Learning from the Nightmares of the Past. (Book Review)

By Cleveland, Harlan | The Futurist, July-August 2002 | Go to article overview

Learning from the Nightmares of the Past. (Book Review)


Cleveland, Harlan, The Futurist


Woodrow Wilson's dream of international cooperation to avert deadly conflicts could yet be realized if we learn from his failures, says Robert McNamara, former U.S. secretary of defense.

Wilson's Ghost: Reducing the Risk of Conflict, Killing, and Catastrophe in the 21st Century

by Robert S. McNamara and James G. Blight. Public Affairs. 2001. 270 pages. Available from the Futurist Bookstore for $24 ($21.95 for Society members), cat. no. B-2411.

Robert S. McNamara and I both serve on the World Future Society's board of directors, but our association goes back many years--much farther than I realized before I read this remarkable book. When the Japanese attacked China in the summer of 1937, we were both aboard ships anchored in the Yangtze River, watching the bombing and shelling of Shanghai. He may not have been a full-time witness to the drama; he was working on a U.S. merchant ship. I was a teenage passenger on a small Japanese liner, anchored in the river because there was a typhoon out in the ocean and the dock we had just left had already been set afire by the attack.

A quarter century later, in the 1960s, he was secretary of defense for President John F. Kennedy and I was one of 13 assistant secretaries of state. But since my main "beat" was United Nations politics, I played a bit part in every peace-and-security crisis during JFK's "Thousand Days," and often crossed paths in the White House with the reflective yet decisive boss of the Pentagon. During the last half of that decade, as U.S. ambassador to NATO, I reported both to him and to Secretary of State Dean Rusk. So I had plenty of occasions to watch him work and hear him think aloud.

What I didn't guess then was how willing he would be to rethink, based on his own rich experience and deep study, what was happening in the bloody twentieth century--and project what we could all do to keep the killing in our history and out of our future.

Bob McNamara's latest book is the culmination of rethinking that, during the 1990s, produced his two illuminating books on the bitter lessons of the Vietnam War, one of them written with his present co-author, James G. Blight, an international relations professor at Brown University's Thomas J. Watson Jr. Institute of International Studies.

In the wars, uprisings, and suppressions of the twentieth century, some 160 million people were killed by other people; nearly two-thirds of these, 100 million, were civilians. From an analysis of the appalling human tragedies that underlie these plain round figures, the authors of Wilson's Ghost derive a simple moral imperative: to avoid a renewal of such carnage in the twenty-first century.

Why "Wilson's Ghost"? President Woodrow Wilson plunged into postwar planning after World War I with high moral values distorted by moralistic self-righteousness. He preached an attractive openness to a diversity of views; but in practice he was "immune to the counsel of others," in the authors' words. It was not only members of the victorious Allies (the U.S. was a belated joiner) who were put off by his unilateral high-mindedness. He managed also to anger the key U.S. senators who were crucial to ratifying the League of Nations--so the United States didn't join up to make the hard-won peace work.

More than 80 years later, the authors believe we have the same problem, only more so. They quote with obvious approval a capsule of editorial wisdom from The New York Times: "American power is unquestioned...its authority is anything but."

Their other imperative, bound to sound radical just now, is a mandatory multilateralism. We should "embed decision-making in a multilateral context, taking advantage of more information, discrepant but sympathetic points of view, and thus probably more wisdom, than one can expect from deliberations within a single government."

Realistic Empathy

How to prevent Great Power conflict is the first spelled-out element in their "radical agenda. …

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