Knowledge be damned: Rice, Obama and the uses of history

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It looks as if a youthful ebullience is in the capital’s air. That seems to be the message of Obama’s re-election and of the scandal at the CIA, which bespeaks a similar enthusiasm.

For older folks, there remains the pleasant possibility that someone else’s youth will rub off on us. I recently had such an occasion when I spoke with Paula, a political enthusiast in her early 30s, about a now-remote series of events known as the Cold War.

“Oh, there was nothing to that,” Paula said confidently.

“But I lived through it!” I replied in astonishment.

“It never happened,” Paula said, quite sure of herself.

“Have you not heard of the Soviet Union?” I wondered.

“Sure I have. But that was a sham.”

“Who told you that?”

“I can tell from the way the Soviets folded. They actually had no power at all. The Cold War was just a lot of right-wing politicking and war-mongering.”

Paula noted my discomfort, and in a kindly way she added: “It’s true. I heard it from a Washington insider.”

That was certainly a relief to me.

I was not in doubt about the matter. But in our talk I had been distressed to see that knowledge itself is relative. Paula’s version of the Cold War was not something she thought or believed. It was something she knew.

Uneasily I recalled an interview I had watched on TV during the 2008 election campaign. Susan Rice, then a foreign-policy adviser to candidate Barack Obama, was asked to defend Obama’s statement that as president he would be willing to meet, free of preconditions, with leaders of nations that were hostile to the U.S.

A questioner asked Rice about the difficulties encountered by President John F. Kennedy when he went to Vienna in 1961, at the beginning of his term, to meet with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev on an open agenda. Rice asserted that the Kennedy-Khrushchev sessions were actually constructive because the personal relationship established by the two leaders allowed them, the following year, to resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I wondered how many people had noticed that answer. At least one other listener had, and had posted a clip on YouTube. You will not find the clip today because YouTube has removed it, citing “third-party notifications of copyright infringement.” Anyway, Rice said of JFK’s willingness to go to Vienna: “Thank God he did, because if he hadn’t we would have not been able to resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

Like my friend Paula, Ms. Rice delivered her assertion emphatically, with all the confidence in the world. And it counted for nothing that Ms. Rice had been brazenly inaccurate. At Vienna, Khrushchev wiped the floor with Kennedy and the effect was to increase the bellicosity of both men. The meeting let loose violent impulses that raised the Berlin Wall, deepened the Vietnam War and put Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba.

Nowadays Ambassador Rice is a center of controversy, owing to her advocacy of that benighted video as a prime mover of the killings at Benghazi. Given that Ms. Rice might become our next secretary of state, I would much rather know why she thinks as she does about the Vienna summit. The “Innocence of Muslims” video was a canard that several leaders in Obama’s administration, including the president himself, used and re-used before finally dropping. The Vienna summit, on the other hand, was a central episode with huge and lasting repercussions.

Speaking of summit-meetings, the mother of them all still has something to tell us. No American leader was at Munich in 1938, but America’s Cold-War policymakers knew it chapter-and-verse. At Munich, with the leaders of France and Italy as witnesses, and with Czech leaders standing by in an ante-room, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain allowed that Nazi leader Adolf Hitler should be given the ethnic-German western regions of Czechoslovakia as a means to avoid war. Hitler, with relish, marched his troops into Czechoslovakia and wiped it off the map. He then went for the throat of Poland and delivered a global war.

The lesson most people have drawn from Munich is that one cannot mollify an aggressor. But maybe there’s an even more pointed one. Chamberlain, in fact, was not so wrong about Hitler. He was blindsided by his own arrogance. While finding Hitler despicable, Chamberlain was sure that the German leader would never pull a fast one on him.

An excessive regard for oneself is no good basis for diplomacy. President Obama would be wise to get a diplomat-in-chief who knows as much and can remind him of it.

David Landau, a San Francisco editor, used to be a foreign-policy expert but gladly gave that up to be a novelist and playwright.