Newt Gingrich and the (ab)Uses of History

It is an honor to join the SHAFR blogging team for 2011-12.  While SHAFR is (as the name makes perfectly clear) a society that focuses on the history of American foreign relations, there is no doubt that we are as well placed as anyone to make connections between historical events and contemporary issues in American foreign relations.  In making those connections through this blog, we can create a greater dialogue between the academy and the wider public (and not just within the United States).

Here in the United Kingdom, University historians of all kinds increasingly have to think creatively not just about our research, but about how we can demonstrate the “impact” of our research – be that social, economic or cultural impact – beyond the ivory tower.  Assessments of our impact – however imperfect, based on qualitative peer assessments – will go into the next Research Excellence Framework (or REF) in 2014, which will then inform how public money is distributed among UK universities for the following five or more years.  Of course, according to the REF, writing a blog about one’s research is not in itself impact (nor, necessarily, is having your own television series); it is merely dissemination activity, or a pathway to potential impact. The actual impact of our research and ideas may not be apparent for a number of years.  Nevertheless, as historians we are considering how we can reach a wider audience, and how we can measure the level of engagement and impact we have (preferably with dates and supporting evidence, and the difficulty of providing this has led to considerable controversy here).

Of course, most historians want their ideas to be heard and accepted and are keen to engage with a wider audience, so the concept of impact is hardly a problem (even if measuring it is).  Nevertheless, some historians are better at self-promotion than others, just as some have a greater sense of their own importance than others.  And on that note, it seems that one of the most prominent public historians in the United States at the moment is not a professional historian at all but a politician: Newt Gingrich.  Gingrich, like recent UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, does not normally advertise his history qualification in his title (perhaps “Dr. Gingrich” sounds a little too elitist), but he does not hesitate to pepper his speeches with historical references. Yet while my thinking about Gingrich-as-historian was initially inspired by a recent New York Times piece on his doctoral thesis,[i] my writing of this blog was interrupted by a specific reference from Gingrich to the history of American foreign relations.

On Christmas Eve, Gingrich compared the political setback following his inability to secure a place on the Virginia primary ballot to the situation the United States faced in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  As his National Campaign Director Michael Krull wrote: “Newt and I agreed that the analogy is December 1941: We have experienced an unexpected setback, but we will re-group and re-focus with increased determination, commitment and positive action.  Throughout the next months there will be ups and downs; there will be successes and failures; there will be easy victories and difficult days – but in the end, we will stand victorious.”[ii]

While this may not be the worst abuse of historical knowledge on record, it is still staggering on a number of levels.  Factually, the “unexpected setback” angle doesn’t work, as the Gingrich campaign had known about the December 22 deadline to file the necessary signatures for months.  More broadly, the crass nature of the analogy highlights Gingrich’s flawed historical perspective: the suggestion that his administrative failure in Virginia is even vaguely equivalent to the loss of 2,400 American lives is almost beyond comment.

More disturbing still is Gingrich’s invocation of history to support his political cause.  In this case, his appeal to the memory of World War II – the so called “Good War” – encourages Americans to rally behind his equally “Good” campaign for victory.   In doing so, he must have hoped Americans would unthinkingly fall into line with his campaign. Fortunately, responses suggest that most Americans recognized the flawed nature of the analogy.  Yet Gingrich will no doubt continue to use his historical “expertise” to give his campaign a veneer of credibility that it does not necessarily deserve (especially in this case).  And he will not be alone – the debated history of Ronald Reagan’s economic policies is likely to be particularly popular over the next few months as GOP candidates focus on more domestic issues.

Am I surprised by this politicization of history? Not at all.  But when it is abused to this degree, we as historians should be speaking out, and these controversies provide us with an opportunity. For if there is a silver lining to this cloud, it is the prominent level of public discussion and debate about history that has been revealed.  The backlash following Gingrich’s comment proved not only the level of public engagement with history, but also an awareness of its uses and abuses.  And this, hopefully, is where our blog can come in.  (And, on a related note, I wonder if creating a distinct page for the blog might make us a little more prominent: a page connected to but at the same time distinct from the Society’s homepage.  Just an idea…)

For as the last few blog entries have made clear, we have a lot to contribute, and there will be numerous opportunities in an election year.  Following on from previous posts, I share the concerns of Christopher Nichols about the possibility of a renewed “isolationism,” as seen in the form of criticism of funding levels for anything from the State Department to US foreign aid programs to the United Nations. However, I am even more concerned about the bellicose rhetoric coming from both leading Republican candidates about Iran (as of December 31 2011, those candidates are Gingrich and Mitt Romney, but on the basis of the last few months, the leading candidates may have changed by the time you read this).  Such rhetoric hints at preemptive strikes on Iran, and suggests not so much renewed isolation at the diplomatic level, but greater international involvement on a military level.  While this rhetoric may be just that – tough talk designed to win over the GOP base – the implications of such a stance need to be explained to the public.  And even if it is just rhetoric designed for a domestic audience, it highlights the importance of foreign policy issues – even in an election year where we all know it’s about the economy (stupid or otherwise).

And this leads directly to the comments raised by Nick Sarantakes in his entry about the nature of American internationalism, a topic at the heart of my own work.  How will a potential Republican President balance existing multilateral commitments with hints of a more bold and unilateral foreign policy?  What broader vision do the candidates offer for US foreign policy? Do they offer something new, or do they (to refer to another flawed Gingrich analogy) offer the easy solution of a Cold War framework where the United States is currently “about where we were in 1946” in what will be a “long struggle against radical Islam.”[iii]  Either way, as historians, we must be ready to engage with the extensive public use of history that will be coming our way in the next months – and indeed, in the years to come.