The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

History and the High Price of Forgetting

Posted on | May 27, 2019 | 2 Comments


Have you ever read Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War? Probably no one should ever hold any important office, or even dare to comment on public affairs, who has not studied that great lesson. What Thucydides records is nothing less than the ruin of ancient Greece, the civilization which first developed democracy as a political system. Thucydides shows how Athens and her allies were led to destruction in a long civil war against Sparta and her allies because of the foolish counsels of ambitious demagogues, culminating in the disastrous expedition to Sicily. Because Thucydides presents the arguments made both for and against the decisions that led Athens to destruction, the reader learns how often it is that, when policy is being debated, what might seem to be the “smart” decision turns out to be a catastrophic mistake. The enterprising character of the Athenians, which had led Greece to victory over Persia and enabled Athens to establish colonies throughout Asia Minor, ultimately proved their downfall, as they overestimated their ability to defeat the more stolid and conservative Spartans.


On this date in 1940, the British were in the second day of “Operation Dynamo,” the heroic effort that rescued the forces trapped at Dunkirk. The success in evacuating more than 300,000 troops was a tremendous achievement, but as Churchill said at time, “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.” What had brought the mighty British Empire to this low point in its history was a policy of appeasement, especially under Neville Chamberlain, that had enabled Germany to rebuild its military power while failing to defend against the threat of war. And it is seldom now appreciated how appeasement was supported by all the “smart” people in England (and also in France), who had decided that war was unthinkable, and had therefore underestimated Hitler’s intentions.

It was not that Chamberlain and other proponents of appeasement were entirely pacifist in their policy. Rather, after the bloody nightmare of the First World War, which had ended in ignominious defeat for Germany, the appeasers simply could not imagine that Germany would risk its existence in a second World War. A crucial difference between Chamberlain and Churchill (if you haven’t read A.L. Rowse’s monograph Appeasement: A Study in Political Decline, you should) was that Chamberlain never read Mein Kampf and didn’t know the German language, whereas Churchill did. So while the appeasers were deceived by the messages about “peace” that the Nazi propaganda machine was publishing in English, Churchill was listening to what Hitler was saying in German, and realized that der Führer was planning for war.

The reason we study history is because certain patterns repeat themselves. And this is where our education system has been failing us so terribly for decades, in part because of “multiculturalism.” Circa 1990, it became fashionable to condemn the teaching of history in our society as too “Eurocentric” and this academic trend, along with a general contempt for “dead white males,” had the effect of demoting the study of the history of our own culture in favor of “inclusive” history about African, Asian and Latin American societies. But this involves a misunderstanding of why we study history at all. The peasant living under a hereditary monarchy, or a goat-herder in a nomadic tribal society, would have no use for the study of history. In a non-democratic polity, it is only the leadership caste which has need to study history, as a guide to statecraft. However, in a republic, where every citizen is eligible to participate in the decision-making process — at the very least, as a voter — the study of history as part of a general education becomes much more important. How are we to participate intelligently in politics if we don’t know history? And the reason we study ancient Greece and Rome, rather than the Mayans or the Chinese or some other culture, isn’t because of racism or “Eurocentrism.” It’s because Greco-Roman civilization produced the earliest models for representative government, and because these civilizations left behind a written record, including such valuable resources as Thucydides.

For the sake of “inclusion,” however, our schools have forsaken the teaching of history in the old-fashioned way, so that instead of learning the valuable lessons of political, diplomatic and military history — the kind of stuff that is useful to being an intelligent citizen — children are wasting time on progressive “social history” intended to inculcate a sense of identity-politics victimhood and other biases (e.g., against capitalism) useful to the political Left. You can see the fruit of this agenda-driven curriculum in, for example, the current mania among liberals to abolish the Electoral College. Anyone who has properly studied American history appreciates what genius went into the compromise that divided the legislative power between the Senate and House, with the lower chamber apportioned by population and the states equally represented in the upper house, and then combined these two systems of apportionment to elect the president. Our Constitution established the government of a federal republic, not a national democracy, and this system would be destroyed by the abolition of the Electoral College.

Yet it seems that scarcely any American under 30 has been taught anything useful about our own country’s history, much less anything about the origins of our political system in English history or its earlier development in Greco-Roman civilization. And even more recent history is taught poorly (if it is taught at all) in our schools and universities. One sees a lot of young people running around calling other people “Nazi” or “fascist” without apparently knowing much about the 20th-century history of fascism and Nazism. What kind of answers do you think you might get from the ignorant youth in an “Antifa” mob, if you asked them specific questions about European history 1918-45? They probably know little more about that period than they know about ancient Greece and Rome, which is to say, they know almost nothing at all.

It is Memorial Day, and there are very few Americans alive who are old enough to actually remember World War II. Most young Americans couldn’t tell you much about that war. They don’t know about Dunkirk, and they don’t remember the stirring conclusion of the speech in which Churchill announced the success of Operation Dynamo:

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

We must study history, or we shall pay a dreadful price for forgetting.



2 Responses to “History and the High Price of Forgetting”

  1. Saturday Links | 357 Magnum
    June 1st, 2019 @ 10:35 am

    […] Other McCain – History and the High Price of Forgetting. And yes, I have read […]

  2. News of the Week (June 2nd, 2019) | The Political Hat
    June 2nd, 2019 @ 3:21 pm

    […] History and the High Price of Forgetting Have you ever read Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War? Probably no one should ever hold any important office, or even dare to comment on public affairs, who has not studied that great lesson. What Thucydides records is nothing less than the ruin of ancient Greece, the civilization which first developed democracy as a political system. […]