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International relations and the promptings of history*

  • Christopher Thorne

History is too important to be left to the historians. An individual or a society lacking an awareness of the past is as deprived as those who remain strangers to the world of imaginative literature. Moreover, anyone tempted to rely totally upon the pronouncements of professional historians for their ideas about earlier events still has to choose (even though the process is not always a conscious one) from among a wide range of versions and verdicts emanating from the ranks of those historians themselves.

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1. Thus, for example, Henry Kissinger's assertion that ‘it was not evil intentions but mediocrity’ that brought about the First World War, as ‘military decisions ran away with political judgements’ serves as a reminder of how out of touch he is with historical scholarship. Washington Review of Strategic and International Studies, Vol. 1 No. 1 and The Times, 19 December 1977. See also Stanley Hoffmann's invaluable antidote to Kissinger's White House Years, ‘The Case of Dr Kissinger’, New York Review of Books, 6 December 1979.

2. The Times, 26 May 1982.

3. Thus, it is not the intention to focus upon the historical dimensions involved in specific international issues such as those centred upon Palestine or Northern Ireland, nor to explore in detail the perceptions attached to those dimensions in any particular case. For an admirable treatment of, for example, the Palestine issue before 1948 see Sykes, C., Cross Roads to Israel (London, 1965); or again, on the perception of a senior American analyst that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan represented victory for them in ‘the Great Game’ dating back to the nineteenth century, see The Times, 31 December 1979.

4. See, e.g. Pruitt, D. G., ‘Definition of the Situation as a Determinant of International Action’ in Kelman, H. (ed.), International Behavior (New York, 1966).

5. J. H. Plumb, ‘ Historian’, in Taylor, A. J. al, Churchill: Four Faces and the Man (Harmondsworth, 1973), p. 147.

6. Quoted in Brodie, F., Thomas Jefferson: an Intimate History (London, 1974), p. 98.

7. See Reed, John, Ten Days That Shook the World (London, 1961), e.g. pp. 117, 180.

8. Quoted in Balfour, M., The Kaiser and His Times (Harmondsworth, 1975), p. 388.

9. Home, A., To Lose a Battle (Harmondsworth, 1979), p. 634.

10. Ibid., p. 448.

11. Ibid., p. 609.

12. Agawa, H., The Reluctant Admiral: Yamamoto and the Imperial Navy, trans. Bester, J. (Tokyo, 1979), pp. 259, 271. It would be interesting to explore, for example, the extent to which Japanese perceptions of a need to ‘work their passage’ back to international respectability after the events of 1937-45 have influenced their foreign relations, policies and behaviour.

13. ‘Ill tales of me shall no man tell, say I’ declares Roland; and of the weapons he and Oliver bear: ‘Ne'er shall base ballad be sung of them in hall!’ The Song of Roland, trans. D. L. Sayers (Harmondsworth, 1957), lines 1016, 1466.

14. Fisher, H. A. L., Napoleon (London, 1960), pp. 7, 47, 137, 203.

15. Carlton, D., Anthony Eden (London, 1981), p. 246. For an early suggestion that Eden's behaviour over Suez was influenced less by memories of his strong role in the 1930s than by an inner awareness that his popular reputation as a firm ‘anti-appeaser’ lacked foundation, see Thome, C., ‘Nationalism and Public Opinion in Britain’, Orbis, Vol. X, No. 4, 1967.

16. See, e.g. Ellsberg, D., ‘The Quagmire Myth’, in his Papers on the War (New York, 1972); Gelb, L. H. and Betts, R. K., The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked (Washington, DC, 1979).

17. Kearns, D., Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (London, 1976), p. 344.

18. See The Times, 12 April 1980, and the comments of the present writer in the correspondence columns of that newspaper, 16 April 1980.

19. Moreover, even historians who (rightly, in the view of the present writer) emphasize, in Hugh Trevor-Roper's words, that ‘history is full of surprises’ and that ‘no men are more surprised than those who believe they have discovered its secret’ are not thereby precluded from acknowledging at the same time that (again to quote Trevor-Roper) ‘historians of every generation,… unless they are pure antiquaries, see history against the… controlling background of current events’. Lloyd-Jones, al. (ed.), History and Imagination (London, 1981), pp. 358–9, 367.

20. Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. R. Warner (Harmondsworth, 1954), pp. 24-5.

21. T. B. Macaulay, essay (1828) on Hallam's Constitutional History, in Critical and Historical Essays, Vol. I (London, 1873); Selections from the Speeches and Writings of Edmund Burke (Routledge, London, n.d.), p. 221.

22. Watt, D. C., ‘Every War Must End: War-time Planning for Post-War Security in Britain and America in the Wars of 1914-18 and 1939-45. The Roles of Historical Example and of Professional Historians’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th series, Vol. 28, 1978.

23. On history, historians and war-time planning, see, e.g., Headlam-Morley, J., A Memoir of the Paris Peace Conference, 1919 (London, 1972); Reynolds, P. A. and Hughes, E. J., The Historian as Diplomat: Charles Kingsley Webster and the United Nations, 1939-1946 (London, 1977); Sherry, M. S., Preparing for the Next War: American Plans for Post-war Defense, 1941-1945 (New Haven, 1977); Thorne, C., ‘Chatham House, Whitehall and Far Eastern Issues, 1941-1945’, International Affairs, Vol. 54 No. 1, 1978.

24. See, e.g. Plumb's comments on Churchill's view of English history, loc. cit.

25. On this, compare, for example, the approach of E. H. Carr, as explicitly stated in his What is History? (London, 1961) and the argument of Trevor-Roper (Lloyd-Jones, op. cit., 364-5) that ‘history is not merely what happened: it is what happened in the context of what might have happened. ’ And for contrasting approaches to the international crisis over Czechoslovakia in 1938, see, e.g., Carr, E. H., The Twenty Years Crisis, 1919-1939 (London, 1940), pp. 14, 28, 192-4, 274, 278, 281-3, and Calvocoressi, P. and Wint, G., Total War (London, 1972) 74ff. and 92-6. See also Berlin, Isaiah, Historical Inevitability (London, 1954).

26. See, e.g. Kiernon, V. G., The Lords of Human Kind (Harmondsworth, 1972); Hay, D., Europe: the Emergence of an Idea (Edinburgh, 1957); Reischauer, E. O.The Japanese (Cambridge, Mass. 1977); Thorne, C., Racial Aspects of the Far Eastern War of 1941-1945 (London, 1982); Mosse, G., The Crisis of German Ideology (New York, 1964); Weinberg, A. K., Manifest Destiny (Baltimore, 1935); Talmon, J. L., The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (London, 1955); Tinker, H., Race, Conflict and the International Order (London, 1977).

27. Seeley, J. R., The Expansion of England (London, 1925; first published 1883), pp. 1, 3, 10, 156.

28. Trotsky himself had perceived the same danger in others. See Schapiro, L., The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (London, 1960), p. 267; Deutscher, I., The Prophet Armed: Trotsky, 1921-1929 (Oxford, 1970) p. 457 ff.

29. Churchill, W. S., The Gathering Storm (London, 1950), p. 16.

30. See, e.g., Thomas, H., Suez (Harmondsworth, 1970); Epstein, L. D., British Politics in the Suez Crisis (London, 1964).

31. Truman, H. S., Memoirs: Year of Decisions (Garden City, 1955), p. 121; Paige, G., The Korean Decision (New York, 1968), pp. 23, 114.

32. See Gelb and Betts, op. cit., and Ernest May's fine study, ‘Lessons’ of the Past (New York, 1973).

33. See Schlesinger, A., The Imperial Presidency (London, 1974).

34. Allison, G. T., Essence of Decision (Boston, 1971), p. 218.

35. Thus, Truman was convinced that during the Far Eastern crisis of 1931-3, the Secretary of State, Henry Stimson, had vainly proposed to Britain and others that sanctions should be placed upon Japan. Cf. Baruch, B., The Public Years (New York, 1960), p. 368, and Thorne, C., The Limits of Foreign Policy: the West, the League and the Far Eastern Crisis of 1931-1933 (London, 1972), chap. 7.

36. See C. Thorne, ‘Viscount Cecil, the Government and the Far Eastern Crisis of 1931’, Historical Journal, Vol. 14 No. 4, December 1971. Similarly, the criticial observations of F. P. Walters in his History of the League of Nations (London, 1967) concerning the behaviour of the principal governments represented at Geneva in 1931-2 are in contradiction to the urgent advice that he himself, as chefde cabinet of the Secretary General, Drummond, was sending to the latter from Tokyo at the time. See Thorne, The Limits of Foreign Policy, p. 182.

37. Clapper Cable (n.d. 1942) on talks with Nehru, Raymond Clapper Papers (Library of Congress), box 36; Sayre memo, of conversation with Quezon, 8 January 1940, Francis B. Sayre Papers (Library of Congress), box 7.

38. See, e.g. Maxwell, N., India's China War (Harmondsworth, 1972).

39. For an example of a foreign policy decision taken on grounds of principle and conscience, yet reversed shortly afterwards by the same body, see Thorne, C., ‘The Quest for Arms Embargoes: Failure in 1933’, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 5 No. 4, 1970.

40. Times Literary Supplement, 7 August 1980.

41. See, for example, the ‘Introductory Note’ to volume 1 of the Cambridge Modern History (Cambridge, 1903), an undertaking planned by Lord Acton. On Ranke, see, e.g., the essay on him written for the Historical Association by H. Liebeschiitz (London, 1954).

42. Burrow, J., A Liberal Descent: Victorian Historians and the English Past (Cambridge, 1981).

43. Exemplified by Macaulay, for example: ‘History is full of the signs of this natural progress of society… We see the wealth of nations increasing, and all the arts of life approaching nearer and nearer to perfection, in spite of the grossest corruption and the wildest profusion on the part of rulers.’ Essay on Southey's Colloquies on Society (1830), loc. cit. See, in general, Nisbet, R., History of the Idea of Progress (New York, 1980).

44. See, e.g., Clarke, I. F., The Pattern of Expectation (London, 1979).

45. See, e.g., M. Howard, ‘Empire, Race and War in pre-1914 Britain’, in Lloyd-Jones, op. cit.

46. See, e.g., Howard, M., War and the Liberal Conscience (London, 1978) and Nef, J. V., War and Human Progress (London, 1950).

47. See, e.g., that celebrated Washington document of 1950, N.S.C.68: ‘The idea of freedom is the most contagious idea in history. ’ T. H. Etzold and Gaddis, J. L., Containment: Documents on American Policy and Strategy, 1945-1950 (New York, 1980), p. 388.

48. E.g., Hegel: ‘World history goes on within the realm of the Spirit… The State is the definitive object of world history proper, [being] the idea of Spirit in the externality of human will and its freedom.’ Reason in History, trans. R. S. Hartman (Indianapolis, 1953), pp. 16,20,40,53,61,69, 89. The relevance to our subject of the debate surrounding Karl Popper's The Poverty of Historicism (London, 1957) is obvious.

49. See, e.g., Kohn, H., The Mind of Germany: the Education of a Nation (London, 1961), and Mosse, op. cit.

50. Berlin, I., Karl Marx (London, 1948), p. 131. For a summary of the Ayatollah Khomeini's teachings on historical necessity as one of the ‘four prisons’ in which mankind finds itself but from which an individual can achieve liberation—in this particular respect, by an understanding of how historical forces operate, see The Times, 8 July 1981.

51. In June 1982, President Reagan resorted to a metaphor akin to Trotsky's broom: the ‘ash-heap of history’, reserved for Communism and, presumably, all ‘failures’ as judged from California.

52. See, e.g., Spengler, O., The Decline of the West: Form and Actuality, trans. Atkinson, C. F. (London, 1926), pp. 21, 39.

53. For example, cf. Said, E. W., Orientalism (London, 1978), and the formidable riposte of Lewis, Bernard, ‘The Question of Orientalism’, New York Review of Books, 24 June 1982.

54. See, e.g., W. A. Scott, ‘Psychological and Social Correlates of International Images’, in Kelman, op. cit., and Jervis, R., Perception and Misperception in International Politics (Princeton, 1976).

55. See, e.g., Fitzgerald, F., America Revised: History Schoolbooks of the Twentieth Century (New York, 1980).

56. See, e.g., Hay, D., The Italian Renaissance in its Historical Context (Cambridge, 1970), p. 122.

57. See, e.g., Kohn, H., The Idea of Nationalism (New York, 1961).

58. See, e.g., Hodgkin, T. L., Nationalism in Colonial Africa (London, 1956), 172 ff. On such issues in general, see Bozeman, A., Politics and Culture in International History (Princeton, 1960).

59. See Butterfield, H., The Origins of History (London, 1981).

60. See, e.g., J. H. Plumb's suggestions concerning the declining role of history in British politics, in Churchill: Four Faces and the Man, p. 123.

61. On the USA in this respect, especially in terms of its foreign relations, see e.g. the relevant material in N. Graebner, Ideas and Diplomacy: Readings in the Intellectual Traditions of American Foreign Policy (New York, 1964), and Hoffmann, S., Gullivers Troubles (New York, 1968), chap. 5.

62. In addition to the material on Germany and the USA cited above, see, in terms of China's foreign relations, Fitzgerald, C. P., The Chinese View of Their Place in the World (London, 1969).

63. May, op. cit., p. 84; Cohen, W. I., Dean Rusk (Totowa, NJ, 1980).

64. Note, in addition to the relevant studies by social psychologists, the idea lying at the heart of Marcel Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, that a subconscious memory, unencumbered by the clutter of sensations surrounding an event itself, constitutes supreme reality.

65. As Keith Thomas has recently observed in his review of Lawrence Stone's The Past and the Present (Times Literary Supplement, 30 April 1982), history is likely to remain ‘a loose confederation of jealously independent topics and techniques’.

66. A good example of such abuse is provided by Daniel Bell's The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (New York, 1976), the theses of which are supported by reference to the experiences of ‘the West’ over several centuries in terms that are often far-removed from much of European history, being based, it would seem, on a projection of aspects of the American past.

67. See, e.g., the Preface of Arthur Marder's Old Friends, New Enemies: the Royal Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy; also the present writer's review of the book in the Times Literary Supplement, 4 December 1981, and the general arguments of Fernand Braudel in On History (London, 1980), p. 4 and passim.

68. See, e.g., the comments of Braudel (op. cit., p. 50) on what he sees as ‘the crux of the debate between historians and sociologists’. Note also the conclusion arrived at by Andrew Shonfleld: that ‘the closer one gets to the problems of the real world, the more insistent the need for the genuinely interdisciplinary effort’; but that at the same time, ‘the more one departs from the simplification of explanatory models drawn from a particular discipline… [the less likely one is] to arrive at the kind of scientific truth which can be used for the purposes of prediction. ’ Morgan, R. (ed.), The Study of International Affairs (London, 1972), p. 9. See also the review by Frank Parkin (TLS, 23 July 1982) of Philip Abrams, Historical Sociology (London, 1982).

69. In part, this quest may be seen as merely another form taken by the longstanding Western liberal belief that war can and should be eradicated: in other words, as a mutation of that ‘idealist’ approach to the problems of international relations which had predominated between the wars and which practitioners of the ‘scientific’ approach now castigate. (See M. Howard, War and the Liberal Conscience.) The impulsion to discover the ‘laws’ of international relations no doubt also owed much to the horrors of 1937-45 an d the prospect of nuclear annihilation; to those ‘can-do’ features of American political culture which emphasize the possibility of finding precise answers to any problem; and to an increased readiness among Europeans, their confidence diminished by the two world wars, to look across the Atlantic for new and dynamic approaches to the problems facing mankind.

70. See also the position of a scholar who has blended in his work strategic studies and intellectual, political and social history: ‘I am an unrepentant historian and not a social scientist. I think in terms of analogies rather than theories, of process rather than structure, of politics as the realm of the contingent rather than of necessity.’ Michael Howard, Studies in War and Peace (London, 1970), p. 13.

71. See, e.g., H. R. Trevor-Roper, ‘Arnold Toynbee's Millennium’, Encounter, June 1957.

72. See, e.g., J. and Kolko, G., The Limits of Power (New York, 1972); Kaplan, M. A., System and Process in International Politics (New York, 1957).

73. That is, Trotsky as the author of that remarkable work, History of the Russian Revolution (New York, 1932).

74. See, e.g., Pieter Geyl's observation on his fellow-Dutch historian, the Marxist Jan Romein: ‘Romein finds uncertainty unbearable, and because he hears his soul cry out that the certainty without which it feels itself lost must exist. So he goes out to seek, and (as indeed it is written) he finds. ’Encounters in History (London, 1963), p. 242. Several of the essays in this collection of Geyl's are relevant to the topic under discussion here. Note that Romein was, in Geyl's words, ‘a fervent admirer of Toynbee’. Ibid., p. 357.

75. Loc. cit.

* This essay is a revised version of the opening address delivered to the annual conference of the British International Studies Association held at the University of Sussex in December 1981. The writer's colleague at Sussex, John Maclean, kindly provided helpful comments on the draft version.

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Review of International Studies
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