shriek, "Munich! Munich! Munich!" In their interpretation, the existential threat Hitler posed transitioned from potential to active with the selling out of Czechoslovakia, in 1938. So, depending on which theater you're talking about, the United States started winning WWII either four or ten years after it began. Our ratio of Year's Fought to War's Duration doesn't look so hot.

Lastly, even a half-baked, half-sozzled history undergrad could make an excellent case for the war's reaching the beginning of its end by the time America finally schlepped its ass across its borders — like that same undergrad crossing the front-door rubicon on a weekend. In Europe, the Battle of Stalingrad initiated Germany's undoing; the ten fatal errors Hitler made in its pursuit sealed the Wehrmacht's fate in Europe before a single bomb fell on Pearl Harbor. In the Pacific, the war's end was probably written at its inception. Just as America lost in Vietnam and "lost" China to the forces of nationalism unleashed at Mukden, Japan would have lost its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere to the same, albeit not by 1945.

The idea of a nation the size of Japan controlling a nation the size of China was untenable from a resource standpoint even at the outset. Japan's need for ore and oil to continue the subjugation of Manchuria fed its expansion outward into East Asia. Yet, just as this expansion sought to feed a war on a Chinese front that increasingly sapped Japan's human and materiel resources and attention, it also awakened the nationalisms of each country it "liberated" from western imperialism. Japanese aggression created the same militant nationalism that not only grew into the People's Liberation Army but also the DPRK. No historian would be considered unreasonable for suggesting that the United States' military intervention merely accelerated both the inevitable centrifugal forces that would have torn apart Japan's empire and the inevitable centripetal forces that helped to create the nation states of Asia.

Given that his false analogy is wrong economically and militarily, it's lucky for Newt that he probably doesn't care about any of this. He's trolling history for applause lines. He's feeding red meat to the rah-rah types for whom it's not only self-evident that no positive war outcomes could have been generated by agents other than the United States, but that the expression "yeah, well we saved your ass in WWII" applies to every country and citizen on the planet.

This WWII stuff doesn't really matter, because it's just window-dressing for his point. Gingrich's great asset is that, while other candidates reiterate the same Reaganite bromides that "government isn't the solution, government is the problem," he can employ history to make the same shallow and fallacious point with something that smacks of sophistication, long-view wisdom and intellectual élan. The focus of his historical comments directs you away from the history — which is unequivocally wrong — and toward the contemporary menace he wants you to loathe. Newt is as unconcerned with The Greatest Generation as every other Republican who's tried to eliminate Social Security and Medicaid, but here he can use them as a shining antithesis of sclerotic, hydra-headed government meddling. Just forget that FDR guy and the New Deal — not to mention the anti-interventionist GOP of the period.

What Newt wants you to think is, "Wow, government interference has sure led this country astray! We used to win wars in less than a decade, and now it takes us nearly that long to complete an environmental impact study!" But here's where history is important, and where journalists and historians should seize it from him, to stop him from using it as a cudgel with which to beat his ideological foes, and instead dare to use it to thrash him instead. Because what the actual record of WWII makes you think is, "Newt Gingrich is terrible historian and a dishonest sack of shit."


  1. Wonderful post, too bad all the big words and sentences prevent GOP primary voters from reading it

  2. Thanks for standing up for Brave Albion, much appreciated

  3. Newt Gringich was Speaker of the House for 4 years, during which time he did not win any world wars. Can we trust this man to be our president?

  4. I wish I could hug this post.

    Newt's "intellectual élan" always struck me more as "intellectual flan," having the bland consistency and merit. It is truly sad how many people I have to deal with in my world who labor under the adoration of this shitbag 'cuz he brings up such pretty-sounding recitations.

  5. Rishabh Bhandari, Papua New GuineaJanuary 21, 2012 at 1:35 PM

    The case that Japan would have collapsed under the weight of the Co-Prosperity Sphere is not so clear-cut.

    Could China and Korea have fought guerilla campaigns to sap Japanese strength until they concluded it was better to withdraw and retreat? I doubt it - the Chinese had been fighting the Japanese since 1931 through the KMT and Mao's Communists but were unsuccessful until the majority of Japan's resources were diverted towards fighting the Americans.

    Also your argument of size makes intuitive sense but the British Empire, which you correctly claim is "something difficult to overlook," is a perfect example of a small island controlling larger nations. Furthermore the Japanese - who were far more advanced than any Asian country at the time - had been both a regional hegemon since a war with the Chinese in the 1870s and were far closer to mainland Far East Asia than Britain was to some of its colonial dominions such as Australia, South Africa, or India.

    Also (and this is my most contentious point) the Japanese were simply ruthless during the war. Yes the Americans were abhorrent with interning Japanese-Americans and every country conducted too many morally repugnant policies to have the moral legitimacy to orchestrate the Nuremberg Trials but you must concede there is a distinction between internment and the acts of Nazi Germany vis-a-vis the Jews and Japan's use of Unit 51 and comfort women. I believe that through replications of the Rape of Nanking, the Japanese could subjugate the Chinese and Koreans for a long long time.

    Would they have fallen eventually? Yes, every empire (including America's) collapses, but certainly not in the timeframe you are insinuating in this post (and if you didn't insinuate a timespan similar to that in which WWII took place then its a fairly vapid point yes?).

    Also if we're pursuing a counterfactual outlook of WWII without America, I'm fairly convinced that Britain wouldn't have had the audacity to pursue campaigns in Northern Africa and Greece that forced Hitler to postpone his invasion of Russia until the winter if the US hadn't been involved. The way I see it, each of Britain, Russia, and America was absolutely invaluable in winning the war.

    An American politician arguing that America won the war is absolutely what one should expect. Also regarding the length of time, its clear that Newt didn't count the tacit support of sending arms and so forth. In a campaign season where Mitt Romney doesn't count the savings of Obamacare and only the costs to illustrate his misguided point of Obama's supposed socialism, are you really going after Newt for trimming a year or two of World War II to solidify his case?

    I love your blog and I really hope you publish this comment, but I think this is more a case of Newt Gingrich being a good politician rather than a bad historian. If he wrote a book saying we unilaterally won WWII or we won the war in 3.5 years, then your case would be valid in my opinion.

    But your overall point stands - we've lost the sense of facts and its partly because Americans just don't read enough etc (courageous of you to bring that up at the risk of sounding elitist or seeming like someone who wants to implement a technocratic style of Plato's philosopher kings) but its this field in particular. You had a lot of much better examples from this debate to blog about including Ron Paul's laughable claim that no one had a problem with the medical system in the 1960s. Also why the hell have we gotten his racist letters so quickly? This Republican field is so racist...please write a post on how Newt turned Juan Williams into his racial dog whistler.

  6. In a campaign season where Mitt Romney doesn't count the savings of Obamacare and only the costs to illustrate his misguided point of Obama's supposed socialism, are you really going after Newt for trimming a year or two of World War II to solidify his case? I love your blog and I really hope you publish this comment, but I think this is more a case of Newt Gingrich being a good politician rather than a bad historian.
    Oh, absolutely. Newt knows this works, and he loves making these references (and he's smart enough to avoid any real howlers). The thing is, he does it all the time, and it's often minor enough that it provokes the same response. Namely, is this kind of a pointless fact-check quibble? Yeah, sure, probably. A lot of corrections like this seem trivial and pointless, which is why there's value in making statements like this. While something as obvious as Romney's statement has been noticed and called out again and again, Newt maintains this kind of quiet hum of historical dishonesty that gets a free pass. And you can pretty much pick any thing he says and find the same. If it wasn't the above example, you could pick a speech at random and find something else equally shabby. And you're right that it's good politics; that's absolutely what Newt's going after. He's not trying to make "important historical arguments" or whatever; he's trying to leverage his "gravitas" as the historian-politician to legitimize his political attitude.

    As for Newt and Juan, I kind of went into it on the Vice piece about the unending debates, but I didn't get into it too much because I think it's been really well covered.

    As for the WWII counterfactuals, you and I could trade probably 10,000 words on this, going back and forth, so I'm going to say thank you for sticking up for another interpretation, even if I don't entirely agree.

  7. Nice post, but Krugman said it much more succinctly when he characterized Gingrich as a stupid person's idea of what a smart person sounds like.

  8. [stands up, applauds]

    it's all i can do really. this evisceration of Gingrich's most loathsome conversational tactics reminded me of one of my all-time favorite eviscerations of someone's most loathsome converstaional tactics--Ivins's "I Am the Cosmos" takedown of Paglia. i don't know who you are but thank god i came across your site months ago. you are my favorite military dictator-turned-writer. (yeah, suck it Kolingba!)

  9. the professor for a history class i'm taking actually introduced the course by citing this same Newt Gingrich tactic as a reason why knowing history is important. Cool


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