The Spirit of Appomattox . . . Redux
"Woe to the vanquished," warned Livy, historian of Rome,
two thousand years ago. Sooner or later, all peoples of the world
got a taste of the full - and bitter - consequences compressed in
that terse line. Comes now Igor Rodionov, Russia's defense minister,
denouncing America's support for NATO expansion, calling the victors
of the Cold War "radicals," and advocating systems of
deterrents against a U.S. "seeking to dominate the world."
A few weeks ago, foreign minister Primakov showed up at the NATO
conference to throw his weight about. As his worshipful audience
listened, he let it be known which actions Russia would and would
not consider acceptable.
How did we get here?
Perhaps it began with what I call the Spirit of Appomattox. There,
in April 1865, commander of the victors Ulysses S. Grant met Robert
E. Lee, general of the vanquished, to end the war which had pitted
American against American. Uppermost on the minds of both generals
was the fate of the soldiers on the losing side. In the next 24
hours, a make-shift, hand-operated printer churned out some twenty-eight
thousand(!) passes to ensure immediate and safe return home of the
men, together with their belongings.
The conclusion of World War I was a different story. France, to
whom America had entrusted the reins of peacemaking, savored the
humiliation and economic destruction of the vanquished. The map
of Europe was turned into an arbitrary patchwork of countries -
some of which weren't, and others which couldn't be. In Bosnia and
elsewhere, the world has yet to finish paying for peacemaking, French
Thus, with World War II, the United States decided to demonstrate
not only how to conduct war, but also how to secure peace. In approximately
the same time it took the Germans to bring about the destruction
of Europe, America's unprecedented generosity moved in to rebuild
it - at least the areas where the permanent darkness of Russian
occupation did not perpetuate war-like conditions. In West Germany
and Japan, the introduction of American-style political institutions
firmly placed those societies on the road to lasting success that
had eluded them in the past.
Europeans like to poke fun at Americans who, they believe, do not
read enough books, have difficulty pronouncing foreign words, and
generally tend to be "uncivilized." Well, it is one thing
to produce prose and poetry about civilized conduct. Certainly,
Europeans wrote eloquently and read extensively about virtues such
as magnanimity and humanity in the treatment of other nations. Americans,
on the other hand, practiced them.
But, with the exception of the French - who once again acted as
if they had been victorious - after World War II, it was understood
who won, who lost, and whose skin was saved. Gratitude and appropriate
behavior by nations in the latter categories has been the norm.
Now, the so-called Cold War was no less a world war. Again, it was
initiated by America's opponent. Again, it was clearly won and lost.
But here, America's generosity in avoiding any possible humiliation
of the vanquished, and in providing all manner of assistance, may
have gone too far. As a result, Russian officials - some appointed
under Stalin, yet currently serving - will boldly assert that "Russia
has nothing whatsoever to do with the Soviet Union," history's
longest-lasting, biggest and bloodiest terrorist organization.
Of course, they could not issue such a denial unaided. Most of
our history scholars and assorted academics - in other words, Americans
typically on the public payrolls - have been at pains to pin at
least equal blame for the Cold War on America. These efforts form
part of a general frenzy to preach about "all the horrible
things America has done to everybody." Russians, accustomed
to obedience, would find it inconceivable that the Academic Establishment
of this country has gone off the deep end and, in the process, detached
itself from the body of the nation, the integrity of scholarship,
and truth. Consequently, the historically poor assessment of reality
most Russians share receives reinforcement from our own elite, distorting
the relationship between the two countries and undermining the commendable
efforts of Russia's few clear thinkers.
For ordinary Americans, whether native-born or naturalized, this
country's gallantry is a source of great pride, a practice to be
continued. But certain conditions ought to apply. A recipient nation
should be expected to face squarely its own past; to assess realistically
its present position; to show itself capable of appreciating good
deeds; to comprehend that victorious powers have neither reason
nor obligation to obtain permission from the vanquished as they
contemplate their future endeavors.
On the whole, Russia has yet to qualify.