Home / Articles / Looking Back to Lean Forward: The Study of History to Inform the Present and Shape the Future
Alan Luxenberg and I first worked together at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in the summer of 1976. He and I were of the same age and both recent college graduates. After graduation, Alan had taken up a full-time position working at the Institute. I joined the Institute as a summer intern before heading off to graduate school. Alan served as my immediate supervisor, and never have I had a better boss! He made me feel welcome and part of the team—something Alan would continue to do throughout his tenure at the Institute. Alan always wanted those who worked at the Institute to feel that they belonged and were taking part in a valuable enterprise of promoting clear thinking about world affairs. As Alan always likes to remind his listeners, a nation must think before it acts.
Alan and I possessed a similar passion for the study of history and how we might apply insights from examining the past to understand better the world in which we lived. Those times, like today, were tumultuous: a President had only recently resigned from office; Congressional investigations were uncovering pervasive wrongdoing in the intelligence agencies; oil prices had shot up and gasoline shortages were a nightmare; the economy suffered from stagflation; and the United States suffered a humiliating defeat when it permitted the downfall of an ally in South Vietnam. The American people were engulfed by intense partisan political controversy and wracked with doubts about our country’s role in the world. The Cold War competition seemed to be going toward Soviet Union rather than the United States. Alan and I wanted to make sense of what was going on around us, and the study of the past offered a way to find guidance for the future—or, so we thought. Of course, our intense interest in applying the study of history to the policy arena was in the finest traditions of the Institute, which had long sought to link the past to understand the present and shape the future.
In particular, both Alan and I shared a common interest in exploring the history of the interwar period. How had the horrific tragedy of the Second World War occurred? We saw that era as showing the folly of appeasement as practiced by the democracies in their dealings with the aggressive, militaristic authoritarian states. We studied history in order to educate those who would listen about how the United States could recover from the low point that we were living through in America’s twilight struggle with communism. Our study strengthened us in the conviction that the United States needed to renew and could reassert its power in the world arena. We were optimists because we knew that America was not doomed to decline and defeat in the Cold War. Nor was a third world war fought with nuclear weapons inevitable.
I had the good fortune to work again with Alan, when after graduate school I returned as a member of the research staff at the Institute during the 1980s. In retrospect, that decade seems like a much simpler time: a good news story of Ronald Reagan as President, the revival of American purpose and power, and victory in the Cold War along with the demise of the Soviet Union. At that time, however, events did not seem so simple. The policy debates in the public arena were intense. The nuclear freeze movement and the opposition to the deployment of intermediate-nuclear forces in Europe sought to prevent a buildup of American military power that played an important part in ending the Cold War. The Institute was actively involved in these debates over foreign policy and strategy. I well remember going to college campuses in and around Philadelphia to debate these policy disagreements, as well as speaking to news reporters. Of course, the publications of the Institute reached audiences not only in the United States, but around the world. The Institute also hosted conferences with Soviet delegations from the Institute of the USA and Canada, USSR Academy of Sciences. Alan was in the thick of all these things in playing a key leadership role in the Institute’s endeavors during the 1980s to promote serious research, accessible publication, and public outreach.
As the Cold War was winding down, I left the Institute to take up a position on the faculty of the Strategy and Policy Department at the Naval War College. Even though I moved away, I did not lose touch with the Institute and Alan. Although I was no longer in Philadelphia, Alan kept me a part of the Institute’s team. I was heartened that the Institute did not close its doors with the end of the Cold War, as might have occurred since the protracted conflict with the Soviet Union defined in so many ways its mission. Instead, the Institute changed with the times, addressing the new security challenges facing the United States, embracing new information technologies to expand the reach of the Institute’s research products and educational services, and drawing in a growing number of scholars who wanted to be part of the team. Alan saw the potential of these changes as an opportunity to guide the transformation of the Institute to meet the demands of the twenty-first century. The Institute has never been more successful as an enterprise in generating original thinking on world affairs and in educating policymakers, scholars, and the public.
In recent years, Alan and I have teamed up again to consider how studying the past can inform current-day policy choices. We believe that the era of the two world wars resonates with our own times in so many important and troubling ways. The history of the interwar period is today derided by influential observers of world affairs who call for the United States to pursue a grand strategy of “restraint” and “offshore balancing.” This siren call has been heard before in our country’s history over the past 100 years. After the First World War, the disillusionment with America’s fighting “over there” far from home in Europe and the conflict’s aftermath resulted in isolationism that proved a formidable obstacle to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s efforts to bring the United States into a coalition to confront the dictator states. Robert Strausz-Hupé, the Institute’s founder, wrote important studies and lectured about the Nazi danger to the national security of the United States. He sought to educate the American people and their leaders about the struggles ahead for the United States. During the 1970s, in the wake of defeat in Vietnam, the United States tried to retrench and conserve its strength in the Cold War struggle. President Nixon proclaimed the Guam or Nixon Doctrine that would limit American involvement in conflicts in the developing world. Today, the fighting in the Middle East has resulted in a similar questioning of how to promote America first in a world where many believe that the United States is overextended and in decline.
In the interwar period, the British-led world order was under siege. Other peer and near-peer competitors wanted to get out of Britain’s shadows and achieve their own place in the sun. Neville Chamberlain feared: “We are a rich and a very vulnerable empire and there are plenty of poor adventurers not very far away who look upon us with hungry eyes.” A return to great power conflict threatened to overextend Britain’s power, with strategic commitments outpacing available resources. The most dangerous challenger to Britain came from Hitler’s Germany. British leaders recognized this threat and hoped to manage it by reaching an enduring settlement with Hitler, turning the Nazi regime into a responsible stakeholder and partner. Appeasement held the promise of serving as a substitute to an arms race and entangling military commitments to defend allies in Europe.
Of course, before the Second World War, appeasement did not have today’s negative connotation. Appeasement was viewed as a way for settling differences, of reconciling conflicting interests and aims, avoiding the use of violence to bring about political change. Nor was appeasement a passive, reactive policy: Instead, it sought to seize the initiative to promote constructive change by negotiation. Proponents of appeasement lauded it as a rational approach to conflict management, preventive diplomacy in place of preventive war. Neville Chamberlain, for example, wanted “to arrive at that condition of European affairs which we all desire and in which nations might look upon one another with a desire to co-operate instead of regarding each other with suspicion and resentment. . . . to arrive at a position, in fact, when reasonable grievances may be laid aside, and when confidence may again be restored.” Today, the word accommodation perhaps serves as the closest cognate in the field of international relations.
Enlightened appeasement, as practiced by British leaders during the first half of the twentieth century, also served the purpose of upholding Britain’s position as the leading world power. Britain controlled an empire “upon which the sun never set”—the boast of British imperialists for public consumption. Appeasement was not meant to transform the international order, but to preserve Britain’s leadership at the center.
This year, remembering the eightieth anniversary of the outbreak of war in Europe provides an opportunity to reflect on how the leading world power sought to avoid a return to great power competition. Britain’s leaders had no easy foreign policy and strategy choices open to them. And, yet, Britain’s leaders did have options. As the leaders of a global superpower, British statesmen had a strong hand to play. Furthermore, the strategic choices made by Britain’s leaders took place in an open and competitive domestic political environment.
In the run-up to the war, during the 1930s, Winston Churchill stood as the most prominent, persistent, and prophetic critic of the British policy toward Hitler’s Germany. His speeches and articles presented a clear warning about Hitler’s aggressive intent, as well as for the need for the democracies of the Atlantic world to rearm and to enlist coalition partners to contest this threat. He argued that Britain had alternative courses of action to pursue.
After the defeat of Nazi Germany, Churchill presented a compelling narrative for why the war occurred in the first volume of his best-selling history, The Gathering Storm. The theme of the volume is how the English-speaking peoples, through their unwisdom, carelessness, and good nature, allowed the wicked to rearm. These words sting: They indict the folly of the leaders directing the actions of Britain, the self-governing dominions, and the United States when confronted by the Nazi menace. Democracy had been weighed in the balance and found wanting, as Churchill lamented in his famous speech denouncing the Munich agreement, which abandoned a broken Czechoslovakia to Hitler’s prison empire, gave the Nazi tyrant a victory without having to fight, and strengthened Germany’s power to launch wars of conquest. In The Gathering Storm, Churchill passed judgment on the failure of the world’s democracies to take a stand for the cause of freedom and to prevent the coming of a second Armageddon. The origins of the Second World War thus offer an object lesson for why the world’s most powerful country cannot walk away from working with other likeminded countries to uphold the existing international order. The United States cannot retreat in safety from a leadership role in underwriting the security of a league of democracies to preserve the peace.
By promoting the study of history, Alan has performed a signal service that has enriched our understanding of the international security environment and the future challenges facing the United States. He has positioned the Foreign Policy Research Institute so that it can continue to play a leading role in offering guidance to the American people and their leaders about international affairs and national security. Never has the Institute’s future looked brighter. It is a tribute to Alan that the country will be equipped with well-reasoned analysis, sound assessments, and mature judgments before it takes action to promote the wellbeing and security of the United States in world affairs.